Impostures continued

In last night’s Convivium Wende described a meditation session which began with the injunction to seek one’s own Tradition (left undefined and general) and dwell in its Source. Wende found herself in exploration of Mystery as her own personal core [I may have overset what she described to suit my own modes of perception and thought, but I think those are the essential terms she used].

Interesting to me is the name-it-and-nail-it experience as Wende related it, in this case the consequent and consequential explication of Mystery and the Mysterious.

My own imagining and reading of a personal Source was surely most influenced by the so-recent experience of reading the introductory material to Impostures, described in yesterday’s post, and especially the discussion of maqamat as ‘art of freestyle improvisation’. The literary meaning of the term, as explored by Cooperson, partakes more of the notions of ‘assembly’ and ‘standing up’, with the sense of “a verbal performance delivered to strangers” (pg. xix), which Cooperson glosses as ‘Impostures’. The book contains Cooperson’s renderings, in various Englishes, of a set of 50 Tales of the “eloquent rogue” Abu Zayd al-Saruji, couched by al-Hariri in forms that display linguistic virtuosity in Arabic (often considered utterly untranslatable).

My take on maqamat is primarily musical, and references the term as it is used in Turkish and Arabic musics. A maqam can be thought of as beginning with a series of notes, or as a succession of intervals—a scale in the most basic form, but then further developed in practise into a feeling. The major/minor distinction in Western classical music, or the seven conventional modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Myxolydian, Aeolian, Locrian) of Western theory are a much simpler and more limiting framework than the scales found in Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Indian systems, none of which are greatly concerned with writing music in notation. They are taught and learned primarily by ear, and in master/student settings, and generally performed as improvisational meditations on their basic sonic materials. In North and South Indian examples, particular ragas are associated with hours of the day and night, and even with particular states of mind.

Many musics are primarily or wholly improvisational. Here’s how Derek Bailey’s Improvisation: its nature and practice in music summarizes:

Improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being both the most widely practised of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood. While it is today present in almost every area of music, there is an almost total absence of information about it. Perhaps this is inevitable, even appropriate. Improvisation is always changing and adjusting, never fixed, too elusive for analysis and precise description; essentially non-academic. And, more than that, any attempt to describe improvisation must be, in some respects, a misrepresentation, for there is something central to the spirit of voluntary improvisation which is opposed to the aims and contradicts the idea of documentation. (pg. ix)

The parallel between al-Hariri and Robert Johnson is almost too striking: al-Hariri apparently had no skill at the highly-valued forms of extemporaneous composition that were greatly appreciated in his 12th century Basran milieu, so he went away and woodshedded and then returned with a manuscript of his 50 tales (based on al-Hamadhani’s 10th century model, who “astounded the [city of Nishapur’s] elite by defeating a local celebrity in a prose-and-poetry slam” [pg. xx]). al-Hariri’s maqamat

…enjoyed a reputation unlike anything else in literary history, so marvelous in expression, and so copious in vocabulary, as to carry all before it. The author’s choice of words, and his careful arrangement of them, are such that one might well despair of imitating him… (xxii, a biographer’s description)

And likewise with Robert Johnson, who learned from older Delta musicians like Charlie Patton and Son House and Willie Brown, all of whom played in the highly competitive arena of rural Mississippi and Arkansas jook joints. Initially Robert Johnson was pretty inept, but he left the area for a while and returned with vastly greater skills. The legend grew that he had sold his soul to the Devil to gain his newfound skills…

from Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues

The fear in “Cross Road Blues” is actually a complex of fears, some rational and immediate, some more metaphysical. The most literal reading of the tune is as a description of an actual experience. Johnson finds himself alone at a county crossroads, attempting to flag a ride as the sun sets…In blues lore, the crossroads is the place where aspiring musicians strike their deal with the Devil, and Robert claimed to have struck such a deal… (pg. 126)



from Alan Greenberg’s Love In Vain: the life and legend of Robert Johnson

The camera slowly dollies down the ghostly, dirt-paved artery. Anonymous black men walk or stand stationary at points along the way.

Now the road becomes barren. At a dark crossroads we behold Robert Johnson, picking on his guitar nervously, delicately. It is out of tune. Then, footsteps, up the road.

The devilman weaves and stumbles into view. He never looks at Robert, only at his guitar. He takes it, tunes it, turns around and plays an extraordinary guitar part. He hands it back and starts to go. (pg. 49)

(later, in a jook joint)
Stunning guitar sounds cut through the night from the jook. Robert is playing “Preachin’ Blues,” astonishing all with his rhythmic and emotional intensity. (pg 55)



from Giles Oakley’s The Devil’s Music: a history of the blues

The legend of Robert Johnson has been created from the combination of the tragic brevity of his life and the overwhelmeng sense of inner torment and foreboding in his blues. He only recorded some thirty odd songs but taken together they create visions of a restless, self-destructive interior world filled withsecret fears and anxieties. At times he seems scarcely able to control the extremities of feeling which press in on him or the tensions and neuroses which drive, harry and confuse him… (pp. 218-219)




And, as a reward for coming this far:


see also Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Elijah Wald, 2004) and Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson (Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, 2019)

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