Going to Cincinnati: A History of the Blues in the Queen City. – book reviews
Peter R. Aschoff
That Cincinnati has never been the center of the blues universe is borne out by the fact that the artists Steven Tracy chooses to mention in this history of the city’s blues community can be counted on two hands. This should not lead the reader to infer that Going to Cincinnati is of little value. First of all, it sheds light on the society and culture of yet another out-of-the-way corner of the blues. Its greatest contribution, however, may be its unspoken insistence that the blues culture be recognized as existing in all the black neighborhoods, large and small, that saw the southern diaspora deposit tide after tide of black southerners on urban beaches far from their rural homes during the century following the end of the Reconstruction.
Going to Cincinnati chronologically traces the growth of the black community and blues in Cincinnati from the immediate post-Civil War era to the present day. A sixteen-page introduction discusses the history of the city’s black community roughly up to World War I; it also presents an answer to the question, “what is the blues?” The bulk of this often valuable and always enjoyable text is concerned with the Queen City’s blues artists and their music from the 1920s onward.
Not surprisingly, artists from the earliest decades are discussed primarily through their recordings, record company documents, and the memories of veterans from the period. As the book moves into the post-World War II era, the narrative takes greater advantage of interviews with living artists, as well as Tracy’s own interactions with and observations of them. For fans of what is commonly called “prewar blues” (i.e., before World War II), the sections on that era’s artists will be a godsend. Although people who are interested only in the blues from afar will find Tracy’s discussions of Stovepipe No. 1 and the group of artists clustered around Bob Coleman (a.k.a. Kid Cole, among other noms de disques) to be overly detailed, these chapters are an important contribution to the history and discography of the blues.
Stovepipe No. 1 (Sam Jones) is the earliest reasonably well documented figure in Cincinnati blues. Although he was a songster, not strictly a blues musician, Stovepipe’s recordings from the 1920s are an evocative musical look back at the southern and rural roots of Cincinnati’s black society, culture, and music. Tracy’s discussion of Stovepipe No. 1 is an excellent overview of a unique musical figure who served to connect the Cincinnati blues scene back to a time when “musicianeers” and songsters like Stovepipe provided entertainment throughout working-class black America.
Possibly even more valuable is Tracy’s patient mapping of the confusing and obscure biographical, historical, and discographical topography that surrounds Bob Coleman-Kid Cole and his/their Cincinnati Jug Band, and the assortment of artists – biographical blanks all – who surrounded him/them. Again, only hard-core blues fans care about esoteric discussions of people (or more likely, noms de disques) like Sweet Papa Tadpole, Kid Coley, Walter Coleman, and Walter Cole, but such scholars will find these pages to be invaluable. Never before has this fascinating little labyrinth been laid out quite so neatly and completely.
Cincinnati has always enjoyed a reputation as something of a piano blues town, and the transitional pre- to postwar middle section of Going to Cincinnati is devoted to three blues pianists: Pigmeat Jarrett, James Mays, and Big Joe Duskin. Their careers cover virtually the entire time span of the book, with the oldest, Jarrett, having known Stovepipe and the youngest, Duskin, today enjoying an international reputation and performing career. Through these artists’ lives and careers the reader can see the evolution not only of Cincinnati’s black community, the blues, and its performance on the piano but also the growth of the blues as an international musical phenomenon that transcends the local saloons and brothels that nurtured it.
Moving into the modern era, the final section of Going to Cincinnati examines two of the city’s best-known contemporary musicians and gives us an overview of Cincinnati blues in the postwar era. It begins, however, with a lengthy look at the most well known and influential record label the city ever produced, King Records. Primarily recognized for its early and legendary recordings by James Brown, Syd Nathan’s King Records operation released music as diverse as the country and western honky-tonk pianist and singer Moon Mullican, the ground-breaking soul/rhythm-and-blues pioneer Little Willie John, and the blues guitar legend Freddie King. Although certainly not located in one of America’s recording centers, King Records became one of the leading independent labels between the late 1940s and the 1960s by conducting some of its own sessions and by purchasing recordings from other producers. Unfortunately, and unlike other “indies” (such as Chicago’s Chess Records and Houston’s Peacock label), King had little interest in its own city’s indigenous music. As a result, this forty-page chapter seems to be somewhat out of place in a book subtitled “A History of the Blues in the Queen City”: the club musicians on whom the book focuses have little to do with the national perspective of King Records.
H-Bomb Ferguson and Albert Washington are two of Cincinnati’s premier blues artists today, and Tracy has done well in choosing them to exemplify the city’s blues scene. H-Bomb Ferguson is a master showman with a fondness for outlandish costumes and wigs whom Tracy quite tightly compares with an earlier master of “showman blues,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The stories of Ferguson’s days touring with a young B. B. King are alone worth the price of the book. Albert Washington is a more traditional blues performer, eschewing Ferguson’s stage show for a “stand there and play” approach that focuses attention on his guitar, his songs, and his wonderful ability to sing them.
Going to Cincinnati concludes with a seventeen-page collection of vignettes portraying the lesser-known figures in Cincinnati blues during the postwar era. From Big Ed Thompson to Robert Singleton, Cincinnati has been a town of working-class musicians whose music was more closely tied to its roots than to the national pop charts. Focusing as it does on today’s journeyman Cincinnati artists, this closing chapter is a fitting end for a book that begins with Stovepipe No. 1.
Steven C. Tracy’s scrupulously researched and well-documented volume will stand long as an example of the type of study that needs to be done in the many cities whose blues communities never achieved national prominence but that nonetheless were important in the daily lives of their people and culture. Well written, it provides captivating reading for devoted fans and students of the blues, and it will also be of value to people from a broad range of interests in African American history, culture, society, and music.
Peter R. Aschoff University of Mississippi
COPYRIGHT 1995 University of Illinois Press
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group