In praise of Paul Oliver

March 1, 2024 0 Comments
Paul Oliver and Lightnin’ Hopkins (1960) (New York Times)

The name Paul Oliver probably won’t ring a bell for you, unless you’re a vernacular architectural historian or a blues enthusiast.  But if you belong to either camp or (unlikely, but possible) both, then you’ll almost certainly feel a debt to him.

Born in Nottingham in 1927 and brought up in London, he was many things in his time – artist, teacher, researcher, skiffle group musician – but in the 1960s he developed a strong interest in vernacular buildings, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, and wrote or edited many books on the subject.  Ahead of his time, he argued that vernacular forms of housing had a future as well as a past, since traditional buildings used more sustainable materials and techniques than more ‘modern’ and western building types.

Paul Oliver, The meaning of the blues

But it wasn’t his architectural writings that I cared about.  As a schoolboy in the late nineteen sixties, I’d fallen in love with early blues music, and soon realised that here in Britain lived one of the leading authorities on the subject.  I’m sure I wasn’t alone in coming across the early books Paul Oliver published on the topic.  He started with Bessie Smith in 1959 – he always acknowledged the essential role of blues women – and then came a pioneering collection of essays Blues fell this morning: meaning in the blues (1960, reissued in a new edition in 1990).  Serious books about the blues had been published before, but this was a new approach, based on deep and detailed research and careful listening to the records.  For the first time blues was elevated to the status of a major music form worth studying in its own right, rather than as a tributary of jazz.  Oliver followed specific themes in the lyrics of blues songs – among them, work, migration, painful relationships, disease and death – and related them to the lives of blues musicians and black people in general in the Jim Crow American South.  Screening the blues: aspects of the blues tradition (1968) was a kind of sequel to Blues fell this morning, and included chapters on religion, gambling, boxing and sex as subjects for blues lyrics.

Richard Wright, the novelist and poet and author of Native son, wrote the foreword to Blues fell this morning.  In it he asked, and answered, a key question:

Can an alien, who has never visited the milieu from which a family of songs has sprung, write about them?  In the instance of such a highly charged realm as the blues, I answer a categoric and emphatic Yes. 

This is an astonishing endorsement, when you consider that Oliver and his wife Val didn’t make their first trip to America until after the book had been published.  Wright even thought that Oliver’s geographical and social distance from his subject gave his work an advantage.

Lonnie Johnson, from Paul Oliver, Conversations with the blues

Another key book was Conversations with the blues (1965), a rich collection of interviews with surviving musicians, which Oliver tape-recorded on his first trip to the States in 1960.  When John A. Lomax and his son Alan had made earlier field recordings of blues musicians for the Library of Congress, they sometimes recorded short conversations with the singers, but their main focus was on capturing the music.  Oliver’s interest, by contrast, was in talking at length with the mainly lesser-known musicians he found, and the result is a wonderful anthology of memoir, anecdote and blues lyrics.  The book was reissued with Oliver’s own photographs and a CD in 1997.  Oliver was a pioneering blues photographer, who later became the first mentor of the great jazz photographer and writer Val Wilmer.

But it was Oliver’s next book that became my key text, as I began to search out more and more blues records (this was the golden age for collecting specialist reissues, first on vinyl and later CD).  The story of the blues, an overview of blues history, came out when my blues enthusiasm was at its most nerdily extreme, in 1969.  This book, published by Penguin and probably Oliver’s most popular, was built around the great migrations from the South to Chicago and other northern urban centres, and the changes in the nature of the blues brought about by that movement.  It rapidly became the standard work on the blues, and it’s still an essential introduction.

The story of the blues, vol. 2

It wasn’t just the book that gripped me.  Even more thrilling were the two double-LP compilations, also called The story of the blues, that Oliver persuaded Columbia to issue in tandem with the book.  The first collection started with a recording in Ghana of ‘Fra Fra tribesmen’ – Oliver wrote a book about the African roots of blues in the Blues Paperbacks series he edited (John Fahey contributed a volume on Charley Patton) – and continued through Peg Leg Howell, Paper Smith and Bo Carter to Otis Spann and Johnny Shines.  I listened to these records over and over, with fanatical attention to the music and the words, and they send me off on demented missions over the years, to small shops from Barnsley and Wakefield to the giant Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus, to track down recordings by Blind Willie McTell, J. B. Lenoir, Champion Jack Dupree, Memphis Minnie, Magic Sam and many other heroes.

Paul Oliver, The story of the blues

Paul Oliver died aged 90 in 2017.  But his great legacy lives on, not just in his publications but also in the Paul Oliver Archive of African American Music, housed in the library of Oxford Brookes University, where he lectured for many years.  It includes a large number of blues records, tape recordings and transcripts, books and articles, photos and drawings, and much else.

These memories came to me after a visit to a second-hand bookshop in Bloomsbury a few weeks ago, when I was thrilled to find a copy of a later Oliver book, Songs and saints: vocal traditions on race records (1984).  This one goes beyond, or behind, the blues to excavate the ‘songster tradition’, represented in recordings from the folk, comic and religious strains of the black music experience.  I can’t wait to lose myself again in Paul Oliver’s writing. I’ve a feeling the book came out originally with an album or two, so I’ll soon be back on the blues record-hunting trail, over fifty years after the first one.

Memphis Minnie, from The story of the blues

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