Saturday, September 3, 2011

Can White Guys Teach The Blues?

I'm always leery when fresh-cut, middle-class white guys try to inform me about the blues, and Preston Lauterbach's The Chitlin' Circuit is a good example of why that is. Within the first 30 pages I found myself cringing so often that I had to stop and decide if I was going to continue reading. Which is a shame because this book actually has some very good things going for it. First and foremost is the subject matter. Documenting the Chitlin' Circuit that was such a huge part of early 20th century American culture is a fascinating idea and has a wealth of untapped possibilities. Also, Lautherbach has certainly done some detailed research here, done some revealing legwork and obviously he has great enthusiasm for the subject, which is important. After all if the writer isn't excited about what he is writing about, then why should the reader be?

So I really wanted to enjoy this book, but early on, too many throwaway/irrelevent sentences like these kept distracting me:

"As former [Denver] Ferguson employee Jimmy Coe recalled, Denver would rather make a hundred dollars crooked than a thousand dollars straight.' Very well, Mr. Coe, but in Indianapolis, crooked was straight."
"A visual would be lovely, but while memories of Denver's baseball ticket game are legion, most players waddled their tickets in disgust and tossed them in the gutter."
"They [Denver Ferguson and his brother] gave generously to charitable causes, functioning as a de facto community foundation. Today we might look cynically upon a reputed gambler who puts uniforms on little leaguers, or chalk in schoolteachers hands..."

There are too many examples like these where Lauterbach inserts distractive and irrelevent opinions ("Today we might look cynically..." and "A visual would be lovely"... lovely??) or when he constantly tries to posture himself as more of an authority than the people who actually experienced the scenes and times he is describing ("Very well, Mr. Coe, but...").  These idiotic statements made it overwhelmingly difficult  to actually enjoy the narrative - which is a shame because it is a narrative that I am very interested in hearing.

Not to make excuses for Lauterbach, but to offer hope, I should point out that The Chitlin' Circuit is his first book and that the editors/proof readers that Lauterbach relied on really should have caught these brutally obvious failures in his narrative. In fact, cut these distractions out and there IS a good book hiding within.

For these reason and more, I give The Chitlin' Circuit Three out of Five Wagemanheads.

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  1. You're right - it's a book, not a blog. Save that fluff for smores at camp night.

    What IS the Chitlin' Circuit, if I may?

  2. It was a loose collection of bars, clubs, etc where mostly black musicians and performers could get gigs--mainly in the south. It was active from about 1915 to 1960. The Chicago newspaper The Defender listed alot of these gigs. An really good book could be written on the subject matter, but I wouldn't recommend this one.