So, there’s a moment in the novel where the narrator is talking about the importance of Led Zeppelin’s “Traveling Riverside Blues,” even though she was not allowed to listen to Led Zeppelin growing up because they were somehow beyond evil. Sure, there was Dio and Slayer and Black Sabbath and all these bands whose records were going to get burned whenever there were record burnings to be had. But Led Zeppelin was even beyond them. Like, those other bands were just Satanic, but something about Led Zeppelin was insidious.
And then she goes on to discover that this isn’t a Led Zeppelin song at all, but is actually a reworking of an old Robert Johnson song, “Traveling Riverside Blues” (head’s-up: it’s very different, but stick with it for a minute and you’ll start to hear familiar stuff). And she talks then about her love for finding these old bases for current songs. So, she brings up the whole Alan Jackson thing, which I regaled you with last night. She’s completely committed to and finding great meaning in the whole “Up from the Delta” myth of popular music.
And then, the first time she’s in Clarksdale, she stops to get gas, and the attendant, seeing that she’s a woman, assumes she might be interested in knowing that Bessie Smith died north of town before she was scheduled to perform. And she doesn’t even know who Bessie Smith is. So, you know I just spent a good twenty minutes crafting the sentences that would let me drop that tidbit about Ida Cox singing that verse a decade before Skip James.
I’m really fascinated by the ways in which the narratives we use to make sense of things can be so detailed and work so well and also not be true or not be the whole truth.
And that “up from the Delta” myth does work so well. And it pretty much completely sleight-of-hands away the enormous influence that these wildly famous blues women had on the men who have now become legends.
And there’s a lot going on here because it sits at an intersection of race and gender that we, as a culture, don’t navigate well at all. I’m just trying to imagine what it would be like to move black women to the center of the history of popular American music, to rightly say, “If not for them, we don’t have Robert Johnson the way we know him, which means we don’t have Led Zeppelin the way we know them (or any other variation on the story).”
And I honestly don’t know. It seems strange, even to me, because I’m so used to the story that goes “influential women on rock are influential because of their great pussies, which they graciously provide to the men in the bands, who then write songs about them.” Woman as muse, not woman as musician, you know?
But it’s hard, once you realize something’s been glossed over, moved aside, to not want to go back and hear what it is you were kept from and to ask yourself what it means that it was kept from you. This is the part about racism and sexism that are hardest to get across–the people who bear the brunt of it are not the only people getting screwed. We are all losing from this arrangement. If you are a white person in a society premised upon white supremacy, you are, every day, being lied to about things, given a distorted truth about history and your place in the world. You are missing out and you won’t often know what it is you’re even missing out on. Same with sexism. If you are a man in a society premised upon male supremacy, you are being lied to everyday and missing out on stuff you don’t even know you’re missing out on.
How do you not know about Ida Cox or Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey if you are a fan of pop music?
That’s a real loss, and not for Cox or Smith or Rainey. They had good careers and are dead.
That’s our loss. And we don’t even know it.