The Voices That Have Gone: Blues Ghosts

The only known photograph of Delta bluesman Charley Patton.

Hari Kunzru based his portrait of mid-twentieth-century collectors of early blues recordings on a loosely-knit real-life group of blues enthusiasts — made up almost entirely white men — who called themselves the “Blues Mafia.” The character of Chester Bly in particular was inspired by the legendary record collector James McKune, described by John Jeremiah Sullivan as:

twitchy, rail-thin Jim McKune, a postal worker from Long Island City, Queens, who famously maintained precisely 300 of the choicest records under his bed at the Y.M.C.A. Had to keep the volume low to avoid complaints. He referred to his listening sessions as séances.

A séance is a gathering at which people attempt to make contact with the voices of the dead. Do you think that this is a fitting metaphor for listening to old records?

Amanda Petrusich elaborates:

McKune supposedly never gave up more than 10 bucks for a 78 (and often offered less than $3), and was deeply offended—outraged, even—by collectors willing to pay out large sums of money, a practice he found garish, irresponsible, and in basic opposition to what he understood as the moral foundation of the trade. . . . For McKune, collecting was a sacred pursuit—a way of salvaging and anointing songs and artists that had been unjustly marginalized. It was about training yourself to act as a gatekeeper, a savior; in that sense, it was also very much about being better (knowing better, listening better) than everyone else. Even in the 1940s and 50s, 78 collectors were positioning themselves as opponents of mass culture.

. . . I’m not sure what McKune was looking for, exactly. Maybe the same thing we all look for in music: some flawlessly articulated truth. But I know for sure when he found it.

. . . In January 1944 McKune took a routine trip to Big Joe’s [record shop on W. 47th Street] and began pawing through a crate labeled “Miscellany,” where he found a record with “a sleeve so tattered he almost flicked past it.” It was a battered, nearly unplayable copy of Paramount 13110, Charley Patton’s “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone.” Patton had recorded the track in Grafton, Wisconsin, 15 years earlier, and he’d been dead for less than 10 when McKune first picked it up. Patton was almost entirely unknown to modern listeners; certainly McKune had never heard him before. He tossed a buck at a snoozing Clauberg [the shop’s owner] and carted the record back to Brooklyn. As [blues scholar Marybeth] Hamilton wrote, “… even before he replaced the tonearm and turned up the volume and his neighbor began to pound on the walls, he realized that he had found it, the voice he’d been searching for all along.”

Charley Patton was a Mississippi-born guitarist of mixed ancestry, allegedly the son of a former slave. What do you think it was in his voice and guitar-playing that galvanized Jim McKune?

Jim McKune’s real-life blues epiphany is echoed in JumpJim’s story in White Tears about hearing Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues” for the first time:

That sound, my God. Like it had come out of the earth. 

JumpJim begins to search for rare blues recordings:

But the sound I craved wasn’t easy to come by. Patton, Son House, Wille McTell, Robert Johnson, Willie Johnson, Skip James, John Hurt . . . the names were traded by collectors, but no one seemed to know a thing about [the musicians]. They were like ghosts at the edges of American consciousness. You have to understand, when I say no one knew, I mean no one. You couldn’t just look something up in a book. Things were hidden. Things got lost. Musicians got lost.

. . . I’ve not seen a second copy of this, Chester would say, pulling out yet another incredible record another forgotten performance by a lost genius.

“Laid down last night just trying to take my rest
My mind got to rambling like wild geese in the west”

(This lyrical excerpt is from “I Know You Rider,” also called “Woman Blues.” John and Alan Lomax transcribed this traditional song on their southern journey and published it in their 1934 anthology American Ballads and Folk Songs, attributing it to “an eighteen-year-old black girl, in prison for murder,” they had heard singing it in the south. It has been covered by countless artists — mainly white folksingers — and was a staple of the Grateful Dead’s live shows.)

Read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s long article about two musicians who got lost, “The Ballad of Geeshee and Elvie: On the Trail of the Phantom Women Who Changed American Music and Then Vanished Without A Trace,” and listen to the six songs embedded at the end of the article — recorded, like many early country blues recordings, at the Paramount Furniture Store studio in Grafton, Wisconsin (read the article to find out why).

The lyrics of one of the six songs, “Skinny Leg Blues”:

I‘m a little bitty mama, baby and I ain’t built for speed
I’m a little bitty mama, baby and I ain’t built for speed
Aaaaaaah and I ain’t built for speed
I’ve got everything that a little bitty mama needs

I’ve got little bitty legs, keep up these noble thighs
I’ve got little bitty legs, keep up these noble thighs
Aaaaaah, keep up these noble thighs
I’ve got somethin’ underneath them that works like a boar hog’s eye

But when you see me comin’, pull down your window blind
And when you see me comin’, pull down your window blind
You see me comin’, pull down your window blind
So your next door neighbor sure can hear you whine

I’m gonna cut your throat, baby, 
Gonna look down in your face. 
I’m gonna let some lonesome graveyard 
Be your resting place.

 Are the blueswomen Geeshee Wiley and Elvie (L.V.) Thomas suggesting the murderous outcome of a love gone wrong? Or are they describing sadistic, gratuitous violence? Are they talking about the logical results of “not knowing right from wrong”? Or maybe the logical results of a social system that erodes morality itself?