Paul Oliver is one of the world's leading
authorities and writer on the history of the blues. From an early age he
collected blues records and books on the blues, publishing his first
article in 1951. Since that time he has published thirteen books on the
history of the blues and blues music including The Story of the Blues,
Blues Fell This Morning, Conversation with the
Blues, and Blues Off The Record. His work also includes
interviews, field work and research in recording and printed sources
tracing the origin and development of African American music and culture
from the time of slavery through to the Twentieth Century. This work,
known as "The Paul Oliver Collection of African American Music and
Related Traditions" is held on a custodial basis at The University of
Gloucestershire, England, by agreement with the European Blues
Association and Paul Oliver. It represents an enormously valuable
resource in teaching and research and is of international significance.
The 'blues musketeers', Max
and Rex Haymes, Dai Thomas, Robin
Andrews and myself, Alan White, are working on a long term project entitled 'Slave To The Blues' - tracing
secular roots of the blues back to slavery days; from 17th century
onwards. In planning our research we contacted Paul Oliver, who invited
us to his home for a weekend to discuss our work. During the discussions
I also had the honour of interviewing Paul about his work and his
thoughts on the blues.
Alan: What are your
first musical memories?
Paul: Itís very
difficult to identify your first musical memories because they are a
little bit cloudy but I think the first time that music really played a
part, and I played a part in it, was at Scout Camps, particularly the
camp fires when I led the singing. My earliest clear recollections of
particular song types really dates from then. But thatís a long while
ago, back in the 1940s.
Alan: What first
attracted you to the Blues?
Paul: It was
particularly a friend of mine, who was actually killed in the war so I
only knew him briefly, but we were at a Harvest Camp. These were camps
that used to be put on for harvesting so the Scouts and young people
could be employed because others were away in the services. I used to
organise those camps, particularly logging camps as I was quite a good
forester for some reason. On this particular occasion we were at a
Harvest Camp, which I wasnít particularly interested in but at least one
got to know interesting people, and then this chap, Stan Higham, came up
to me and said, ďThereís something I want you to hearĒ. He took me down
to a kind of hedge between the two farms and there was this
extraordinary crying and yelling, I couldnít call it singing but it was
quite spine-chilling. He said, ďDo you know what this is?Ē. I said,
ďNo, Iíve no ideaĒ and he said ďYouíre listening to bluesĒ. He wasnít
quite right really because we were actually listening to field hollers
but nevertheless I thought it quite extraordinary. It was in Stoke-
by-Clare in Suffolk and a lot of the American army sites were in
Suffolk. He took me to a pub the following day, and there was a boogie
pianist there, which was equally extraordinary.
I went back to Stoke-by-Clare
a few years ago to see how much it had changed and it still has a great
kind of crescent around the green and the pub is still there (but no
Alan: Could you tell
me a little about your first article and how it came about.
Paul: The first one
wasnít really blues, it was for Jazz Journal and what I wrote about was
gospel songs. I got interested in gospel quite early on, particularly
because one or two blues singers had introduced me to it, because they
were singing their religious songs as well and Iíd not really heard of
it. I got interested in it, got interested with one or two preachers,
did some research and wrote the article. But one of the key points I was
making was that while focusing on writing about jazz and so forth to
ensure itís permanence, we may be ignoring another folk music
Alan: How did you
become involved in producing graphics and writing notes for record
Paul: It wasnít
difficult because I trained as an art student originally, first as a
painter and then I took up sculpture. The problem with sculpture was
that I was very asthmatic and very allergic to just about everything I
used, including stone dust, some paint and turpentine. I therefore
moved from painting and sculpture to graphic design. I was irritated by
the designs of the sleeves on some of the first LPs I had so I just got
in touch with Decca and, rather surprisingly, I managed to get through
to Peter Gammond who wrote on popular music, jazz and so forth. He was
in charge of the commissioning of the sleeve designs and was glad to
have somebody who was interested in the music. An American artist had
designed the cover for the first LP of Robert Johnson, a very fine
drawing but to me it didn't seem focused on an LP, it was like a little
art work in itself. Decca wanted me to attract people to buy by using
different techniques, sometimes more figurative and sometimes more
abstract, so they werenít just seeing the same image. That suited me
fine and I greatly enjoyed doing that, even though not everybody liked
it. The first one was the album Backwoods Blues, featuring Bobby Grant,
Buddy Boy Hawkins, King Solomon Hill, Buddy Boy Hawkins, and Big Bill
"Johnson" on the London Label (AL 3535 -Pub. 1954). One of the snags was
the designer was not credited, and it was important to me to be credited
so I smuggled in my initials. So you see youíve got the initials PHO in
the design on the 1957 First National Skiffle Contest album. I had
another one of New Orleans music and Iíd chosen the Wharf instead of
obvious New Orleans sites so I had sacks on the wharf and one of them
had PHO on it. When they asked me about it, I said ďItís phosphate.Ē
Rex: Why wouldnít
they credit you?
