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 RIGHT TO THE JUKE JOINT: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF AMERICAN MUSIC

By Patrick B. Mullen

University of Illinois Press. 224 pages. £22.99/$29.95. ISBN 978-0-252-08328-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Back in the 1940s a singer/guitarist named Granville “Sticks” McGhee recorded a song called “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”, initially for the small Harlem label in 1947, and in a slightly longer version for Atlantic in 1949. Patrick Mullen discusses the song, and notes how it was picked up by the rockabilly artist, Jerry Lee Lewis. My own introduction to it came about through 1949 recordings by Wynonie Harris and Lionel Hampton, both of which were issued on British record labels. I was a bebop fan (Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were my gods), and record collector from around 1950, but I also liked what little rhythm and blues I got to hear (the BBC ran a tight ship at the time, and very few jazz and blues tracks were played on record programmes), and Wynonie Harris appealed to me, as did Sonny Parker on the Hampton version.

It was urban rhythm and blues that caught my attention. Shouting vocalists and stomping tenor saxophones. Tiny Bradshaw’s “Breaking Up the House” and “Walk that Mess” were two other tracks that a minor British label released, and which got through to me. Jazz and blues snobs, whether of the rural blues purist or bebop intellectual variety, looked askance at my interest in what they considered was a corrupted black musical form. But I also liked Hank Williams and other white country singers, and that was even worse.

I’ve mentioned this because although I was living in quite different circumstances to Patrick Mullen I shared his liking for hard-driving music. As his lively book makes clear, he was luckier than me in that he could hear it all around him, even if the race situation in America meant that he couldn’t always experience it live. But he could tune in to radio stations playing black music. In Britain there were no independent, local stations. The BBC dominated the airwaves and determined which records it considered suitable for us to listen to.

I used to stay up late, listening to radio stations in Germany and Holland which had jazz programmes, and I could also tune in to AFN (American Forces Network) in Germany. In 1954, when I enlisted in the British army and was posted to Germany, I heard a lot of country music. I was familiar with a few Hank Williams records, but my awareness of many other artists was broadened by hearing them on AFN. I have to say that I don’t recall that there were any programmes on AFN which catered specifically for black soldiers serving in Germany.

Patrick Mullen was born into a working-class family in Texas in 1941. I have something in common with him, my father being, at one time or another, a sailor, steeplejack, and docker, and my mother a cotton-mill worker.  He eventually became a professor emeritus of English and folklore at Ohio State University, but he’s clearly proud of his working-class background. When he was young his father, a construction worker, moved around the USA and Canada, and the family followed him, though always keeping a base in Beaumont, the small Texas town where Mullen came from.

Country music was what Mullen heard a lot of when he was growing up. It was on the radio, and at the cinema he saw Gene Autry, one of the singing cowboys who were popular then. When I was a kid in the 1940s, going to the cinema as often as I could, I watched, among many others, Gene Autry films. Mullen refers to Red Foley, someone I wouldn’t have heard of at the time, and his recording of “Tennessee Saturday Night,” a song which says that “Civilised people live there all right/But they all go native on Saturday night”. As Mullen points out, the song refers to “drunkenness, sex and violence in sometimes indirect ways”, and what it describes is essentially a male-dominated world. From that point of view it’s not much different to “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”.

It’s interesting that, when recalling songs he heard as a child – Red Foley’s “Tennessee Saturday Night”, Woody Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills”, and Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues” – Mullen can describe them as folk music: “In some ways they led to my career as a folklorist because they remained in my consciousness and influenced me to study folklore in college. I still play such songs in folk music classes I teach now”. I’m not familiar with the current folk music scene in either America or Britain, but suspect there may still be purists in both countries who would question whether the songs concerned are, in fact, true folk music. I hasten to add that it’s not my view.

One of the valuable things about Mullen’s book is that it is constantly challenging assumptions about classifications in music. Among my long-time favourites from my army days in Germany is Hank Snow’s “It’s You Only You that I Love” (“The Garden of Roses”)”, a lovely song that I always assumed had its roots in the nineteenth century. Did it? I’ve never bothered to check, but it had the feeling of an old-time ballad, and I can understand how it could be looked on as folk music for all its commercial setting.  It’s just something that I liked so much that I memorised some of the words and can still sing them, though not in public.

Mullen says that he first began to listen to black rhythm and blues around 1954 when he heard records by Ray Charles, LaVern Baker, and the Penguins. And there was Little Richard whose lyrics about “gonna ball all night long” he thought meant dancing through the night.  The sexual connection only came to Mullen later. He describes how, once it became evident, that white teenagers like Mullen were picking up on black sounds, there was a rush by white artists to make cover versions of black hits. It wasn’t a one-way street, though. A fact worth noting is that when Wynonie Harris recorded “Bloodshot Eyes” he covered a hit by the white country singer, Hank Penny. And Dinah Washington came up with a version of a Hank Williams song, “Cold, Cold Heart”.

 Pat Boone’s “Ain’t That a Shame” was a “pale imitation” of the original by Fats Domino. And Georgie Gibbs, singing “Dance with me Henry” was providing “a cleaned-up cover” of Hank Ballard’s “explicit” recording of “Work with me Annie”. As Mullen adds, he preferred white rockabilly music, as practised by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley, to white versions of black songs. Rockabilly, mixing country and rhythm and blues, had some originality and “the edge and excitement of black performances”. I’ll give him his due, though, and he’s honest enough to admit that he did enjoy Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand”. Something like that was probably Boone’s natural habitat, rather than trying to sound down-home.

