Beat of the sixties

George Melly on Granada’s ‘I Hear The Blues’ and music in the 1960s

TVTimes masthead
From the TVTimes for week commencing 15 December 1963

HIGH in the mountains, a spring wells up and a little trickle of pure, icy water meanders down the slope.

Hundreds of miles away, the great muddy river with thousands of people living along its banks empties into the sea.

On Wednesday at 9.40, ITV are presenting a programme called I Hear The Blues. The artists are all Negroes from the Deep South, many of them elderly and by modern standards, obscure.

The viewers, apart from those who switch on at 5 p.m. and switch off after “The Queen,” will be a partisan group ranging from beatniks to bank clerks.

They will take in jazz musicians, poets, folk singers and anthropologists en route — but all united in their love and understanding of the blues.

A hand strums a guitar
Whose fingers on the strings?
Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson’s voice is tender and witty, his taste and technique, absolute

Three days later, millions of teenagers will be sitting biting their nails with impatience as they wait for the week’s edition of Thank Your Lucky Stars, Saturday, 5.50. There’s the emptying into the sea.

A Mersey-type Thank Your Lucky Stars, with The Searchers, Cilla Black, Tommy Quickly, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Gerry and the Pacemakers and, wait for the squeals, The Beatles.

It’s unlikely that many of the teenage audience next Saturday have heard about Memphis Slim, who is appearing on Wednesday.

It is equally probable that most of the blues enthusiasts would reject out of hand the whole of Thank Your Lucky Stars. Both, I feel, are wrong.

The blues aficionado is wrong, because the Liverpool sound stems from the blues.

Its excitement is superficial, its poetry based on the cliche, but its excitement and cliches are felt and experienced. Also, and more significantly, this music is happening here and now.

It is not, as early British Revivalist jazz was, some 15 years ago, a reconstruction of New Orleans, but something that has grown out of American Negro rhythm and blues and which speaks with a local accent.

The tragic nobility of the blues is something else, and something infinitely more satisfying, but you cannot spend the whole of your life on a mountain peak.

There is no shame and much pleasure to be found in the streets.

The teenage pop fan is wrong, but in a sense less culpable, because he or she is a teenager — that is, a prisoner of the immediate and a slave to the momentary.

To suggest that it might be rewarding occasionally to listen to an elderly Negro in stead of a young boy with a dish-mop haircut is to invite incomprehension and ridicule.

Even so, things change, and often for the better. A few teenagers will become, and because of the music they like, not despite it, the blues lovers of tomorrow.

I have met some blues enthusiasts who admit, usually with shamefaced reservations, to a certain weakness for the Beatles.

There is no need here to describe in any way the artists in Thank Your Lucky Stars. Wednesday’s Blues package is another matter.

Here is the history of the blues. Not only a history in time (Lonnie Johnson, whom you will see, was born in 1889, pianist Otis Spann in 1938), but a history in stylistic development, too.

Big Joe Williams, blues shouter and nine-string guitarist, Memphis Slim, pianist and blues singer, and Sonny Boy Williamson, who sings and plays the mouth organ, represent the Mississippi or country blues style.

Primitive is the adjective often used to describe this tradition, but it has the grandeur and power to communicate of an African statue. That, too, is “primitive” art.

Lonnie Johnson, although older, belongs to a more sophisticated era. The blues, together with many other elements, fused to become jazz in the early years of the century.

Jazz, in its turn, changed the blues. It became more urban, more aware.

Lonnie played with Armstrong and Ellington. His voice is tender and witty, his technique absolute, but controlled by his impeccable taste. Incidentally, Lonnie Donegan chose his stage Christian name in admiration of Johnson.

During the 1920’s, the women blues singers, like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, emerged to dominate the idiom. Victoria Spivey belongs to this period or at least dates from it.

Her singing, in which the Vaudeville tradition is transfigured by her blues feeling, forbids us to consider her as an historical curiosity. Her blues, like all real blues, are outside time fashion.

Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters sings rhythm and blues… and a direct link with primitive blues

The work of Muddy Waters completes the cycle. He sings rhythm and blues, the most recent development in the music’s history.

The most recent in time, yet R. and B. has more in common with primitive blues than with the blues of the early jazz era.

It is less relaxed, certainly, full of the noise and violence of big city life, but it has the same direct approach, the same raw, emotional appeal.

It was from this music that the adulterated and synthetic rock ‘n’ roll of the 195O’s and the preferable, but still emasculated beat music of today derived their inspiration.

To listen to Muddy Waters is to cut our local idols down to size, as in fairness they would be the first to admit.

Bill Stepney on drums. Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy and bass-playing Willie Dixon complete the bill.

What are the blues? It is tempting to quote what Louis Armstrong said about jazz: “If you’ve got to ask you’ll never know.” Tempting, but unfair.

Technically, the blues are usually a 12-bar chorus repeated ad lib and divided into three lines, the first two more or less identical, the third providing a rough rhyme and completing an image or an idea.

The subject matter is usually misery or despair, yet the emotional effect is not gloomy.

W. C. Handy put it very well: “The blues came from the man furthest down. The blues came from nothingness, from want, from desire.

“And when a man sang or played the blues, a small part of the want was satisfied from the music.”

Buddy Greco
“When Buddy Greco sings, you feel rich… …and glad to be alive”

On Thursday at 10.10 p.m., there is a programme far removed from the raw, painful world of the blues or the adolescent excitement of the pop world.

In Buddy Greco Entertains, he’ll perform numbers like “Chicago,” “Around the World,” and his biggest success. “The Lady is a Tramp.”

Greco, like Sinatra, is the child of Italian immigrants. His voice, however, is more ingenuous, less edgy. When he sings, he makes you feel rich, witty and glad to be alive.


Did you guess who has his fingers on the strings above? It’s Gerry of Gerry and the Pacemakers

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