Take Five: Author gives St. Louis blues music its due
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 18, 2009 - It's a chilly, rainy Tuesday evening at Left Bank Books in the Central West End, and Kevin Belford, author of "Devil at the Confluence: The Pre-War Blues Music of St. Louis, Missouri," prepares for his first book signing. He hangs near the card table topped with crackers, cheese, grapes and a boxed container of wine, greeting friends who have shown up for the event.
Two members of the St. Louis band, Brown Bottle Fever, work through some acoustic blues tunes, and it seems clear that Belford would rather that the band just keep playing, sparing him from speaking to the audience about the book he's spent almost 15 years shaping. But the band eventually takes a break, and Belford stands at a lectern at the front of the room to explain a little about why he decided to write the book - as well as what he hopes this look at early St. Louis blues music will accomplish.
It goes well. The audience has good questions, and soon the band is playing again while Belford signs his book. After the signing, we head to nearby Llywelyn's Pub to chat about the book.
Q: You've made your reputation as an illustrator and done work for the Riverfront Times, the Post-Dispatch, the Sporting News as well as book illustration and corporate work. What made you decide to write a book about pre-World War II blues in St. Louis?
BELFORD: Actually, I've been a big music fan ever since I can remember ... and really learned to love blues. I originally started working on what I thought would be a portrait series of St. Louis blues artists 15 years ago. But I soon discovered there just wasn't a lot of information about these artists once you got past the familiar names. The log of recordings by 1920s blues artists from the area was lost in a fire. So I started doing research, and the project turned from a portrait series to a book attempting to document St. Louis blues artists - with a focus on the era before World War II.
Q: You've managed to come up with info about quite a few blues artists from here that would likely surprise even so-called experts. How did you do your research?
BELFORD: I started compiling a list of names through interviewing blues artists from the area who were still alive and using previous research as well. I came up with a list of over 200 names, then started researching newspaper archives, telephone directories, the census files from that time, police records - whatever I could use to try and track down information. It was very time-consuming.
Q: One of the major theses you propose in the book is that St. Louis is frequently overlooked for its contributions to the blues. You attribute that to the long-accepted theory that blues had a single point of origin in the South - and that a northern migration of blues musicians expanded the music up the Mississippi and to Chicago. Going against that viewpoint is sure to raise some controversy.
BELFORD: I didn't start out to be controversial. But my research showed that blues music was happening in St. Louis long before the African-American migration to the north. And I found that many blues-related music styles from entertainment areas such as vaudeville, quartet singing and even marching bands were being ignored by blues historians, who were focused on what they called "pure" blues - acoustic music that came out of the Mississippi Delta. St. Louis blues music was too diverse and complex to be pigeonholed. So, I think they left St. Louis out of their histories, because the music from here didn't fit their mythology of the blues.
Q: Can you point out any specific examples?
BELFORD: One major example is Lonnie Johnson. He was the undoubtedly one of the most popular blues artists as far as recording sales in the pre-war era. But there are blues historians who dismiss him completely - claiming he didn't play blues at all, because it didn't fit their narrow definition of the blues. Robert Johnson did fit their definition of a blues artist. But it's clear from a look at Robert Johnson's career and the development of his music and guitar style that his goal was to be the next Lonnie Johnson.
Q: What do you hope this book will accomplish?
BELFORD: I hope it does make people understand that St. Louis artists were leaders in the development of the music - and that St. Louis was a major confluence for the music ... not a backwater. And I hope my book will be a foundation for further efforts to explore St. Louis' contribution to blues, and to music that derived from blues as well.
Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who has long covered the music scene in St. Louis.