Blues at the Greek Church

 

Michael Quinn’s visit to the Berkeley Circle on April 27th was full of surprises. He reminded us that newcomers to the Salento not only hail from across the Mediterranean but also from the prosperous West. His own itinerary that saw him recently settle among us is a curious and pleasantly romantic tale. Michael chose the Salento because an American named Alan Lomax had spent five days here over Ferragosto in 1954. 

 

The story begins in Austin, Texas, Michael’s hometown and his alma mater the University of Texas there. John A. Lomax and his son Alan, both associated with the university, became especially known as pioneers in the study of folklore. Alan, still in his teens, did field work with his father for the Library of Congress. They used the primitive equipment available in the 1930s to record, among much else, the authentic remnants of the traditional Blues in the American south. Alan’s career as a folklorist would go on from there until he became the most influential figure North American had ever known in the field of popular, non-commercial music.

 

In mid-career, however, Alan, felt the fury of the anti-Communist campaign waged by Senator Joseph McCarthy. New Deal Democrats like himself were being dubbed “Reds” and refused work and passports. To ride out the storm he departed for London in 1951. He would be based there until he came home in 1959. Working for the B.B.C. he not only set in motion a folklore movement in the British Isles but did field work in Spain and Italy. From 1953 he worked with Diego Carpitella on a survey of Italian folk music. This brought Alan to the Salento where traveling in Volkswagen van he amassed a priceless series of photos and recordings.

 

In the meantime, Michael was growing up in Austin. In his teens he experienced a Texas road-to-Damascus moment when he discovered the Blues. It was a revelation that would determine the direction of his life. His immersion in musical history inevitably led to the work of his fellow Austinite, Alan Lomax, and in all good time to those treasures unearthed in the torrid summer 1954. All of which brings us to the Greek Church, Lecce, 2018, where Michael with the zest of a true believer demonstrated his passion for the Blues.

 

He did so with a care not to overwhelm us with his lifetime of knowledge. We were shown what various Bluesmen themselves considered the Blues to be. In a neat segment we learnt just how a musical note becomes a blues-note. Then, best of all, we watched some of the great grandaddies at work, among them the eerie falsetto, Skip James, the irrepressible Howling Wolf and a Muddy Waters supremely confident after his own romantic move from a Mississippi cotton field to bold and brazen Chicago. Michael pointed out in these performances how the call and response of the African-accented Negro spiritual--the precursor to gospel music--was fundamental to all that came afterward. We were left with much for our ears to process and an itch for more.

 

Peter Byrne

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