Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I Got a Right to Listen to the Blues

Some interesting conversation is taking place over at Truthdig around Anthony Heilbut's review of In Search of the Blues, by Marybeth Hamilton. I first learned of this book through an ad in The New York Review with the following paragraph:

Historian Marybeth Hamilton tracks the origins of the Delta blues legend to discover that the story as we know it—of tormented drifters and the devil at the crossroads—is largely a myth created by white pilgrims, seekers and propagandists who headed deep into America's South in search of an "authentic" black voice of rage and redemption.

Unfortunately, this turns out to be a book that has more to do with politics and exploitation than with music; and, if the author fails to "get the music right" (as I fear Hamilton may have done), then the music is demeaned by being reduced to a "prop" for propaganda. This is why I appreciated a comment by "SamSnedegar" to bring the discussion down to earth with the assertion that "blues can be identified by hearing it, not by claims from the players."

My only quibble with this turn of phrase is that, in the context of my own discussions, it misses out on Igor Stravinsky's distinction between hearing and listening. Now, even if applying his words to the blues might send that old Russian spinning in his Venetian grave, I think they are still worth repeating: "Others let the ears be present and they don’t make an effort to understand. To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also." The irony behind all this is that approaching the question of what listening actually is in terms of the blues may be more informative than approaching it in terms of listening to Stravinsky. In order to do this, I shall appeal to a variety of sources that may not make for a particularly compatible mix; but I do this with the usual disclaimer, which is that this is nothing more than a "rehearsal of ideas." I figure that if I can get the story out "in rough," I can worry about details after further deliberation.

Having said all that, let us consider the act of listening in terms of Charles Sanders Peirce's three layers of representation:

  1. There is the ground layer of an underlying text. This can be just about anything, from "The Star-Spangled Banner" through "Jesus Wants me for a Sunbeam" to "That's When I'll Come Back to You." For the most part it serves for little other than hanging a name on the performance.
  2. Performance is the next layer, the actions you decide to take in rendering that text. (This does not fit Peirce as well as the other two layers, because Peirce was more occupied with objects than with actions. However, appealing to his framework with verbs instead of nouns is not a big stretch.)
  3. Listening is the final layer, which Peirce called the layer of interpretants. In John Dewey's language it is the act of experiencing the performance. Dewey explained this better in terms of poetry. However, his words are still useful: "A new poem is created by every one who reads poetically—not that its raw material is original for, after all, we live in the same old world, but that every individual brings with him, when he exercises his individuality, a way of seeing and feeling that in its interaction with old material creates something new, something previously not existing in experience." In other words listening without synthesizing is just hearing. Quack.

My guess (on the basis of my now having read Heilbut's extensive review) is that Hamilton missed out on most of this. One reason may have been that, like just about all of us, she was stuck with doing her best to listen (giving her the benefit of the doubt) to recordings. A recording is rarely anything other than a reproduction of a performance, rather than a real performance (which gets us into Walter Benjamin territory). A good listener may come up with good hypotheses about how Louis Armstrong performed on the basis of the recordings now available (particularly the early ones); but those hypotheses can be neither affirmed nor refuted. At best they allow us to have conversations about those three Peircian layers (which can provide helpful preparation for experiencing one of those "real" experiences of listening to the blues).

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