Shop now Shop now Shop now Wedding Guest Edit Shop All Amazon Fashion Cloud Drive Photos Learn More Shop now Shop now Shop Fire Shop Kindle Oasis Learn more Shop now Learn more
Profile for therealus > Reviews

Personal Profile

Content by therealus
Top Reviewer Ranking: 658
Helpful Votes: 2318

Learn more about Your Profile.

Reviews Written by
therealus "therealus" (Herts, UK)
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   

Show:  
Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-20
pixel
Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican Introduction)
Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican Introduction)
by Mike Savage
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £6.29

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Preaching to the choir?, 19 Jan. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
People of my generation were born into a world of presumed certainties and emerging opportunities. We knew that if we secured a certain kind of employment it would deliver a job for life, that if anything went wrong the welfare state would look after us, and that there were three classes – working, middle and upper – and that to a large extent the one you were born into would determine the path your life would follow. Mostly these certainties were, of course, illusory or misconceived. The jobs for life turned out to be nothing of the sort, and nowadays few if any people have that illusion. (Back in the early nineties I recognised that things were changing so fast that aspiring to a specific role as my next move was futile, as the role would likely soon be disappearing.) The welfare state is not now the unquestioning provider of succour in times of need that it used to be, and has been known on too many occasions to deny help not only to those who possibly don’t really need it but also, too often, to those who really do. But although the three-class landscape turns out to have been oversimplistic, it remains the case that the class you’re born into has a massive say in which class you’ll die in.

Mike Savage, in Social Class in the 21st Century, gives an account of this world, largely by means of interpreting the findings of the Great British Class Survey. Through this means the old tripartite class system, and the six-layer one I learnt in Sociology in the mid-seventies, is replaced by a seven-layered classification. Where you belong within this structure is determined by three types of capital: economic, social and cultural. Economic capital speaks for itself; social capital is in simple terms the kinds of people you know; cultural capital encapsulates your interests and pastimes. The three are to some extent interdependent, but often those born without a threshold level of economic capital will find it hard to break into the social or cultural circles – those comprising professionals of various kinds or involving the arts, sporting activities, or intellectual pursuits such as going to museums - which will enable them to become acquainted with “the right people”.

In that respect, the world Savage describes doesn’t look much different from the one I was born into. Whilst it is true, as he says, that more people from all classes attend university nowadays, tuition fees and student loans or not, more of those degrees are now vocationally oriented, and have become an expectation, not a luxury. Where once technical colleges and colleges of further education fulfilled this requirement, nowadays they are renamed as universities and award degrees instead of certificates or diplomas. The driver is economic – workers need more knowledge now – rather than egalitarian.

Savage pays particular attention to the two classes at the opposite ends of the scale, the elite and the precariat. As a lifetime class warrior with a well-honed sense of irony and working class credentials, it amused me when I completed the BBC website’s questionnaire associated with the GBCS and found myself in the elite class. But then I doubt I’m the only person who every now and then reflects on the fact of being able to afford to do things his or her parents would net even have conceived of. Nor that the same applies to many of the people with whom they grew up with. Luck is, in one prescription, opportunity taken, but sometimes it is also a matter of having taken, in Yogi Berra’s dictum, that “fork in the road”. In retrospect it is possible to see the right moves taken, but also possible to see how things could have turned out so differently had you taken the wrong “fork”.

The chapter dealing with the precariat is perhaps the saddest and most telling. For many people, only too aware of their predicament and with an admirable line in self-deprecation and graveyard-type humour, the poverty trap is all too real, and it comes barbed with stigmatisation and demonisation, aided and abetted by what Savage labels as “poverty porn”, the likes of Benefits Street which unfairly label those on welfare as workshy, using as exemplars the worst of the worst of the worst. Many in the precariat in fact spend much of their time both working and looking for more work, as the jobs they are in seldom pay enough for them to get by. In more enlightened countries it has been found that welfare payments, far from promoting a nation of skivers, gives people the chance to target and educate themselves for their next job. In the UK it is clear that the relentless pressure of the third-party companies to which getting people back into work as soon as possible has been outsourced leads to excessive opportunity costs: instead of finding the right job, people are coerced into the first job that comes along, irrespective of how inappropriate. (Part of my social circle, as a member of the ironic elite, extends to people who have found themselves in this predicament, as well as people who have benefitted from the more enlightened approach I described.)

