Andy recently wrote a piece for the online publication The Whole Story. Here it is.

My Story with the Blues

I’ll be seventy soon, and with the acceleration of culture change, I’m my own history. I was born into a world where my father wrote legal documents in pencil on lined paper and my aunt typed them. The mail chute was right outside the office door.

I learned to type by ear. My dad bought an electric typewriter for the office and brought the acoustic one home. I listened first to 78s of the Weavers and Woody Guthrie, then to vinyls of the Firehouse Five +Two and Tom Lehrer. I first heard Tom Lehrer on a ten-inch LP in 1952; I was six.

When I was about fifteen, my high school librarian gave me a Folkways record of Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee being interviewed late at night on WFMT by Studs Terkel. That was it. They all first recorded in the late twenties, early thirties. That’s my music.

In 1943, a ban on recording was instituted by James Petrillo, the head of local 212 in New York City, that lasted for sixteen months, almost to D-Day. He was afraid his member musicians would be replaced by those evil nickelodeon record players known up North as juke boxes, and down South as “Pick-A-Lows”. During that interval, styles changed drastically. When it was lifted, solo guitar and piano players were pretty much gone, replaced by combos with electric instruments that could penetrate larger dance halls, and also, create new sounds. The old country blues of the twenties had intermixed with Gospel and Jazz. It was still dance music, but the dances were different. This is the mix out of which Rock and Roll emerged.

Those old blues didn’t entirely go away. There were some younger players among them. Though many of those have now passed, some very old ones like John Dee Holeman, a few ‘younger’ ones like Larry Johnson (about 75), and Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes (68, younger than me) hang on. Most hearteningly there is a significant clutch of native speaking 20-30-40-somethings who have taken up the study of pre-blues and early blues.

In my lifespan, styles of music have come and gone. Some, for whatever reason, retain their adherents and inspire new ones. I watched as something like five hundred 78 collectors who would gladly murder one another over a Robert Johnson in decent condition, cooperatively helped an Austrian guy reissue every extant blues and gospel 78 from 1890-1943. That’s the entire recorded history of an entire people for more than half a century, sampling every region, every medium, every available instrument combination, every secular, social and religious circumstance, the poetry of farmhands for the most part, something like 25,000 songs. A Canadian brokered the deal and a German immigrant financed it for the North American rights. A large chunk of the collectors were secular Jewish lefties, like me. There are some huge personal collections and some very old and wobbly collectors who would nevertheless still murder you over that Robert Johnson 78.

I’m stubborn. I don’t put pickups on my old guitars. I want to sound like the pre-war guys as much as possible. They’re all dead, and I watched and counted as they went, until the last one, Honeyboy Edwards, the last human to speak to Robert Johnson, passed away in 2011. I was in the last generation of outside observers, able to watch this process over half a century, so I feel a need to keep a line-of-sight clarity between the old guys, me , my generation, and a younger generation of players who are nothing if not diverse. I am heartened that this is what’s happening.

Some things, of course are changed. Nowadays, any fool with a computer and a microphone can make a CD, and many do. But the studied ones, the ones that identify with their own 78s acquired from junk stores as though flung to an unlikely future, I’ve got my money on these guys. We have YouTube, the Document series, the Blues and Gospel Discographies, and the errata and addenda for those, there are tons of books, the whole Blues Trail, magazines, the Blues Foundation, a whole little industry. That ain’t the world, but it’s not nothing either. What makes it real is the people who see it for itself and follow it, regardless of background.

What there aren’t, are the pre-war blues people who started it all just by being themselves, and a whole lotta people like them who didn’t get recorded. To me, that’s a restricted fraternity to which you can’t belong anyway because all the members are dead.

Just a couple of passing thoughts: first, I’m a white guy. I can’t be a bluesman anyway, and I would be ineffective if I tried to be. I can’t be an Eskimo either. But I can learn from them. Second, I don’t have any illusions about the romance of a life that brings about the blues. I wouldn’t want to live one. Dave van Ronk, a notable commentator on such subjects, once told me he would trade every great song ever written, if all those people didn’t have to suffer and die.

There is still wisdom in studying them — I’m interested in what the old guys did when they weren’t playing, what they did for work. And if I knew all their medical histories, I’d also know a lot about their communities at the time. And then there’s the music.

Just like people still learn Latin even though it’s not spoken much conversationally, people still learn blues because it’s pretty basic, and so many later forms, from hillbilly to bop, are based on it. Like anything else, when you start examining it closely, it differentiates into individual statements. I figure, if I can swim around in it for the rest of my life, I might get somewhere with it, and that’s okay.

Comments 2

  1. Wonderful take on the subject… I would only take issue with the idea that you can’t be a bluesman. A wonderful black woman who was quite active here in Oakland singing great blues until she moved to Europe some years ago (first name Maxine but I can’t recall last name) said something like this once when she was introducing me to sing on a program she produced: “Blues may have been created by black folk but it is our gift to the world, to be shared by anyone who respects and needs to sing ’em.” Ebony Magazine said in Nov. 1959 issue that I was this “blue eyed blonde who is keeping the blues alive…” which was both validating and embarrassing for me. I of course knew then, as did the blues world, that nothing can kill them and nothing ever will. And tributaries will flow in all directions from the endless fountain of human creativity and will to survive. Best, Barbara Dane

  2. I enjoyed this story. Always a pleasure to read or hear any stories from Mr. Cohen and see him perform. His love for music is inspirational. No words of wisdom about music need to be said by me. See Cohen play or listen to any of his recordings. Don’t miss the chance to talk to him if you see him perform. He has a million interesting stories about old time music. He’ll gladly share them.

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