Long Lost Blues
Peter C. Muir
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Buy *Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850-1920 (Music in American Life)* by Peter C. Muir online

Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850-1920 (Music in American Life)
Peter C. Muir
University of Illinois Press
344 pages
January 2010
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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In this book, you will learn the difference between popular blues and folk blues, between white blues and black blues, and (my favorite) between allopathic blues and homeopathic blues.

Long Lost Blues is written by Peter C. Muir, an internationally recognized musician and co-founder of the Institute for Music and Health (perhaps explaining why he postulates the dynamics between allopathic and homeopathic blues “remedies”). He has focused on the earliest known sheet and recorded blues music in America, stating that on January 12, 1912, the first piece of blues sheet music was registered for copyright. This confutes W.C. Handy’s assertion that his “Memphis Blues” was the first published blues. Handy’s work was composed in 1909 but not released for publication until later in 1912.

There are, according to Muir, the five necessary elements of the blues: “the twelve bar idiom, blue notes, the four-note chromatic motif, the barbershop ending, and the phrase ‘I Got the Blues.’” You might need to be a musical scholar to understand chromatics or the barbershop ending, but most people associate blues with the 12 bar format, and know without knowing that they know it that slid and curved notes are part and parcel of what makes the blues sound blue. And of course, you know you’ve got the blues when you can come right out and say you got the blues.

Allopathic remedies are those in which the cure is the opposite of the malady, and homeopathic remedies are the hair of the dog, remedies that in a small but potent way mirror the disease. Singing the blues is a well-known cure for the blues. How can this be? Yet it’s a musical medicine as old as the hills, harking back to the melancholy songs of the Middle Ages meant to banish care by moaning about it. There’s nothing quite as salutary for a broken heart as singing about dying of one. We tend to think of homeopathic blues as a standard, possibly because much of what we recognize as blues stems from black southern culture where singing one’s sorrow was not only a comfort to the singer, but communicated in cultural code to the audience who shared the same experiences, whether of lost love or being done dirty by those in authority. But Muir asserts that early on, blues was a popular art form as likely to be found in the parlor as in the barroom, and its allopathic side was more prevalent. In our great-grandparents’ day, folks who were afflicted with the blahs were prone to strike up a happy trot with rather bland lyrics to drive off the “blue devils” (Duke fans, take note).

With sheet music illustrations, lyrics from a couple hundred classic and less well known blues tunes, and a whole chapter devoted to W.C. Handy, Long Lost Blues is both scholarly and highly readable. For me, it offered a fascinating view of the blues as a serious and genuine malady; in the late 19th century it was associated with neurasthenia, a disease purportedly caused by poor social and economic conditions and overwork, resulting in such disparate symptoms as “morbid fears” and “irregularities of the teeth.” The book also draws connections from the blues lyrics of an earlier time to the words and sentiments common to all folk music, such as the linkage between “Snakey Blues” published in 1915 and the old folksong “Fare Thee Well, My Honey.”

And though Muir doesn’t suggest it, it’s not a far reach to imagine that in the mid-twentieth century, the blues “snaked” off in two directions – one is the strain mostly characterized by Southern black males wailing about their personal misfortune, and the other, the strain that resulted in the “high lonesome sound” or bluegrass, generally thought of as the province of Southern white males wailing about their murdered lovers and dead mothers. Both strains are very, very homeopathic.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2010

buy *Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850-1920 (Music in American Life)* online
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