Discovering the Blues: honouring the work of Paul Oliver

On Friday 7th February, I took part in an event entitled ‘Discovering the Blues: Paul Oliver and the Blues’, held at Oxford Brookes University as part of the Thinking Human Festival. The event was held to commemorate the work of Paul Oliver (2nd from right on top image), who passed away in 2018 but spent many years at Brookes as a specialist in vernacular architecture. Oliver is also regarded as the most prolific and influential blues scholar of the twentieth century. The occasion brought attention to the Paul Oliver Collection of African American Music which is in the process of being catalogued for Brookes’ archives.

Owned by the European Blues Association (the EBA, of which I am a committee member), the collection holds Oliver’s research papers, notebooks, transcripts of radio broadcasts, interviews and photographs from field trips as well as original numerous rare recordings. It represents a unique resource for the study of African American music from the first half of the twentieth century, but also a provides window into the post-WWII blues revival, when scholars, collectors and enthusiasts from both sides of the Atlantic began ‘rediscovering’ the rich musical culture of the interwar years.

The event began with musical performances by Tom Attah, professional musician and Popular Music Course Leader at Leeds Arts University, followed by chair of the EBA Michael Roach. The music was followed by a panel discussion on Oliver’s work and legacy chaired by fellow EBA committee member Dai Griffiths. I began by giving an overview of Oliver’s career as a blues scholar, its beginnings in post-war Britain, its focus on the relationship between the music and the African American experience, and the way this period of scholarship was marked by a folkloristic approach that emphasised the music’s anti-modern and uncommercial qualities. This was followed Prof. Brian Ward of Northumbria University (and author of A&R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record (2018) and Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations Since 1945 (1998)), who discussed his personal experiences of meeting Oliver, and being struck by his empiricism as well as his considered analysis of Robert Johnson. Michael Roach also offered insights into his two decades spent alongside Oliver, founding the EBA and taking part in events around the country that combined musical performance with talks on the history of the blues.

From right to left:
Christian O’Connell, Dai Griffiths, Michael Roach, Brian Ward and Tom Attah

It was honour to play a part in promoting Oliver’s work and to appear alongside distinguished scholars and musicians. The event will hopefully help to promote the collection to future researchers and scholars of the blues and African American music in Britain.

Christian O’Connell

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