Mullen’s honesty comes through in more ways than one as he describes his journey through America and its music. Drinking, dabbling with drugs, encounters with different women. It sometimes as if he’s determined to live up to his working-class background, or its imagined background as recorded in songs about honky-tonks, hard-drinking men, and willing women. He’s amusing on the influence of religion, as propounded by Baptist preachers, and how he was “saved” at a revival meeting. It didn’t have too much of an effect on him, and he cheerfully acknowledges that the counter-influences he was picking up from black music soon predominated in his life. After all, blacks represented the “other” and, to a young boy growing up in a stultifying small-town atmosphere in the 1950s, they appeared to offer “freedom from repression”. Mullen mentions Jack Kerouac’s romantic view of black people, something that blacks who read his work often found exasperating, to put it mildly. He describes Kerouac as a hipster, but I don’t think he was, and his friend, Neal Cassady, was something of a square when it came to music. 

There was a “folk revival” in the late-1950s and early-1960s, mostly by white, urban middle-class young people. Mullen suggests that, just as some white teenagers (working-class?) looked to black music for inspiration and guidance, the “folkies” were searching for “a purity that existed in an imagined past”. The colour question loomed large in folk music (how many black singers were involved in the folk revival?), and he uses the song “Tom Dooley” to add weight to his views: “The whiteness of the performers, audience, and subjects of ‘Tom Dooley’ was never stated because ‘whiteness’ is the assumed norm in American culture, a norm so pervasive that it does not need to be expressed overtly. ‘Tom Dooley’ is an old American ballad from the Appalachian Mountains, and in the American imagination, Appalachian equals white. No need to say it; it just is”. I noticed the “whiteness” when I was in West Virginia thirty or so years ago. Mullen notes his own distance from the folk revival: “Unlike the folkies who sought their new identities in the Anglo-Saxon past, we rockers loved the present moment of imagined Afro-American abandon”.

Mullen moved around America, looking at music in various areas and always listening for authenticity. But what is authenticity?  I remarked earlier that Mullen constantly challenges assumptions about fitting music into categories. There have always been crossovers from one style or genre into another. He’s informative when he talks about Cajun music. With its French influence and the use of, among other instruments, the accordion, it’s like hony-tonk music in that it’s primarily designed for having a good time. Mullen tells about meeting Nathan Abshire, who was breaking the rules by drinking before going onstage to perform. Abshire’s motto was “laissez les bon temps rouler” (“let the good times roll”), a phrase that any rhythm and blues or rockabilly artist would have agreed with.

And then there are zydeco and conjunto. The first time I ever heard the word zydeco was in a pub in Preston, an industrial town in Lancashire, England. I got talking to a man at the bar and he started to tell me about zydeco and following the music through Louisiana and surrounding areas. At first, I thought he was some sort of fantasist and making up a story, but it soon became clear to me that he was a genuine enthusiast and had visited the places where zydeco was played. Its mixture of Cajun music, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll had clearly impressed him. I have respect for people prepared to make the effort to get to where they can hear the music that interests them. An old friend, a musician with a deep love of New Orleans jazz, travelled to the city regularly to sample the music at first-hand, and even sit in with the local musicians.

As for conjunto, it’s the music emanating mostly from the Mexican-American border and beyond. Mullen describes it as “the Mexican and Mexican-American cousin of Anglo-American country music since the audience for both kinds of music is made up of people from rural areas who have migrated to cities to work in factories, refineries, and other industries. Both conjunto and country are played in working-class bars where people drink, dance, and sometimes get rowdy””.

I think it’s the enthusiasm for down-to-earth music that makes Mullen’s book so appealing. The pages abound with references to bands, singers, guitarists, and more, and he delights in informing us that he still has, and still plays, records he bought forty or fifty years ago. His openness is infectious, and he made me want to hear the music he lists. I have some Hank Williams tracks, and a range of rhythm and blues, though mostly from Los Angeles during the late-1940s and early-1950s, when the jazz connection seemed particularly strong. It was sometimes described as “jump music”. Mullen doesn’t cover California in any detail. Jimmy Liggins’s Drunk is a classic of its kind. Peppermint Harris sang “I Got Loaded”, and Amos Milburn “Let Me Go Home Whiskey”. It’s mostly a man’s world.

Or how about Johnny Otis, a white man who worked almost exclusively with black singers and musicians, and who easily made the transition from big-bands and jazz to rhythm and blues, and then rock and roll?  His Willie and the Hand Jive” still makes me move around the room.  And there’s my bebop collection, an addiction to which has been with me for almost seventy years. I liked some early rock and roll but bought only a few of the records. Money was in short supply, so I concentrated on jazz, especially from the 1940s and 1950s.

Thanks to the internet it is possible to turn up at least some of the sides Mullen mentions as he works his way through his listening life. I’d never heard Cookie and the Cupcakes version of “Mathilda”, but found it on YouTube, along with Red Foley, Gene Autry singing “Blue Canadian Mountains” and some film of Nathan Abshire.

Right to the Juke Joint is an engaging book, and Mullen’s mixture of personal reminiscences and scholarly commentary is just right. As well as documenting the music, he has useful things to say about race and class in America. It may be because he’s been involved with academic work relating to it that he’s clearly kept up-to-date with developments in popular music (he sometimes refers to it as vernacular music). I can’t say that I share his liking for Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Elvis Presley, whose singing never took my fancy from the moment I heard it echoing down the corridor of an army barracks in Germany in 1955. But those are my prejudices. And I still regularly play my Hank Williams and Wynonie Harris records. It isn’t just nostalgia that inclines me to do that. They’re good. And so is Patrick Mullen.