Although I finished The Land Where the Blues Began a few weeks ago, I hesitated about writing this, because I was worried that the review would be accidentally racist. Being an Anthropology student has made me realise that everyone holds culturally-biased assumptions to a degree and also made me ever-cautious about the sensitivities surrounding race.
I believed my fears were well-founded because it is a trap similar to the one the author himself, Alan Lomax, fell into. The ethnomusicologist’s memoir on blues music in the American South of the 1930s and ‘40s is no doubt a rich and complex study, but it is also a product of its time. For instance, Blues superstar Muddy Waters has ‘Chinese-like eyes [that make] him look like a friendly dark eskimo’, according to Lomax, a comment that belongs safely locked in the archives of history, along with black and white minstrels and most of Gone with the Wind.
All this is nothing compared to the abuse and discrimination Lomax witnesses other White Americans unleash, or the colourful (in all senses of the word) racist language used on both sides of the ethnic divide. In short, the politically correct should have their fans and smelling salts at the ready, if they can tolerate looking like a privileged Southern Belle in the summer heat.
It must be kept in mind that Lomax explores a harsh reality. The violence he writes about is not a voyeuristic titillation, but rather a key that unlocks the meaning and social history behind such well-known songs as Stagger Lee and Black Betty. The past may be ugly, but at least something as beautiful as the Blues has endured.