First off, it should be pointed out that the arrival of this book was enthusiastically awaited, since a work of its sort was necessary. Today's younger generation of blues musicians are doing much to carry the torch left for them by masters who are no longer with us. However, when writing about those who carry on a tradition handed down from prior generations, care should be given to see that the forefathers of, and the tradition itself, are treated with the utmost care and respect. Unfortunately, neither seems the focus with "Children of the Blues," from Art Tipaldi, a senior writer for Blues Revue magazine, who has penned many a review and feature article for that publication. He has held a six year position on the Blues Foundation's Board of Directors, serving as a chairman of the Education Constituency, and garnered a Keeping the Blues Alive award for excellence in journalism in 1996, yet with all these credentials, this book unfortunately shows little of that excellence.
Approximately eight pages are given as Tipaldi's introduction, where he sheds sparse, if any light at all, on the actual tradition of blues as it has been passed on from early purveyors like Charley Patton and Son House, to the many generations who followed. Those names do appear when the artists themselves are talking of their influences, but Tipaldi leads the less-informed to believe the passing of the torch began in places like Newport, Rhode Island and Boston in the 1960's, through the folk festival and coffee house circuit. While those locations played a crucial role in the revival of blues and its lengthy history, there is a need for those just discovering the music to fully understand how it has been carried through these last seven or eight decades, something the rather brief introduction doesn't quite achieve.
Blues, as we know it today, blossomed from field songs which helped pass the long days and ease the sorrows of a large number of African-American people who built this country as slaves. Near the turn of the 20th century, W.C. Handy heard a field hand playing slide guitar at a train station in Tutwiler, MS, and being a musician and music publisher, Handy documented what he heard by writing out the notes. Blues itself became more widespread following Mamie Smith's recording of "Crazy Blues," in 1920, and later in that decade, brilliance came forward through the recordings of Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, and others who played what we now know as Delta Blues, while Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ramblin' Thomas, and more were playing Texas Blues. In turn, this music was to be carried on by the likes of Tommy McClennan, Tony Hollins, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, et al, and further by Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and more. The torch was then passed and ably carried far beyond its roots by yet the next generation of young guns, artists like Magic Sam and Otis Rush, guitar slingers who burst from Chicago's West Side in the later 1950's, men who influenced and sparked many of the featured artists that appear in these pages.
While blues research isn't nearly as old as the music itself, men like Marcel Chauvard, Jacques Demetre, George Adins, and Yannick Bruynoghe, began serious efforts to document the artists themselves, and their music in the late 1950's. Through lengthy interviews with people like Big Bill Broonzy, or by seeing performances by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Magic Sam, and others, and by thoughtfully committing their impressions and recollections to paper, research itself grew. While actual field work may well have been in its formative stage at that time, these early blues journalists took great pains by going to extensive and expensive reaches to pass correct information along to those who would follow their groundbreaking work, much like the passing of the torch from blues' older players to its younger ones. It is these efforts to detail which are sadly missing in "Children of the Blues."
The focus could be considered to be in the correct ballpark where we read about the late Luther Allison and his son, Bernard, who carries on, or Johnny "Clyde" Copeland's daughter, Shemekia, and the family of Lonnie Brooks, where his sons, Ronnie and Wayne Baker, proudly move forward. Others including J.B. Hutto's nephew, Lil' Ed Williams, Raful Neal's son, Kenny, and Jimmy Rogers' offspring, Jimmy D. Lane, are covered in fair detail. More 'children' also play large roles; Taj Mahal, Robert Cray, Coco Montoya, Rory Block, plus the husband and wife team of Rod and Honey Piazza. Each musician is given between five and eight pages, on average, and while good portions of this book make for fairly interesting reading, certain aspects are disconcerting, to say the least.
