One of the records I bought during that year in New York forever changed my understanding of the world. Like much of what I was buying, it was a reissue of recordings from the 1920s and 1930s on the Yazoo label, but this one had a particularly strange cover and a title cribbed from a James Baldwin novel: Mr. Charlie’s Blues. Its concept was to collect recordings by white rural musicians who played similar material in a similar style to the many black musicians on Yazoo’s other LPs, presenting them as blues musicians rather than as hillbilly, country, or old-time musicians.
What was life-changing about that was not the idea of white musicians playing blues — obviously, I was in New York to study with Dave Van Ronk, so I was familiar with that concept. Nor was it that the musicians on the Yazoo LP were particularly adept or skilled white blues musicians — their skills and my appreciation for their work varied, as with the white blues revivalists in Cambridge and New York.
What was different about them was that, at least to my ears, they were not trying to sound black. Some of them were playing guitar parts clearly imitated from records by black players, and a lot of them would have called their style “n—er picking,” a standard term for fingerstyle guitar in the rural South that was later cleaned up to “Travis picking.” (A change that removes the derogatory racial term while shifting credit for the style from its African American originators to one of its most expert white practitioners — a familiar message from white America to black America: “Heads I win, tails you lose.”) But they were singing in their own voices, sounding like white rural southerners, and in general choosing material that fit their own lives and perspectives.
Take Dick Justice, my favorite artist on that collection: he had two songs, both of which I instantly added to my repertoire, and sounded completely natural singing them. I’ve recently learned a lot more about Justice, having assembled a chapter about him for the book that accompanies the American Epic film and recording project, which includes lots of new information about him. (As well as some very nice photographs, which I’m currently not at liberty to reproduce here.)
Justice was a coal miner and something of a hell-raiser in his youth, in a community with a small clique of exceptional musicians, and apparently this song was very popular with them. His children don’t recall him singing it, but the son of Bill Williamson, whose father was a friend of Justice and recorded with the Williamson Brothers and Curry, recalls it as a favorite of his dad’s, saying: “He could get on the piano and play blues like crazy, you know. He used to do a song called ‘Cocaine’, but it had a verse in it about the furniture man, so he liked to the call it ‘The Furniture Man’. And he would just do it like a comedy skit, and just crack everybody up.” (For more on the comic implications of furniture men with particular relevance to this song, here is an interesting post from another blog site.)
“Cocaine” was the title of Justice’s record as well, and he’d learned the song off a record called “Cocaine Blues” by a black guitarist and singer from Virginia named Luke Jordan — which is why, when Dave Van Ronk recorded a completely different song called “Cocaine Blues” it was initially credited to Jordan… and why I and others have chosen to give it a title that differentiates it. Jordan is another wonderful artist, and his record is very similar to Justice’s, and if I’d heard it first I’d credit him as my source… but I didn’t…
And frankly it was a better lesson for me to hear Justice, because, as I began to write above, he didn’t try to sing with a “black” voice, and over the years I have tried to assimilate that lesson, and also to try not to sing with a “southern” voice. I don’t always succeed, by any means, because those voices have been in my head all my life — and there are some lyrics that don’t work in my accent, because the words don’t rhyme or scan — but I’m trying, because I was struck by something Martin Carthy told me when I asked why he didn’t sing a Scottish ballad in Scots dialect:
I won’t try and put on a Scottish accent or put on an Irish accent or put on a regional English accent, cause I think that’s nonsense, I think it’s silly actually. It makes the whole thing into a pantomime. It’s much more serious than that for me. And much more fun, as well. You’re actually being able to concentrate on the song, to concentrate on the job at hand, instead of wondering whether you’ve got the accent right. It’s like you’re playing a character, but that’s not how I see singing.
I had never thought of it quite that way, and I don’t think it necessarily applies to all songs and styles, but in general it made sense to me. I still like to sing some songs in character, and think they work well that way — acting is just as valid artistically as music or poetry, though in a different way — but in general I think it’s a good idea to try to sing like yourself, especially if you’re singing something like blues, where the whole point is direct communication. So as best I can I’ve been trying to figure out how to do that — for better or worse, and for what it’s worth.