Unfortunately, the pessimist in me suggests that the audience for this book is the choir – those who are already angry with the way things are going, the people who read Thomas Piketty (guilty), Anthony Atkinson (the same) and François Bourguignon (and again) and nod their heads sadly as they read. This book is extra ammunition, but the real targets have a carapace apparently immune to the evidence.


Paul's Mall, Boston, September 1972
Paul's Mall, Boston, September 1972
Price: £11.29

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I get away with another one, 19 Jan. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
La Rubia, my long-suffering significant other, casts a weary eye over the playlist of this latest Miles Davis live recording to clunk through the postbox. She’s seen these names somewhere before, she knows, though not as often as she’s seen stuff like Directions.

1972 live recordings of Miles are rare – this is only my second. The other is a Columbia double CD, Live at the Philharmonic, which plays for about an hour and a half. The Paul’s Mall recording is just over fifty minutes, but an awful lot happens in that time. While the underlying groove of the various tunes are recognisable, and therefore enable identification, what’s happening over the top is, as so often, completely different from what you’ve heard before, no matter how much Miles you have. The concert is a live musical experiment; Paul’s Mall the sorcerer’s laboratory where the ingredients are stirred, mashed and refined. There are some intriguing trills, bumps and snorts mixed in to once again create a new experience.

In the spoken Introduction, the radio announcer sets the scene and lists the performers. As he does so he recounts a conversation in which Miles claimed he did not know who was in the band; the announcer admits he only knows himself because he reads Downbeat magazine. Miles was always in transition. This is a document of a particular stage in that transition which had no precedent and would never be repeated.

La Rubia knows the score. The names are the same; the contents vary on a daily and even hourly basis. I get away with another one.


Casio Men's Watch XL Analogue-Digital Display and G-Shock Resin GA - 110TS - 1A4ER
Casio Men's Watch XL Analogue-Digital Display and G-Shock Resin GA - 110TS - 1A4ER
Price: £87.81

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Lost a tenner, found a fiver, 19 Jan. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The first G Shock watch I bought had its frustrations. The display was tiny and making any adjustments, especially when passing between time zones, was a major operation. But in its favour it never, in eight years, needed a new battery because it was charged just by motion, and once set on the right time it remained set, and generally it did what it was supposed to, that is, use a local transmission for time setting, which meant that, all except a couple of occasions, it needed no tinkering when the clocks went back or forward. I just woke up and it had changed. But it always knew what the time was supposed to be in any given location.

Unfortunately it was lost/stolen, but I knew I wanted a new G Shock to replace it, so I bought this one.

In its favour, it looks better than its predecessor, and the display is at least legible, so I’ve been able to use the Stop Watch without having to squint too hard trying to read it. Against it is the fact that it now has a battery which, according to the booklet, will need changing every couple of years. (I looked for information on power for a number of watches before purchasing but none was available that I could find.) It is also manually set, so as soon as I got it I was having to make changes. Worse, on a couple of occasions already – I’ve only had it a couple of weeks – it has changed itself spontaneously, on the first occasion to sometime in 2006, on the second we went back even further! (I left home last Friday, 15 January 2016 at 1600 London time and returned five hours later on a Monday in 2004 at 0210 Tokyo time. Marty McFly has nothing on me!)

Fortunately the instructions are a little better for this one than for the first, though that’s not saying much – I have resorted to translating them into everyday English myself and carrying photocopies of my own notes around with me just in case.

Nevertheless, I’m sticking with it. It still seems good value for money, with a lot of functionality, but I can’t help the feeling of losing a tenner and finding a fiver.


PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future
PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future
by Paul Mason
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars (Knowledge) workers of the world unite!, 7 Dec. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Quite fittingly, as I completed my reading of John Plender’s book Capitalism, the next one on the pile was Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism. Plender’s had concluded with the gloomy pronouncement that there was little likelihood that its eponymous economic system was in danger of being replaced in the near future. Mason begins with the premise that the conditions are already ripe for the opposite proposition, that something will come along that is better.

Where Plender tended to tread fairly familiar ground in his survey, Mason explores more unusual ground in drawing his conclusions, although the villains are much the same: the champions of neoliberalism and its principal beneficiaries, who continue to hold their Get Out Of Jail Free cards protecting them from the excesses leading to the 2007-8 crash. What it lacks in that respect, though, is Plender’s Panglossian apologies for a temporary hiccup. Capitalism, Mason believes, is terminally dysfunctional. And, he points out, even Classical economists, including Adam Smith, questioned the system’s sustainability.

One of the realms Mason explores is Marxist economic theory. There are, Mason concedes, some areas where Marx’s predictions failed, as in the notion that mechanisation would de-skill the proletariat. To the contrary, they became more skilled and more educated, and as they did so they developed a new culture accompanied by class consciousness, organisational prowess and solidarity, leading to the formation of powerful trades unions and political parties. During the twenties and thirties this produced a capitalist-backed backlash in the form of fascism, the principal aim of which was to mercilessly destroy the mass workers’ movements. Whilst that attempt largely failed, the progenitors of neoliberalism – most notably Thatcher and Reagan – succeeded in weakening the labour movement, exploiting the consequences of the recession brought on by the oil shock resulting from the 1979 Iranian revolution, to the extent that what differentiates the present wave of capitalist development from those of the past is the lack of a viable countervailing power able to compel government intervention.

But Marx was successful in reconstructing the labour theory of value, something that in my experience, regrettably, is not taught in economics courses (and I stress that that is only my own experience). Furthermore, in the work known as Grundrisse, a set of notebooks only published in the 1960s, a section known as the Fragment on Machines predicted the possibility of machines ultimately relieving people of the need to labour at all, a notion that in its day must have seemed like science fiction but which now, Mason maintains, is not only conceivable but also provides one of the material conditions for postcapitalism, potentially changing the relationship between worker and machine and rendering the knowledge incorporated in the machines as social.

“Knowledge”, and the increasingly free flow of information facilitated by the Internet are, indeed, the key to Mason’s new economic order. He deploys an impressive array of the learned to support his idea that “free stuff” can change the world including Peter Drucker, Paul Romer and Herbert Simon. Mason takes Simon’s 1991 model of the world with its component organisations, markets and hierarchies and adds to it peer-to-peer networks, mediated by the Internet and peer-to-peer free stuff greased with information as his own foundational model. He then advances a To-Do List for postcapitalism which addresses not only the flawed market fundamentalism which continues to run riot throughout the world economy but also some of its fallout, such as unabated environmental despoliation, and its concomitant climate change, and the demographic time bomb in which people essential to the health of the world economy are confined to the places where they can least fulfil their historic role.

I’ll admit that I remain somewhat sceptical. I remain unconvinced by the idea that the networked individual, a character I’ve encountered before in the work of Manuel Castells and other Twenty-first Century soothsayers, is the new gravedigger of capitalism. Instead of “Aux barricades!” will they be shouting “To the firewalls!”? I’m sure that Mason himself does not take seriously the idea that the 1% will be able to take comfort in the knowledge that at least they will be less stressed in the future. In fact, the big omission from my point of view was the lack of concern for the lengths to which the 1% and their agents will go in order to avoid the loss of their private jets, gated communities and island-sized yachts. I suspect that some measure of violence on their part should be anticipated in that respect.

That does not, however, mean I don’t like the idea of a benign postcapitalist order along the lines Mason sketches, and he at least made me feel a little more optimistic for the future than did Plender. Many of his arguments are compelling, his critique of the present state of affairs spot on, and he displays an admirable erudition which in itself makes this book worth the read.


