Wednesday, November 14, 2012

DFW blues howler

David Foster Wallace’s writing on language and mathematics comes with many mistakes of fact. But the following statement has gone, to my knowledge, unremarked:

Early Blues history reports Chess Records’ legendary Chess brothers shlepping out into Mississippi cotton fields to recruit promising artists on their lunch breaks.

Mark Costello and David Foster Wallace, Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present (Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1990).
Sheer nonsense. Leonard and Phil Chess were Chicago-based. The post-war musicians they recorded are not a matter of “early Blues history,” whatever that may be. And no writer on blues ever described the brothers Chess recruiting musicians in Mississippi.

My best guess to explain this howler: In 1941 and 1942 Alan Lomax recorded Muddy Waters in Mississippi for the Library of Congress. The recordings were released on the Chess label in 1966 as the album Down on Stovall’s Plantation. And years later, a writer with a cursory knowledge of his subject attributed the recordings to the brothers Chess.

[Why assign an error in a co-authored book to Wallace? The sentence I’ve quoted is from one of the “D.” sections of the book.]

comments: 2

Pete said...

Anybody with an even cursory knowledge of blues history would know that the Chess brothers never did such a thing. Lazy writing. (And am I correct to assume that's the younger Mark Costello, not the University of Illinois/Murphy Stories one?)

Michael Leddy said...

I don’t know about their ages, but this Mark Costello is DFW’s friend, a lawyer and writer, not the U of Illinois Costello.