The other day a friend rashly claimed that art and music were equally hard to describe in words. I asked him to tell me about a certain painting of Picasso's. He did, but claimed it wasn't accurate. "OK," I said, "you're right, but now tell me about Mozart's Jupiter Symphony." He opened his mouth, closed it, looked at me, and said, "Yeah, I see what you mean." Writing a book about the blues would be equally hard, it seems to me. So, LeRoi Jones did what he could, back in 1963, to tie the indescribable to the more concrete. He wrote a social history of African-Americans in the USA through the prism of music or---maybe on the principle of red and yellow tile floors (are they red with yellow designs or yellow with red designs ?)---he wrote a book on African-American music through the prism of social history. It is one of the most important books on American music (and American society) that you can find. It has stood the test of time. He begins from the Africans who came to North America as slaves bearing very different cultures, confronted by an absolutely different view of the world emanating from their new masters. Here he tries to show how African music became transformed into African-AMERICAN music and then American. He continues then up through the generations of slavery, to Emancipation, migration to the cities, World War I, the Depression, World War II and the bebop age of the Fifties. The book is pre-Civil Rights movement, pre-Martin Luther King. Jones may have looked down on the NAACP and its allies as "white liberal supported organizations", I'm not sure, but they don't appear. The times are symbolized by the use of "Negro" throughout. I agree, the tome is dated, but don't reject it, don't pooh-pooh the man. This is a very intelligent, very worthwhile book. Anyone, particularly from outside the USA, who wants to know the history of African-American music within its social environment ought still to read BLUES PEOPLE. He writes, "If Negro music can be seen to be the result of certain attitudes, certain specific ways of thinking about the world (and only ultimately about the ways in which music can be made), then the basic hypothesis of this book is understood." [p.153] Jones goes to great lengths to get to the bottom of those attitudes and thoughts.
My main criticism, apart from the fact that history dictates that we must be left a half century behind contemporary realities, is that though Jones obviously knew and loved the blues and jazz and all the various styles ( if not swing), his approach is coldly academic, highly dispassionate. He may criticize people who tried to make money, he may downplay all those who "abandoned" their roots, but my disappointment is that there is nothing of himself in the work barring a few mentions of his family. He does not share his enthusiasm. Music is beauty after all. I am sure he wanted the book to be taken as a serious essay, which it is. But in keeping himself removed from the discussion, being so analytic and professional in the style of the day, he has robbed us "readers of the future" of many insights.
African-American experience in the USA expressed itself most particularly in the blues, only later did that musical mode become part of the general American culture, often watered down, sometimes imitated by those who didn't wish to fit in or who wished to cash in. When conditions have changed, when the black middle class has entered mainstream America, and the urban underclass is wrapped up in hip-hop, gangsta rap culture, which is relentlessly commercialized by the powerful media, talking about the blues may seem a matter for historians or ethnomusicologists. Still, BLUES PEOPLE resonates strongly if we try to understand where we have been. As for where we are going---that old line sums it up---we're goin where the Southern cross the yella dog.