Interviews – Paul Oliver

Paul Oliver – world authority on the blues

Paul Oliver is one of the world’s leading authorities and writer on the history of the blues. From an early age he collected blues records and books on the blues, publishing his first article in 1951. Since that time he has published thirteen books on the history of the blues and blues music including The Story of the Blues, Blues Fell This Morning, Conversation with the Blues, and Blues Off The Record.  His work also includes interviews, field work and research in recording and printed sources tracing the origin and development of African American music and culture from the time of slavery through to the Twentieth Century. This work, known as “The Paul Oliver Collection of African American Music and Related Traditions” is held on a custodial basis at The University of Gloucestershire, England, by agreement with the European Blues Association and Paul Oliver. It represents an enormously valuable resource in teaching and research and is of international significance.

The ‘blues musketeers’, Max and Rex Haymes, Dai Thomas, Robin Andrews and myself, Alan White, are working on a long term project entitled ‘Slave To The Blues’ – tracing secular roots of the blues back to slavery days; from 17th century onwards. In planning our research we contacted Paul Oliver, who invited us to his home for a weekend to discuss our work. During the discussions I also had the honour of interviewing Paul about his work and his thoughts on the blues.



Alan:      What are your first musical memories?

Paul:       It’s very difficult to identify your first musical memories because they are a little bit cloudy but I think the first time that music really played a part, and I played a part in it, was at Scout Camps, particularly the camp fires when I led the singing.  My earliest clear recollections of particular song types really dates from then.  But that’s a long while ago, back in the 1940s.

Alan:      What first attracted you to the Blues?

Paul:       It was particularly a friend of mine, who was actually killed in the war so I only knew him briefly, but we were at a Harvest Camp.  These were camps that used to be put on for harvesting so the Scouts and young people could be employed because others were away in the services.  I used to organise those camps, particularly logging camps as I was quite a good forester for some reason.  On this particular occasion we were at a Harvest Camp, which I wasn’t particularly interested in but at least one got to know interesting people, and then this chap, Stan Higham, came up to me and said, “There’s something I want you to hear”.  He took me down to a kind of hedge between the two farms and there was this extraordinary crying and yelling, I couldn’t call it singing but it was quite spine-chilling.  He said, “Do you know what this is?”.  I said, “No, I’ve no idea” and he said “You’re listening to blues”.  He wasn’t quite right really because we were actually listening to field hollers but nevertheless I thought it quite extraordinary.  It was in Stoke- by-Clare in Suffolk and a lot of the American army sites were in Suffolk.  He took me to a pub the following day, and there was a boogie pianist there, which was equally extraordinary.

I went back to Stoke-by-Clare a few years ago to see how much it had changed and it still has a great kind of crescent around the green and the pub is still there (but no blues!).

Alan:      Could you tell me a little about your first article and how it came about.

Paul:       The first one wasn’t really blues, it was for Jazz Journal and what I wrote about was gospel songs.  I got interested in gospel quite early on, particularly because one or two blues singers had introduced me to it, because they were singing their religious songs as well and I’d not really heard of it.  I got interested in it, got interested with one or two preachers, did some research and wrote the article. But one of the key points I was making was that while focusing on writing about jazz and so forth to ensure it’s permanence,  we may be ignoring another folk music altogether.

Alan:      How did you become involved in producing graphics and writing notes for record sleeves?

Paul:       It wasn’t difficult because I trained as an art student originally, first as a painter and then I took up sculpture.  The problem with sculpture was that I was very asthmatic and very allergic to just about everything I used, including stone dust, some paint and turpentine.  I therefore moved from painting and sculpture to graphic design.  I was irritated by the designs of the sleeves on some of the first LPs I had so I just got in touch with Decca and, rather surprisingly, I managed to get through to Peter Gammond who wrote on popular music, jazz and so forth. He was in charge of the commissioning of the sleeve designs and was glad to have somebody who was interested in the music.  An American artist had designed the cover for the first LP of Robert Johnson, a very fine drawing but to me it didn’t seem focused on an LP, it was like a little art work in itself. Decca wanted me to attract people to buy by using different techniques, sometimes more figurative and sometimes more abstract, so they weren’t just seeing the same image.  That suited me fine and I greatly enjoyed doing that, even though not everybody liked it.  The first one was the album Backwoods Blues, featuring Bobby Grant, Buddy Boy Hawkins, King Solomon Hill, Buddy Boy Hawkins, and Big Bill “Johnson” on the London Label (AL 3535 -Pub. 1954). One of the snags was the designer was not credited, and it was important to me to be credited so I smuggled in my initials. So you see you’ve got the initials PHO in the design on the 1957 First National Skiffle Contest album.  I had another one of New Orleans music and I’d chosen the Wharf instead of obvious New Orleans sites so I had sacks on the wharf and one of them had PHO on it. When they asked me about it, I said “It’s phosphate.”

