After WWII, with the British Empire finally devoid of its former power and importance, young British blues enthusiasts invented their own vision of a new country, they – metaphorically – chose as their preferred home country an idealized (American) life, namely in creating the very personal America with lots of possibilities and adventure.
As all the protagonists of Kellett’s book, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Keith Richards to name but a few, suffered from the heritage of WWII as in England rationing of food continued long into the 1950s, bomb craters and destroyed buildings were part of the urban scenery until the 1960s, and the country faced strong economic shortages. All in all, it was not a colorful, promising future those protagonists saw themselves in; it was, on the contrary, “all gray.”
Blues music spoke to a number of British fans, who in the 1950s were still in their teens or early twenties. One of the reasons why this black music was much more popular there than in its home country was that British blues fans experienced the music with significant distance from its origins in the rural Mississippi delta or rather bad parts of (American) towns where a white person in the 1940s or 1950s may not be welcome. Similarly, the negative associations of the blues with poverty, crime, and violence did not exist in Britain, neither was there a tradition of white racism nor violence against African-Americans that was passed on in families for generations, neither was there a culture of white guilt connected to this.
So a few hundred fans started collecting anything connected with blues music they could get their hands on in Britain: LPs, newspaper articles, books and even blues radio footage. This blues network grew steadily, as both books and records were hard to come by. While many later rock superstars met in Art School – then for many working-class youths the only alternative to an immediate unsatisfactory career as clerk or technician – the network expanded and meetings, sharing of music and information became essential.
Another reason for the fast and highly productive spread of the blues as a musical idiom in England was the geographic position of the major cities as main hubs in England; with other cultural important cities such as Birmingham or Liverpool only a few hours away by train, a trend, a song or a fresh hype would travel extremely swiftly. So spreading a new musical idea there was considerably easier than in the US, where styles had to travel much longer distances and would not be influenced and altered by artistic impulses from cities nearby.
In order to connect to the original blues inventors, young Britons started a particular adoption process, says Kellett. “In enjoying blues music, seeking to learn all they could about it, and then emulating it, the British blues network staked a claim to being the white ‘sons’ of faraway, often older African-American ‘fathers.’ …. This reverse adoption was at the heart of the British blues boom.”
And along with this sheer concentration on older, male, untutored musicians came the impression that the only way of life a bluesman in England could take would be the exact copy or continuation of the male black bluesman’s way. (Thereby taking the American bluesman’s lyrics for real, i.e. actually believing the many supernatural deeds, his sexual prowess, superhuman skills and drinking abilities. Which, naturally, was entirely wrong, as the bluesman described a fictional character in his lyrics, one that he invented; with the same creativity that was used to invent biographical facts, experiences and exceptional endurance and cunning).
This somehow strange view then also excluded female artists in the (then quite inaccurate British) blues canon. (It is important to realize that the blues/rhythm and blues as recorded and distributed by the Rolling Stones in the early 1960s for many young British listeners meant “authentic blues,” as this was the first time those mainstream audiences/buyers were exposed to the blues). It included, on the other hand, often heavy drinking, unstable and insecure living and income situations, violence against others, intense sexual contacts and a very negative image of women.
This is another main theme of Kellett, who is Associate Professor of History at Hartford Community College. His study “is a book about masculinity – about young British male cultural producers who believed that African-American blues musicians could offer them a way to ‘be a man’ that was superior to what urban postwar Britain had in store for them. … They thus created an ideally ‘boys-only’ world …”
The fandom of those young Britons was, in fact, a bit blue-eyed, since it may leave the impression that the blues fans back then were immune to racism and prejudice. But in fact, the African-American young Britons encountered mostly during and after WWII were skilled US servicemen. They would be back in the US after their tour was over. On the other hand, England for at least two centuries was confronted with dark-skinned immigrants, mostly from the Caribbean, and they were not always welcome. “Black Britons seemed to pose numerous social, economic and cultural problems… [and] … Black Britons would compete with white Britons for jobs … In the minds of some white commentators, black Britons would be unable to assimilate to British culture … [and they] … were seen as moving into historically white neighborhoods and bringing with them unsavory behavior.”
Kellett assumes that the imagined exotic otherness of the blues (and the American bluesmen) did not work with the reality Britons encountered in real life in their own country. “The British strongly believed themselves free of racial considerations and thus approached the blues from a different sociocultural footing.” Nevertheless, there exists a long history of cultural borrowing and integration of formerly foreign styles, as Britain for centuries not only incorporated the culture and musics of Scotland, Wales, Ireland but also in part the musics of their former colonies. Actually, even the young blues fans made clear distinctions between African-Americans (who were considered a positive role-model, be they musicians or servicemen) and Caribbean or African immigrants who they would not relate to a mysteriously precious blues music background.
A very interesting study that chronologically and thematically tells of the “reinvention” of the blues in England. Kellet pays much attention to the various channels of blues music distribution, i.e. record “hunting” and trade, radio (particularly the AFN in Britain, broadcasting from Frankfurt, Germany) and rare concerts of American blues artists. Although not boasting with new revelations – as the author announces often enough – this text explains the many small steps, alterations and changes that first led a small number of British music enthusiasts to dig deeper and deeper for the original blues in England. (Interestingly, he also gives much-deserved credit to the “trad” movement, a musical fad of jazz fans occupied with original and “pure” jazz in the New Orleans style. Because this particular group of music enthusiasts actually fueled an interest for African-American music, long before the 1960s. Eventually, British trad jazz musicians were the driving force behind the very first concerts of African-American bluesmen in Britain). As a result, many of the best-selling (mostly Chess records) artists came over to Britain. Later, important blues sessions were recorded, most notably those with Sonny Boy Williamson II, all backed by British bands, including The Yardbirds and The Animals.
Furthermore, the trad movement included famous musician Chris Barber, in whose band both Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner played. Those two later formed Blues Incorporated, a very important network of loosely connected blues aficionados and musicians; without it, the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds or Cream would probably never have formed. Naturally, the book concentrates on the late 1950s until the year 1970; a very productive and magic period for British music, that until then finally produced blues, beat, popsike, pop, folk pop, blues-rock, psychedelia and the most famous rock bands. This cultural invention happened in a dialogue with the cultural main source and later target market USA.
All of this was only possible since there was a vital and huge network of music lovers who met and mostly shared experience and information about their “finds.”
And in a way, this all happened by chance, in a way, as Britain was introduced to the blues “…not through any sustained, direct contact with African-Americans or American society but instead, indirectly and sporadically through blues texts and artifacts that had been separated from their immediate sociocultural contexts.”
Quite a fascinating read. Very strongly recommended for anybody interested in British Beat, rock music of the 1960s, blues rock and Britain’s fundamental role in it.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2018
Andrew Kellett. The British Blues Network: Adoption, Emulation, and Creativity. University of Michigan Press, 2017, 265 p.