A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters
A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters
Offered by DVDMAX-UK
Price: £19.99

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Are they really this shameless?, 3 Dec. 2015
It’s very rare you’ll find a record release this cynical. Having already released the live version and a few outtakes, the record company now does it all over again but with some new outtakes. It’s not even possible to buy the longer ones of these as MP3s.

Anybody coming new to A Love Supreme would find this a real bargain, with one of the most sublime pieces of music ever plus some of the takes that went unreleased originally. Those like me who already have the original, plus a budget CD of the live version, plus the original “deluxe set”, will see it as it is, a rip off.


It's Great To Be Alive
It's Great To Be Alive
Price: £7.10

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best bands in existence? Here's the evidence!, 2 Nov. 2015
This review is from: It's Great To Be Alive (Audio CD)
When I reviewed Alabama Ass Whuppin, Drive-by Truckers’ first live release, when it was rereleased two years ago, I expressed the hope that the band would not allow their ongoing efforts on the road to go the way of those of the Clash, unrecorded. Whilst I doubt I have the ear of Hood, Cooley and the rest of the gang, I’m accepting this as the answer to my plea.

Though it’s impossible fully to capture the excitement, this is an album that captures many of the differences between a good live rock performance and a studio recording. You can’t smell the crowd, perhaps fortunately, but you can hear their enthusiasm and guess at some of the things that are happening as they shout, roar, scream, whistle, whoop and clap, and there’s plenty of all of those at a DBT gig. But the band is also able to breathe new life and new meaning into its songs, as for example with Made Up English Oceans: Cooley explains that the song is aimed at the Klan, and particularly a demonstration they mounted during a visit President Jimmy Carter paid to Cooley’s hometown during the late seventies, which not only disgraced them but shamed the town itself, to the singer’s disgust. Armed with that information it is possible to understand Cooley’s purpose, but the delivery of the song itself conveys, far more than the studio version, the anger he feels at the myopia, idiocy and bigotry, not just in the vocals and lyrics but also in the music, which doesn’t have to be shouty or loud; it just communicates the feelings through its understatement, its accumulating rage. It’s a feeling I just don’t quite get from the studio version.

In a similar vein, Hood provides some additional narrative to the slow-grinding funk-fest Goode’s Field Road, which gains an extra two minutes over the version on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, and the sublimely executed closing song, Grand Canyon, comes in at a well-deserved thirteen minutes.

Throughout, the playing is strong, and particularly noticeable is the additional dimension Jay Gonzalez’s keyboards give. As has been said by another reviewer, the recordings appear untouched, so the singing is warts’n’all, which is what the best rock’n’roll is. Keep it Dirty!

The song selections rove freely over the band’s career. Like anyone else, I have favourites which have not been included, but some of those are available on previous live releases (including on Jason Isbell’s Live In Alabama), so I’m not going to fret, and it’s great to hear how some of the newer material is performed in front of an audience – it’s a regrettably long time since I saw the band.

It’s nine years now since I bought my first DBT record. Since then I have looked forward to every new one, and snapped up the earlier ones, and this one brings home how much they have changed over that time, but also how much they have remained one of the best bands, live and in the studio, in existence today.


Live In Tokyo 1975
Live In Tokyo 1975
Price: £15.02

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Miles Davis, red in tooth and claw, 20 Oct. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Live In Tokyo 1975 (Audio CD)
Good to see the tapes of Miles keep emerging. Sony are trying with their Bootleg series but other agents are in possession of live material from the seventies. Hopefully there’s more.

This particular one is from the same tour which produced the albums Agharta and Pangaea, just before the period of hiatus of the late seventies during which Miles neither toured nor recorded.

Some bits on this you’ll recognise from the other Tokyo recordings, though not necessarily in the same order. There are bits in between that will be new to you, and some bits that are familiar but played on different instruments or in different ways. It has a rougher, funkier feel from the others, perhaps less smoothed-for-general-consumption, therefore maybe more as Miles would have wanted: Davis red in tooth and claw.