Paul: Iíve no idea.
Peter Gammond's boss was a difficult man and I suppose he just wanted
the title on the sleeve with no interest in anything else.
Alan: Your first book
was in 1959 on Bessie Smith I believe. What inspired you to start with
Paul: I wasnít! What
happened was that Desmond Flower was the Director of Cassell and
Company, based in London and he was starting a series called "Kings of
Jazz" and he asked me to do a book on Bessie Smith. Somebody had
recommended me to him but I was in the process of working on Blues
Fell This Morning and it was good that he was very pleased with the
Bessie book. So when I told him about Blues Fell This Morning he
asked to see it and then published it.
Alan: Of all the
blues publications, which has given you the most pleasure?
Paul: Thatís a very
difficult question because I get some pleasure out of all. Perhaps
Blues Fell This Morning, in the sense of having it published,
but it was over a long period of time so in one sense it was just
relief. Perhaps Conversation with the Blues but mainly that's
because of the echoes of the field workers.
Alan: The wonderful
Studio Vista series on Blues Paperbacks was published in 1970, which are
very scarce now. Of course Yonder Come The Blues has republished
three of them but are there any plans to republish the others?
Paul: I had hoped that
Yonder Come The Blues would sell well enough to use as a lever to
do that but, well, sales are never high on this kind of thing. Iíd
forgotten about it actually, I should try again.
question, but who are your favourite blues artists?
Paul: Well, I donít
know any blues singers who are "artists". Itís often just whoever
happens to be playing or singing at the time, although certain people
who are particularly gifted at improvising lyrics and Iíve heard them do
so. So possibly, Sleepy John Estes and Lightning Hopkins, I think, are
the best improvisers. The singer whose quality of voice and guitar I
particularly enjoy is Bo Carter, although his sexy lyrics get a bit
boring after a while. And I like the Mississippi Sheiks, but I donít
find it easy to answer.
Alan: It is difficult
and, perhaps equally difficult, do you have any favourite blues albums
that stand out?
Paul: I suppose it
depends what an album is. Backwoods Blues is a favourite in the
sense that it was a big starting off for me because I had the
opportunity of designing for it so its my favourite in terms of personal
association with it, rather than those I put together. But itís
difficult to answer with 3000 12" LPs and 100 10Ē.
Alan: Are there any
particular songs that have special meaning to you?
Paul: When you say
ďsongĒ do you mean ďsongĒ as distinct to ďbluesĒ?
Alan: Well, any blues.
Paul: Oh, blues. I
tend to think of ďsongĒ more in the ballad form in 16 bar against the 12
bar. Certain of them have a heroic figure like John Henry which also
has an underlying moral position. I find most of the songs interesting
but I donít think Iíd pick out any one of them.
Alan: You have a
collection related to African-American music and related traditions now
held at the University of Gloucestershire in conjunction with the
European Blues Association. Could you tell me a little about the
Paul: Itís not held by
them, most of the material is still here. Originally I was appointing
some trustees for my collection, for my will. Michael Roach is one of
them and we began talking about it and he set up the Association which
seemed like a good idea. But then we considered that the Trustees
should make the decision on where certain things go, so some things
don't go automatically to the University of Gloucestershire. The reason
for Gloucestershire was that it has American Studies and Neil Wynn is
quite interested in blues and he is the Head of the History
Department. Curiously, heís particularly interested in the area that
Max Haymes is interested in, slavery and post-slavery and the
antecedents of blues so Iíll put you in touch with each other.
The question arose as to how
I would balance the collection [between the University and the EBA] by
dividing mine so that each has early material and late material. I
decided that it would be better if the Association had more things that
could be a starting off point for people if they call in and see the
pictorial history, that sort of thing, and the more academic studies
should go to Gloucester. But obviously youíve got to get enough
intelligent material available for the visitor and some visuals for
Gloucester. Itís turning out to be a much slower process and itís
surprisingly hard to part with anything!
Alan: Youíre also an
eminent Professor of Architecture and a distinguished author in that
field. How on earth did you find time to do the incredible pioneering
field research into the African-American music related traditions as
well? It seems like two lifetimes to me.
Paul: What I've tried
to do is combine the two where possible. So Iíve done rather more field
work in Africa, for example, than in India. I've done work in every
continent, just more in some continents than others. Iím in Chicago next
week and Iíll see Paul Garon while Iím there and weíll go to a few clubs
to see whatís happening these days. Iím mainly on my way to New Zealand
but thereís not so much happening there. Although there is a
Blues Society in New Zealand, which has been going for many years.
Alan: I get emails from
New Zealand about the earlyblues.com website, and from Australia too.
