Musician and musicologist Scott Ainslie talks Robert Johnson
Blessed with an expressive baritone and nimble fingers, Brattleboro’s Scott Ainslie is a master of American acoustic blues. He is also among the country’s most highly regarded blues historians, a veritable walking encyclopedia of blues and jazz.
On Wednesday, March 21, Ainslie will give a lecture and performance at St. Michael’s College titled “One Hundred Years of Robert Johnson,” which examines the history and importance of the legendary blues pioneer. In advance of his appearance, Seven Days spoke with Ainslie by phone to chat about Johnson, the Caribbean roots of American jazz and the importance of coolness.
SEVEN DAYS: Part of your lecture touches on the Haitian connection to American jazz. Can you give us the Reader’s Digest version?
SCOTT AINSLIE: One of the interesting things about slavery in different cultures in this hemisphere is that while American whites were afraid of having their slaves educated, the French looked [favorably] on a slave’s talent. So if you were good with numbers, they were perfectly happy having you keep the books on the plantation. They were given inside jobs. So in Haiti there were music professors and teachers. There were black marching bands, musicians trained to play European instruments. But after the slave revolt in the early 19th century, and Haiti becomes a free black republic, we have black musicians who don’t have gigs anymore. So they migrate to the northernmost Caribbean port, which is, of course, New Orleans. So there is a collision of a repressed slave culture in the United States with less access to European instruments and skills who hold onto African music traditions, and a literate music culture from Haiti. And you wind up with jazz … this incredible music that is no longer French marching-band music, nor is it American blues. It’s a hybrid.
SD: What are some sonic elements in early jazz that a layperson could hear to connect those dots?
SA: This is where we don’t have much information. You can go back and hear marches that eventually turn into ragtime music a century later. But what we mostly have is circumstantial evidence, and I’m not sure a jury would convict on this. What we don’t have is musical DNA, the CSI guys. But the timing of it all makes sense.
The other idea that moves, the other thing we can track into the Caribbean and then in and out of New Orleans and diaspora of black jazz musicians, is an idea that is part and parcel of American culture: coolness.
SD: The birth of the cool?
SA: Sort of. In the Yorba tribe in Niger River valley, there is this notion of how one develops a spiritual side and an artistic side. There is no dividing line between spirit and aesthetics, or spirit and anything, actually. There are three things required of a young person as they grow up. The first is to be inspired. The second thing, after you have the spirit coming into you, is to have the discipline to bring that vision to the rest of us. And not just, like, a hashish pipe dream in the middle of some Saturday night you don’t remember. You really need to have the force of will to do it.
SD: And the third?
SA: So when we see someone who has had a vision and can bring that vision to us in a disciplined way, we see that every aspect of their being begins to take on a sort of nobility. And everything they do we recognize as being different, not just the normal thing. And the Yorba word for that is itutu, which translates into “coolness.”
SD: So the lasting imprint of Haiti on American jazz is coolness?
SA: In a way. You can see it right now in the faces of black kids in Harlem. Watch hip-hop videos. You see this calm, if not dead-faced, kind of look. It’s an unflappability that’s built in. So what’s interesting is that you can track that idea of coolness right into Haiti and Cuba and Jamaica. But in America, it first turns up in the mouths of jazz musicians.
SD: Speaking of coolness, Robert Johnson. Most people have a basic understanding of who he was and that he was important to the history of the blues. But what, specifically, makes him stand out from other musicians of that era?
SA: There are three things that contributed to Johnson’s fame in later days — he died essentially an unknown blues musician. He had the misfortune personally, but the good fortune professionally, to die under mysterious circumstances when he was young. So the first thing is that we have these remarkable recordings, but they’re from someone we can’t check out. And for a long time nobody knows anything about him. So the mystery serves the romantic music critics.
SD: We do love that stuff.
SA: Exactly. There are two other things that separate Johnson’s work. One, he was a real chameleon. When he was very young he would not have heard a blues record, because they didn’t exist. So all of his early musical experiences would have been live, in the presence of these lions of Delta blues: Charlie Patton, Son House, Skip James. But around the time he was 16, he would start to hear some blues recordings, as well as Jimmy Rogers and country music, which people tend to forget about when they think about blues. But most of those blues guys loved Jimmy Rogers and played that stuff. But record companies only wanted to record people with dark skin playing for people with dark skin. Anyway, Johnson had one foot in oral tradition, another in recordings. And he transcends those two worlds. What that means is that when you hear a collection of Johnson’s music, you hear a variety that other players didn’t have. You listen to his records, and it’s like a gateway drug for rock and rollers. You get a taste of all these different styles, and it’s very fetching.
SD: And the second thing?
SA: By the time he settles down to record when he’s 25, he knows how long a 78 is. And he’s not [been] caught a third of the way through a 12-minute performance at a juke joint and having somebody go, “Stop now. We’re running out of wax.” He knows how long those things are and he went into the studio to make records. So his work is lyrically tighter and there is generally an arc to the narrative of the song. He knows the form and format, and he’s making very canny use of it.
He had also figured out what had become conventions in solo acoustic blues. He figured out how to keep a shuffling bass part going, and go up the neck and play the fancy stuff. He knew how to do things with guitar that nobody else was doing at the time, which came to him from blues piano recordings. He moved some of those sounds from the piano onto the guitar. He formalized some of the structures that have become clichés now in acoustic blues. But he was the first guy to get to it. All those things combine, the early death, the romance of this genius coming straight off the plantation… But what he was, was a very canny, ambitious 25-year-old, singing as high as he possibly could.
Scott Ainslie gives his lecture and performance, “One Hundred Years of Robert Johnson,” at the McCarthy Arts Center, St. Michael’s College, in Colchester, on Wednesday, March 21, at 7 p.m. Free. Info, 654-2536.