Monday, February 08, 2010

Bluegrass, the Blues and Libraries

by guest writer Obadiah Wildblood

IMAGE: Ralph Stanley performs April 20, 2008, The Granada Theater, Dallas, Texas.

I have been on a musical reading jag of late. I have recently finished Ralph Stanley's autobiography, "Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times" - very timely, as my sweet bride's Christmas gift to me was tickets to see Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys at the Birchmere a couple of weeks before Christmas. And before that, I read a new biography of a Georgia singer who has been called the finest 12-string guitarist who ever lived, Blind Willie McTell. Bob Dylan wrote a song about him in which he said: "No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell."

The book is called "Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell" by Michael Gray. It is not like any biography I ever read before - Gray (an Englishman) talks as much about the process of researching the story, and the places of Willie McTell's life, as he does about his life story - more on that here:

New Georgia Encyclopedia: "Blind Willie" McTell (1898-1959)

I stumbled across a two-CD collection of Blind Willie's music at the Prince George's County Public Library, "The Definitive Blind Willie McTell" issued by Columbia in 1994. Fans of the Delta Blues might find his music too sunny, not "blue" enough. Top drawer.

IMAGE: Blind Willie McTell doing a recording for John Lomax in an Atlanta hotel room, November 1940. Photographed by the archivist's wife, Ruby Lomax.

Gray describes his research in the Atlanta Public Library. I like very much the tribute he pays there to libraries & librarians:

"... up on the fifth floor [of the Atlanta-Fulton Library], I sat at a computer in the Georgia Local and Family History Department, where the excellent William Montgomery gave me quiet, intelligent guidance about sources and then left me in peace. It doesn't surprise me at all to read that the author of 'Gone With The Wind' felt the same gratitude to the reference department staff 70 years ago when she was researching, for that book, details like whether women spoke of 'scent' or 'perfume' in the Civil War period.

"Of course in Margaret Mitchell's day it was a whites-only library, and it remained so for patrons until the year of Willie McTell's death, 1959 ... For staff it took until 1973 to achieve full integration. But at least all this is stated honestly right there on the library's own website and in its literature. We couldn't expect that the library of previous times would be out there alone, floating in a different galaxy. And today, rather more modestly, it is out on a limb, quietly pioneering erudition while a world of belligerent greed and vulgarity howls outside its doors.

"Library staff see all the corner-cutting and encroaching bureaucracy, but what I see is that, discounting small obduracies in small branches, the library system in America stands for all the civilized values that George W Bush and the boyz-in-the-hood equally would destroy at a stroke if they could. In the library you're treated with courtesy, no one discriminates against you because you're not American, or from Georgia. The resources are immense and the philosophy behind it is to allow you to use it as fully as you wish to. There's no red tape for the foreign user, no hindrance, only unfailing help.

"On top of which, Georgia libraries have not yet gone the way of English ones - it may be different still in Scotland - where they seem hell-bent on sweeping books away to make room for more and more computer games, DVDs, sub-teen pop CDs, and all the other paraphernalia of dumbing down, in the mistaken belief that if you get more people in through the doors that's good, regardless of what you provide when they get there. Here in Atlanta, the library still subscribes to 36 international newspapers, including papers from China and Iran."
(pages 79-80)

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