Paul: Bob Dixon
[Professor of Linguistics and co-author with John Godrich of the
definitive discography of Blues and Gospel Records: 1890-1943]
lives in Australia and his wife, Shelley, is Russian and she has the
most extraordinary linguistic skills. She must be one of the leading
people in the world. There is barely a European language she canít
speak or respond to but her main work has been with the Berber and Bob
Dixonís main work has been with the Australian Aboriginals. He did work
with the Dyirbal tribe on their language called Dyirbal and one of the
interesting things was whilst he was talking with them certain words and
structures were quite unfamiliar to him, even though heíd been learning
to speak Dyirbal. He couldnít understand this and thought they were
talking two languages but it turned out that Dyirbal has a
"mother-in-law language" which is apparently a language that you used to
speak to your mother-in-law. Of course, everybody has to learn it but
there is only one person they can use it with; most extraordinary.
Alan: In all your
field work, how did you get sponsorship?
Paul: I didnít get very
much but I got it initially for my first field trip. Iíd been working
with the American Embassy for a long time; they had a very good library
and I was often the only person in it, sometimes the only person theyíd
see in a week. American Embassy was so open and such a nice place in
those days but what came later were threats of bombing and they had to
change their policy. But at that time the US Information Service were
very helpful and supportive of me so they eventually said, ďWell, you
still havenít been to the US, why donít you go? There is a grant for
leaders and specialists and if you care to make an application for the
grant, weíll be ready to support itĒ. So I did, and Richard Wright and
a friend of his who was known as the Black Ambassador from the United
States supported me and I got the grant. It wasnít huge but I think it
was the travel and $1,000 which was a lot in those days. I didnít get
any future grants of a similar kind but I got grants periodically from
the university for field work. Sometimes my architectural work took me
to places which allowed me to spend time in the field too.
Alan: Are there any
memories of your field work which youíd like to share with us?
Paul: I have written in
my books about the things that make a story but what is not so easy to
convey is how you respond in situations. What stays in the mind over a
long period can really be quite trivial; things that certain people
wear, or when it hasnít worked out as well as Iíd have liked. I went to
Baton Rouge on my way to New Orleans, for example, but I found it was
very self-conscious and it felt like everybody was sitting there just
waiting for somebody to come and ask them questions. Baton Rouge, by
the way, was of course named for the 'red post' where Indians used to
mark out their territory.
Alan: Looking back
over many years of achievements, is there anything you wish youíd done
that you hadnít.
Paul: One thing Iíd
like to do is finish this autobiography which a lot of people have been
pressing me a long time to do. Iíd also like to make sense of a few
things which are quite difficult to do Ė even the kind of question you
are asking me in a way. I started a book several years ago and itís
still nowhere near completion. Itís what I called The Blues the
World Forgot which is on aspects which had either been
under-examined or had been at one time but ignored since. Itís been
snoozing for too long, really.
Alan: We always refer
to the "Bible of the Blues" being the Blues and Gospel Records:
1890-1943 by Robert Dixon, John Godrich and Howard Rye which I
understand was dedicated to you and is now in its 4th edition
published in 1997. Do you know if thereís going to be another edition
Paul: No, I donít know
at all but I would have thought there might have been. Howard Rye is
probably the person to ask. He joined it rather late and of course John
Godrich died and I havenít heard from Bob Dixon since he retired and
moved to Cairns, Northern Australia.
Alan: Blues is the
background to so much modern music. Why do you think that is?
Paul: I donít know if
there is an answer to that. It depends what you mean by ďbackgroundĒ or
whether it is really placed against that background or whether itís part
of the elements that cause it's development. Rock 'n Roll or Rhythm
and Blues and so forth were indications of certain kinds of emphases
with probably rather less of the content and more of the patterns which
people can drum to, or whatever.
Alan: How do you see
the future of blues music?
Paul: I have been
surprised that there is as much; for example, I get one or two of the
magazines from Europe, ASB is a very good French journal and Block is
Belgian, and I have been surprised that there are so many old blues
singers who are still working. They are far more responsible in the way
in which they are approaching the research they are doing. They are
very lively and optimistic magazines and show how much is happening
Alan: Final question
Paul, whatís next in the pipeline?
Paul: As you know Iíve
only just published Barrelhouse Blues and Iím looking forward to
seeing the reviews because sometimes that can get your mind working.
Iíd also like to finish Blues the World Forgot. More imminently,
we can have a cup of tea, if you like?
Alan: Thank you Paul for
Alan White - earlyblues.com
From left to right: Alan White, Rex Haymes, Paul Oliver,
Max Haymes, Robin Andrews
"Barrelhouse Blues", Paul Oliver's latest publication, available from all good
See the earlyblues.com recommended booklist for more of
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