The Songs of Blind Folk: African American Musicians and the Cultures of Blindness

July 8, 2010

From the title on - with its echo of W.E.B. Du Bois' founding text of African-American consciousness, The Souls of Black Folk - this book explores the relation between race, disability and popular music. While B.B. King famously declared that "to be a blues singer is like having to be black twice", Terry Rowden extends that to three times othered: black, blues, blind. It forms part of an exciting recent development within the emerging discipline of cultural disability studies as popular music research has begun to critically discuss the impaired or damaged pop body and voice, finding their presence to be surprisingly widespread in a cultural practice more readily associated with the youthful and sexual pleasures of the ideal body.

This is a very useful and highly readable contribution to cultural disability studies, of real value also to popular music and American cultural history scholars, covering popular piano and ragtime, blues and gospel, jazz and soul since the 19th century. Contemporary hip hop does not figure because visual impairment is a decreasingly common disability today - a medical situation that, as Rowden notes with little further comment, explains why newer members of the long-established gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama have not been blind.

Rowden argues that few blind musicians have explicitly referenced their experience of disability, preferring to "deflect attention away", or to "lyrically pass" (singing words that suggest the capacity to see, as in Blind Blake's Early Morning Blues: "When you see me sleepin' baby don't you think I'm drunk/I got one eye on my pistol and the other on your trunk"). This seems a remarkable absence in a form such as the blues, which is predicated on an autobiographical lyric of suffering. One or two explicit songs (such as Blind Gary Davis' There Was A Time That I Went Blind) are identified and discussed but, curiously, Rowden overlooks key musical moments when some of the musicians he focuses on have actually sang of their lives.

I rarely think this of academic books, but The Songs of Blind Folk is too short. It needs another 50 pages. Readers would surely benefit from Rowden's informed treatment of Sleepy John Estes' 1948 recording Stone Blind Blues, in which he sings: "Now, when you lose your eyesight, your best friend gone." Or of jazz multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk's 1968 album The Inflated Tear, whose title track tells the story of Kirk being blinded as a result of a hospital error when a small child.

One of the book's strengths lies in its interweaving of musical, social and medical history, as when the cultural choices and social mobility options of blues street singers in the South in the 1930s are discussed in the context of white doctors' medical reports on their conditions. Another is in the intriguing comparisons the book offers: it opens with Blind Tom, a multiply-disabled 19th-century child-prodigy pianist billed as "the Wonder of the World", and closes with Steveland Morris, the 20th-century child-prodigy keyboardist better known as Stevie Wonder.

Of course, as Rowden shows, the experience of each as a blind black man making music was as profoundly different as we would expect from their societies' respective attitudes towards race and disability. But he also shows how over the years the entertainment business has accommodated and marketed its African-American disabled stars via not so very different strategies.

The Songs of Blind Folk: African American Musicians and the Cultures of Blindness

By Terry Rowden
University of Michigan Press, 184pp, £57.95 and £20.50
ISBN 9780472070640 and 50642
Published 15 December 2009

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