Rex:       Why wouldn’t they credit you?

Paul:       I’ve no idea.  Peter Gammond’s boss was a difficult man and I suppose he just wanted the title on the sleeve with no interest in anything else.

Alan:      Your first book was in 1959 on Bessie Smith I believe. What inspired you to start with Bessie?

Paul:       I wasn’t!  What happened was that Desmond Flower was the Director of Cassell and Company, based in London and he was starting a series called “Kings of Jazz” and he asked me to do a book on Bessie Smith.   Somebody had recommended me to him but I was in the process of working on Blues Fell This Morning and it was good that he was very pleased with the Bessie book. So when I told him about Blues Fell This Morning he asked to see it and then published it.

Alan:      Of all the blues publications, which has given you the most pleasure?

Paul:       That’s a very difficult question because I get some pleasure out of all.   Perhaps Blues Fell This Morning, in the sense of having it published, but it was over a long period of time so in one sense it was just relief.  Perhaps Conversation with the Blues but mainly that’s because of the echoes of the field workers.

Alan:      The wonderful Studio Vista series on Blues Paperbacks was published in 1970, which are very scarce now.  Of course Yonder Come The Blues has republished three of them but are there any plans to republish the others?

Paul:       I had hoped that Yonder Come The Blues would sell well enough to use as a lever to do that but, well, sales are never high on this kind of thing.  I’d forgotten about it actually, I should try again.

Alan:      Difficult question, but who are your favourite blues artists?

Paul:       Well, I don’t know any blues singers who are “artists”.  It’s often just whoever happens to be playing or singing at the time, although certain people who are particularly gifted at improvising lyrics and I’ve heard them do so. So possibly, Sleepy John Estes and Lightning Hopkins, I think, are the best improvisers.  The singer whose quality of voice and guitar I particularly enjoy is Bo Carter, although his sexy lyrics get a bit boring after a while.  And I like the Mississippi Sheiks, but I don’t find it easy to answer.

Alan:      It is difficult and, perhaps equally difficult, do you have any favourite blues albums that stand out?

Paul:       I suppose it depends what an album is.  Backwoods Blues is a favourite in the sense that it was a big starting off for me because I had the opportunity of designing for it so its my favourite in terms of personal association with it, rather than those I put together.  But it’s difficult to answer with 3000 12″ LPs and 100 10”.

Alan:      Are there any particular songs that have special meaning to you?

Paul:       When you say “song” do you mean “song” as distinct to “blues”?

Alan:      Well, any blues.

Paul:       Oh, blues.   I tend to think of “song” more in the ballad form in 16 bar against the 12 bar.  Certain of them have a heroic figure like John Henry which also has an underlying moral position.  I find most of the songs interesting but I don’t think I’d pick out any one of them.

Alan:      You have a collection related to African-American music and related traditions now held at the University of Gloucestershire in conjunction with the European Blues Association.  Could you tell me a little about the collection?

Paul:       It’s not held by them, most of the material is still here.  Originally I was appointing some trustees for my collection, for my will.  Michael Roach is one of them and we began talking about it and he set up the Association which seemed like a good idea.  But then we considered that the Trustees should make the decision on where certain things go, so some things don’t go automatically to the University of Gloucestershire.  The reason for Gloucestershire was that it has American Studies and Neil Wynn is quite interested in blues and he is the Head of the History Department.   Curiously, he’s particularly interested in the area that Max Haymes is interested in, slavery and post-slavery and the antecedents of blues so I’ll put you in touch with each other.

The question arose as to how I would balance the collection [between the University and the EBA] by dividing mine so that each has early material and late material.  I decided that it would be better if the Association had more things that could be a starting off point for people if they call in and see the pictorial history, that sort of thing, and the more academic studies should go to Gloucester.  But obviously you’ve got to get enough intelligent material available for the visitor and some visuals for Gloucester.  It’s turning out to be a much slower process and it’s surprisingly hard to part with anything!

Alan:      You’re also an eminent Professor of Architecture and a distinguished author in that field.  How on earth did you find time to do the incredible pioneering field research into the African-American music related traditions as well?  It seems like two lifetimes to me.

Paul:       What I’ve tried to do is combine the two where possible.  So I’ve done rather more field work in Africa, for example, than in India.  I’ve done work in every continent, just more in some continents than others. I’m in Chicago next week and I’ll see Paul Garon while I’m there and we’ll go to a few clubs to see what’s happening these days.  I’m mainly on my way to New Zealand but there’s not so much happening there.  Although there is a Blues Society in New Zealand, which has been going for many years.

Alan:      I get emails from New Zealand about the website, and from Australia too.

