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British Encounters with Blues and Jazz in Transatlantic Circulation, c.1929-1960

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

While existing scholarly and popular histories locate British blues interest in the cultural, social, and political shifts of the 1960s, this thesis investigates an earlier period of blues appreciation and performance that straddles the Second World War, from c.1929 to 1960. In contrast to existing scholarship that understands the blues as a standalone genre, I argue that British blues engagement during this period is inextricable from contemporaneous jazz interest. Most importantly, my research challenges assumptions around the blues and jazz’s international reception: I argue that these musics were defined by their transatlantic circulation as much as their origins, and evoked ideals of mobility and interracial affinity as well notions of African American social and cultural specificity.
My thesis examines four key ‘moments’ within the period c.1929-1960; each engages critically with issues of encounter, reception, and performance. In chapter 1, I trace the dissemination and reception of blues and jazz on British record labels during the 1930s. Emerging ‘hot’ criticism and labels’ promotional strategies increasingly emphasised African Americans’ creative proficiency, but also established a complex relationship with earlier primitivist tropes and Eurocentric ideals of ‘art music’. I consider how enthusiasts’ participation in locally organised ‘Rhythm Clubs’ challenge existing interpretations of recording-based encounters with African American music, with particular reference to the concept of mediation as well as notions of geographical and cultural ‘distance’.
In chapter 2, I explore the career of Britain’s first ‘New Orleans style’ jazz band, George Webb’s Dixielanders. I trace the emergence of the New Orleans
‘revival’ movement in Britain through the circulation of American texts and sounds, highlighting key discrepancies in revivalism’s transatlantic spread. I argue for a revised understanding of British jazz revivalism, one that accounts for its development as a response to the impact of the Second World War on British jazz culture.
In chapter 3, I compare the British reception of Josh White and Big Bill Broonzy, two of the first African American blues musicians to visit Britain. Eschewing the assumption that attitudes to White and Broonzy were formed solely during their debut tours, I show how these musicians’ reception hinged on earlier and more complex understandings of ‘folk blues’ formed at the intersection of American folklore scholarship, ‘hot’ jazz collecting, wartime propaganda, and postwar cultural diplomacy. I trace how White and Broonzy were each required to navigate this complex terrain in their British performances.
In chapter 4, I examine the relationship between the British Chris Barber Jazz Band and the African American blues musician Muddy Waters during these performers’ transatlantic tours. While existing scholarship has concentrated on the British reception of Waters’s distinctive style of urban blues, I position these musicians’ encounters within an emerging system of transatlantic exchange. I suggest that this ‘economy of exchange’ indicates a shift in understandings of musical authenticity, complicating revivalist ideals of black music as a culture under threat and suggesting new modes of encounter based on ideals of reciprocity and collaboration.
Ultimately, my research calls for greater attention to the importance of international circulation in understandings of blues and jazz’s meaning and value, as well as the complexity of reactions to these musics outside of their contexts of origin.
Original languageEnglish
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Award date2018

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