The Oxford American Music Issue: The Blues!

So, as you guys recall, I heard from the new-ish editor of the OA, who noticed that we used to talk a lot about the Music Issue and wondered if I’d like to talk about this one. I declared my feud with the OA over, but I should be clear that I’m not sure the new-ish editor knew about the feud. I mean, I’m sure there’s a whole side part to that job that is just learning new, weird shit about what happened before you got there and dealing with the reverberations of that. And let’s be honest, “picked a years’ long fight with a random woman on the internet” has to be way down the list behind all the other stuff he got up to.

But anyway, I wasn’t going to turn down an issue devoted to the Blues or pass up the chance to mull it over with you all.

But do we even remember how to do this? Who knows?

For starters, I really love the music in this issue. I’ve been thinking a lot about the approach of it. I think there’s a tendency when you’re compiling a blues compilation to ask yourself “Who will fans expect to hear here?” The problem with that approach is that a lot of blues fans are devoted to the “the blues had a baby and we called it rock & roll” mythology, which means they expect to hear the folks that influenced rock music, which leads to the “the blues is a lone, rural musical savant with a guitar, almost always male” bias. Which, on the one hand, fine. I love me some Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters as much as the next person (maybe more so in the case of Muddy Waters) and you’d be hard-pressed to put together a bad compilation that revolved around them.

But, on the other hand, that means reinforcing the sexist biases of the blues fans who would go on to be rock stars–you get a really male-heavy version of the genre, a genre whose biggest foundational stars were women.

The OA collection is easily half female, ranging from Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas to Ida Cox, Koko Taylor, and the more prominent Ettas, down to Adia Victoria and Alabama Shakes. Bessie and Mamie Smith aren’t on the CD, but they are well-considered in the issue.

I have to say, even as someone who bristles at the “lone Mississippi dude with a guitar” framing of the blues–in other words, as someone who intellectually knows there should be more women–I still find this CD wonderfully disconcerting. Here’s what it sounds like to put women back into the story of the blues with the prominence their influence warrants. It sounds strange.

It kind of makes me weepy to think of it too much, this idea that trying to hear the long, influential female traditions of the blues placed into their proper context, not as some add-on curiosity, sounds strange. I have to sit with this some more.

I also want to single out this version of Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” which is such a perfect song you kind of wonder why someone doesn’t remake it every year, but when you listen to Cox do it, you also feel like she is the only one who can do it justice, that everyone else is just singing along with her when they do their versions. Though, I’ll be honest, I’d be really curious to hear what the Knowles sisters might do with it, if they knew it and loved it. Anyway, I mostly know an earlier version of the song, so it’s really fun to hear Cox revisit it here.

A big shift in the issue for me is that I know a bunch of the folks in here. I adore Jewly, who I think is brilliant. I admire the shit out of Ann Powers. And y’all! NM is in the magazine. I’m not going to be too specific as to where or how as to not out her, but holy shit. I’m just reading along and there’s my friend, saying smart things. So, how can I even talk about the writing?

Except to say that I will always be biased toward the pieces that talk about what listening to the music feels like, that help me hear what it is in the music that so deeply moves the writer that he or she wants to write about it. And this year, as well, those remain my favorite parts of the music issue.

Anyway, we can talk about the music issue or cocktapusses or just sit here quietly together thinking about how nice it is to like things and to settle old feuds.