Intermittently, Michael Henderson’s bass is bone shaking, and Turnaroundphrase is a scorcher, threatening to strip the paint from the walls. Features such as these compensate for the fact that there are possibly no guitar breaks quite as good as those on Agharta’s Theme From Jack Johnson, which means that in some ways things balance out.

This is therefore not a substitute for, but a complement to, the other two.

It’s a shame Sony were unable, or perhaps unwilling, to make available the rest of the 1975 set from which Mtume was taken that features on Volume 4 of the Bootleg Series, but it would be nice if someone else could release the rest of it, even if they don’t.


Shakespeare in London (Arden Shakespeare)
Shakespeare in London (Arden Shakespeare)
by Hannah Jane Crawforth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fertile Ground, 20 Oct. 2015
In Shakespeare in London, the three authors demonstrate how Shakespeare’s plays, whilst nominally set in diverse locations around the world, in fact often reflected the playwright’s surroundings in the London of his time. Within this intriguing thesis they additionally present some fascinating incidental vignettes to further enrich our understanding and appreciation of the Shakespearean canon.

They begin with an analysis of how Titus Andronicus, possibly Shakespeare’s most gut-churningly violent play, was written within, and therefore likely informed by, the then violent goings on in Shakespeare’s city, from the regular public executions at Tyburn, through the ugly spectacle of bull and bear-baiting, and on to the religious persecutions, by then aimed at Catholics and involving excruciating torture and still more executions.

Later they show how Richard II is informed by the political networks of the day, as well as how Shakespeare makes some of his points through the devices of chiasmus; the geography of Romeo And Juliet takes as its basis that of the Strand of Shakespeare’s day, and The Merchant Of Venice draws strongly from the discourse of London’s legal institutions. There is also later an exposé of the economics of the theatre.

When I was formally studying Shakespeare back in the seventies, The Tempest was still considered to be his final play. Shakespearean scholarship has made big advances since then, and that calculation is now reckoned to be two plays out. And in dealing with The Tempest, the authors give us an insight not only into how the plays were informed by their environment but also how theatre was being revolutionised by it. They examine the scientific cluster around Lime Street of the time and how its innovations were affecting the way people perceived the world. There are references to alchemy and necromancy, which brought to my mind Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, which shares the apparent fascination. And they also point out how the colonisation of the island echoes the accelerating colonisation of the Americas at the time, and the concomitant expropriation and displacement of their native peoples.

I’ll confess there are subjects I would have liked covered that aren’t, such as the extent to which the bawdy house episodes of Henry IV reflected Shakespeare’s, rather than Prince Hal’s, Eastcheap. I initially found it quite enlightening that the period should be referred to as “early modern”, but found the constant repetition of the phrase somewhat irritating; in another context it may be a rhetorical tic, here it makes the text sometimes seem like the answer to an exam question which constantly has to make reference to the question. There’s also an overuse of the word “iconic”, but they’re not alone in that particular peccadillo. At one point they put the location of Bedlam to the north and west of St Paul’s, when its location in Shakespeare’s time, Moorfields, is to the north and east, as is its original location in Bishopsgate. And there are rather too many spelling errors and such-like, as when they use “practice” as a verb (they mostly use “practise”, though) or speak of a “momento mori” (it’s “memento”).

Yes, I know, if only everyone were as perfect as I am!

None of these little niggles takes away, though, from the value or enjoyment of this book. Whether you’re reading for pleasure or answering that exam question about “early modern” London, this is fertile ground.


Capitalism: Money, Morals and Markets
Capitalism: Money, Morals and Markets
by John Plender
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.24

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strong core; limp ending, 14 Oct. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
John Plender’s Capitalism is an erudite study of the eponymous economic system, Plender himself a highly-respected FT journalist. It is unlikely that you would have escaped reading his articles if you have even the vaguest interest in keeping up with financial affairs. The book progresses through themed chapters, examining the upsides and the downsides of the functions of capitalism, the ethics that operate within it, the role of governments and other policymakers and their advisers, and the asymmetric power structure that permits those at the top to extract a disproportionate gain.