Paul:       Bob Dixon [Professor of Linguistics and co-author with John Godrich of the definitive discography of Blues and Gospel Records: 1890-1943] lives in Australia and his wife, Shelley, is Russian and she has the most extraordinary linguistic skills. She must be one of the leading people in the world.  There is barely a European language she can’t speak or respond to but her main work has been with the Berber and Bob Dixon’s main work has been with the Australian Aboriginals.  He did work with the Dyirbal tribe on their language called Dyirbal and one of the interesting things was whilst he was talking with them certain words and structures were quite unfamiliar to him, even though he’d been learning to speak Dyirbal. He couldn’t understand this and thought they were talking two languages but it turned out that Dyirbal has a “mother-in-law language” which is apparently a language that you used to speak to your mother-in-law.  Of course, everybody has to learn it but there is only one person they can use it with; most extraordinary.

Alan:      In all your field work, how did you get sponsorship?

Paul:       I didn’t get very much but I got it initially for my first field trip. I’d been working with the American Embassy for a long time; they had a very good library and I was often the only person in it, sometimes the only person they’d see in a week.  American Embassy was so open and such a nice place in those days but what came later were threats of bombing and they had to change their policy. But at that time the US Information Service were very helpful and supportive of me so they eventually said, “Well, you still haven’t been to the US, why don’t you go?  There is a grant for leaders and specialists and if you care to make an application for the grant, we’ll be ready to support it”.  So I did, and Richard Wright and a friend of his who was known as the Black Ambassador from the United States supported me and I got the grant.  It wasn’t huge but I think it was the travel and $1,000 which was a lot in those days.  I didn’t get any future grants of a similar kind but I got grants periodically from the university for field work.  Sometimes my architectural  work took me to places which allowed me to spend time in the field too.

Alan:      Are there any memories of your field work which you’d like to share with us?

Paul:       I have written in my books about the things that make a story but what is not so easy to convey is how you respond in situations.  What stays in the mind over a long period can really be quite trivial; things that certain people wear, or when it hasn’t worked out as well as I’d have liked.  I went to Baton Rouge on my way to New Orleans, for example, but I found it was very self-conscious and it felt like everybody was sitting there just waiting for somebody to come and ask them questions.  Baton Rouge, by the way, was of course named for the ‘red post’ where Indians used to mark out their territory.

Alan:      Looking back over many years of achievements, is there anything you wish you’d done that you hadn’t.

Paul:       One thing I’d like to do is finish this autobiography which a lot of people have been pressing me a long time to do.  I’d also like to make sense of a few things which are quite difficult to do – even the kind of question you are asking me in a way.  I started a book several years ago and it’s still nowhere near completion.  It’s what I called The Blues the World Forgot which is on aspects which had either been under-examined or had been at one time but ignored since.  It’s been snoozing for too long, really.

Alan:      We always refer to the “Bible of the Blues” being the Blues and Gospel Records: 1890-1943 by Robert Dixon, John Godrich and Howard Rye which I understand was dedicated to you and is now in its 4th edition published in 1997.  Do you know if there’s going to be another edition coming out?

Paul:       No, I don’t know at all but I would have thought there might have been. Howard Rye is probably the person to ask.  He joined it rather late and of course John Godrich died and I haven’t heard from Bob Dixon since he retired and moved to Cairns, Northern Australia.

Alan:      Blues is the background to so much modern music.  Why do you think that is?

Paul:       I don’t know if there is an answer to that.  It depends what you mean by “background” or whether it is really placed against that background or whether it’s part of the elements that cause it’s development.   Rock ‘n Roll or Rhythm and Blues and so forth were indications of certain kinds of emphases with probably rather less of the content and more of the patterns which people can drum to, or whatever.

Alan:      How do you see the future of blues music?

Paul:       I have been surprised that there is as much; for example, I get one or two of the magazines from Europe, ASB is a very good French journal and Block is Belgian, and I have been surprised that there are so many old blues singers who are still working.  They are far more responsible in the way in which they are approaching the research they are doing.  They are very lively and optimistic magazines and show how much is happening elsewhere.

Alan:      Final question Paul, what’s next in the pipeline?

Paul:       As you know I’ve only just published Barrelhouse Blues and I’m looking forward to seeing the reviews because sometimes that can get your mind working.  I’d also like to finish Blues the World Forgot.  More imminently, we can have a cup of tea, if you like?

Alan:      Paul, thank you for your time. A cup of tea sounds a good idea.

Alan White  –


From left to right: Alan White, Rex Haymes, Paul Oliver, Max Haymes, Robin Andrews

“Barrelhouse Blues”, Paul Oliver’s latest publication, available from all good booksellers

See the recommended booklist for more of Paul’s publications

Interview © Copyright 2009 Alan White & Paul Oliver. All Rights Reserved.