Many of the explanations, critiques, apologies, condemnations and justifications Plender recounts are fairly familiar from other recent books, although often approached from a novel direction and set about by colourful examples and background information: in his discussion of the mystery of the enduring value of gold and its destructive potential he reveals that the original story for the Wizard of Oz was an allegory for the bimetallic system, based on silver and gold, with the yellow brick road representing gold and Dorothy’s shoes being originally silver – it was Hollywood that made them red and converted allegory into nursery tale.

He has some interesting stories regarding attitudes to money and wealth, many from the arts and literary world. There is a revealing cautionary vignette involving executives from the Industrial Bank of Japan, a restaurateur, a porcelain toad and the bank’s demise. He makes a rare observation regarding the common tendency to hold manufacturing up as a true value creator, unlike services, whilst at the same time reviling it as brutal, dirty and dehumanising.

Like many commentators now, Plender is scathing of the conventional wisdoms of market fundamentalism such as the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, and lampoons Eugene Fama, its author, for continuing to hold that there is no flaw within its logic. He has no sympathy for those who unconditionally reject the idea of governments running deficits: if businesses held the same view there would be little or no investment, and commerce would wither away; where governments hold the view in hard times, such as prevailed during the Great Recession, they run the risk of prolonging the crisis as businesses and consumers become ever more fearful of spending, the logical outcome of the paradox of thrift. He tells the tale of Arthur Laffer persuading Ronald Reagan that decreasing the tax rate would motivate people to work harder, earn more and therefore pay more tax. The result? Increased government deficit.

On balance, Plender concludes, many of the criticisms of capitalism turn out to be well-founded. He begins the final chapter with an overview of some of the sceptics, including Goethe, Hyman Minsky and Marx and Engels, all warning of the inherent evils and instabilities of the system. The attempts by governments to alleviate the downsides he suggests have become entangled in a rising tide of debt and a decline in the number of working age people, together with a failure to develop a new General Purpose Technology with the impact of the railways, electrification and so on; he maintains, consistent with the Solow paradox, that the internet has had far less impact than its boosters would have us believe. Productivity growth has slowed and its benefits are increasingly concentrated within a shrinking elite. Worse, we’re due another crisis, and we’re not over the last one yet, as many others have warned, and the necessary measures to prevent wholesale meltdown in the banking sector have not been taken. At the root of all this is a shift in the power structure of capitalism, with no countervailing power to that of the aforementioned elite, who have promoted successive governments committed to undermining the power of the unions and other civil society groups. Meanwhile, corporate executives are becoming increasingly short-termist, cutting back on capital investment and R&D in order to boost short-term profits and the value of their stock portfolios. Notwithstanding the presence of a few “good capitalists”, Plender’s depiction of the prospects for capitalism are depressingly dystopian, and he further adds to the gloom with an assertion that Schumpeter’s prediction of the demise of capitalism is unlikely.

Nevertheless, his ultimate verdict is that, despite its shortcomings, capitalism has many virtues – the increases in wealth and health under the capitalist system cannot, certainly, be denied – but that we must “do something” to prevent its decline, though exactly what he doesn’t specify. This, and his closing gambit of, rather too predictably, adapting Churchill’s dictum on democracy for capitalism (and I know, learned reader, you do not need me to elucidate further on that) led me to the conclusion that deadlines may have been calling and that the enterprise therefore needed to be brought to rapid closure. The result, unfortunately, is that for all its inner strengths, Capitalism has a limp ending.

But perhaps that’s a metaphor in itself?


Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday (Vintage): Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday (Vintage): Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday
by Angela Y. Davis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.97

5.0 out of 5 stars Enrich your listening, 7 Oct. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis directs our attention away from the normal biographical and technical narratives of blues histories and instead focuses on the social issues raised in the songs of three legends of the blues, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, together with their position within the realm of black, and equally importantly feminist, consciousness.

Most of her attention is directed towards Rainey and Smith, and in addition to analysis of the songs there are transcriptions of their lyrics, occupying about half of the book, in themselves an invaluable resource.

Davis identifies the context for the making of the blues as the sudden freedoms experienced by the black population of the US following the Civil War. In particular there was suddenly a release of agency in what former slaves did with their time, and also where they spent it. All of a sudden they were able to go more-or-less where they pleased, the reason why so many blues songs refer to geographical movement.

Aside from the possibility of education, the other change delivered by emancipation was in sexual agency, again the subject of many blues songs, not in the least those of Rainey, Smith and Holiday.

With direct reference to the songs, Davis explores the many facets of the blues in relation to sexuality, noting that conventional ideas of romantic love and family life are all but absent. Instead there are strong expressions of female sexual desire as an end in itself, as well as specific references to physical abuse, prostitution, same-sex relationships – Rainey was well-known to be a lesbian, but songs also refer to male same-sex relationships – and infidelity. On this latter subject there is the occasional reference to imposing the ultimate sanction on a cheating man, a detail having its male equivalent in songs such as Hendrix’s Hey Joe many years later.

Sexual promiscuity was partly aided by geographic promiscuity, and the women studied by Davis were as open to both as were men.

Given that no live recordings exist of Rainey and Smith, the songs we have access to by them were according to the mediation of white record executives, hence probably the rarity of an overt political message. Nevertheless, there are songs which address poverty, inequality, the drudgery of work and the privations of imprisonment. There are also, Davis points out, messages encoded within the lyrics, not to mention the very act of producing a black art form of such high sophistication in itself constituted a very political statement. Moreover, the blues offered a very concrete alternative to the dead hand of the church, which recognised the threat and wasted no time in condemning “the devil’s music”. The threat was the greater for the songs’ frequent utilisation of symbolism from African cultures, and Davis provides several examples where specifically Yoruba symbolism and beliefs are evident.

In the penultimate chapter, the first of two predominantly concentrating on Billie Holiday, Davis articulates a familiar duality: on the one hand regretting Holiday’s apparent inability to gain agency within her relationships with men and the way this is often reflected in her lyrics, talking of unfaithfulness and violence; on the other hand celebrating Holiday’s ability often to subvert a literal interpretation of the lyrics through the inflection of her voice. Notwithstanding the feminist temptation to dismiss Holiday as a gendered equivalent of Uncle Tom, there is ultimately the irresistible urge to embrace Holiday as a sister articulating one reality of being a woman. Furthermore, Davis – and she is not alone here amongst female commentators – dismisses some of the more negative views of Holiday’s life, characterising Motown’s depiction in Lady Sings The Blues as a kind of reverse Disneyfication where everyone lives miserably ever after.

What is incontrovertible, though, is the all-encompassing courage Holiday displayed in performing and recording Strange Fruit. If the expression Career Suicide had been extant in 1939, when the song was recorded, there could have been no better exemplar for it. Hitherto, Holiday’s repertoire had avoided overt social commentary, thereby enabling the critical fraternity to laud her for her pure artistry. Holiday gave as her motivation for adopting the song the experiences of her father, who died due to a war-related sickness which went untreated due to hospital service segregation in the southern states. But the threat of lynchings was still all too real: Davis informs us that there were 150 in the four years following the Wall Street Crash, and gives a macabre description of gothic proportions of a “lynching” in Florida in 1934 which involved extensive pre-death torture.

Fortunately, Holiday’s career survived, and even thrived on, the backwash. Strange Fruit constituted a watershed moment for American popular culture, placing the reality of lynching and racial brutality in general in the public arena. It also broke the previous taboo of mixing fame and commercial success with social consciousness.

The devil, as it were, is in the detail, and while I can’t here emulate that I can say that Davis does an excellent job of getting into, around and underneath the songs of her subjects, and some of their contemporaries, to show that it is fine to treat them at face value, but that there is so much more to be discovered on closer examination. Anybody wishing to enrich their listening would profit from reading this book.


Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-20