The buzzer first sounded as early as the introduction and unfortunately grew louder as more pages were turned. When discussing Kenny Brown, R.L. Burnside's longtime sidekick, Tipaldi lends information that tells us Brown relies heavily on "Mississippi Fred McDowell's droning slide technique and Joe Calicott's finger-picking style," and goes on to say, "These men, together with everything else Brown was exposed to, like picnics with Othar Turner and his proximity to the Hemphill clan, contribute to the characteristics of North Mississippi blues." Turner is mentioned as a passing interest only, which is perhaps because he and his family play traditional Mississippi fife and drum music, but the fife and drum style has remarkably close to ties to blues, and these family gatherings and picnics which Turner holds on a regular basis are legendary for the number of blues players who attend. The Hemphill's are also a mere fleeting moment for the author, which is unfortunate since it would have been another stellar opportunity to show how traditions are passed on through time. Jessie Mae Hemphill's grandfather, Sid, recorded for the Library of Congress in 1942, later in 1959, and passed his music on to Rosa Lee Hill, Jessie Mae's aunt, who often played with Fred McDowell. Only the author can explain his reasons for omitting the Turner and Hemphill connections as important sections of this book.
Tipaldi talked to Fred Kaplan, a stalwart West Coast piano player, who spoke of his influences by mentioning a number of early stylists, that include Walter Roland and Jimmy Yancey, yet both of these figures incur the author's disrespect by having their names misspelled as 'Rolands' and 'Yancy'. We then have the misfortune to read Tuts Washington's name fumbled as he becomes 'Toots'. Washington was a masterful New Orleans piano man who influenced countless followers, including the late Professor Longhair, and Marcia Ball, who talked of Tuts in her section of the book. It is sad and unfortunate that someone as legendary as Washington isn't a regard for Tipaldi, which clearly shows an attitude of negligence. Whether or not Marcia Ball or Kaplan mispronounced the names, or they were misunderstood when transcribing interviews, it is the author's duty to pass along correct information, all of which could have easily been found in the countless books, journals, and recordings bearing these names with their correct spelling. While this may seem like nitpicking, what should have been paramount to Tipaldi was seeing that consummate care was afforded those who drove this younger generation in the first place.
Old masters of the rich blues tradition are not the only ones who fall under the umbrella of the author's misguided writing; Charlie Musselwhite will find his well-known instrumental, "Christo Redemptor," now titled as 'Christo Redentor', while Steve Gomes, a charismatic and in-the-pocket bass player has become Steve 'Gnomes', and Californian Richard Innes, Lewis Cowdrey from Texas, and Rhode Island's Rich Lataille aren't spared either. These faults rest squarely with Art Tipaldi, first responsible for what is turned over as his manuscript, and the process of editing and proof-reading by someone competent went completely out the window. We are also informed that J.B. Hutto played a 'Tasco' guitar, and Smokin' Joe Kubek relies on foot 'peddles' for his guitar effects and tone, while his partner, Bnois King, doesn't use foot 'peddles'. This might also seem an unnecessary quibble, but it should be pointed out to the author that the word "peddles" refers to someone selling something, while pedals are found on a bicycle or on the floor in front of a guitar player, and J.B. was playing blues on his Teisco guitar.
We could also surmise that Carey Bell and his son, Lurrie, and indeed, the entire Bell/Harrington family, which includes Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater, were beyond the reach of Tipaldi. Since the Bell/Harrington connection would have been another fine example of a family dedicated to blues, perhaps it was Lurrie's uneven nature which cast them from consideration? Muddy Waters and his son, Big Bill Morganfield, are also noticeably absent. Waters is the man regarded as one of the main linchpins who took the music from the Delta and later reshaped blues into the loud and booming Chicago sounds still reverberating in clubs today, and his son, Big Bill, carries on with Muddy's spirit always close. Tipaldi seemingly talked only to those who were most accessible, and bypassing these artists in favor of Delbert McClinton, Kenny Brown, Debbie Davies, Tommy Shannon, plus others borders on shameful.
More serious questions arise from the names who do and those who do not appear as focal points, or children of the blues. Hollywood Fats is mentioned countless times by Big Al Blake, James Harman, and other West Coast artists, and though Harman and Blake's opinions differ on whether or not Fats was a true genius, it was the inspiration of Mike Mann, or Hollywood Fats, that helped rejuvenate what was happening in California in the 1970's, yet Mann is merely a sidenote to Tipaldi. To include Kaplan and Blake is a nice gesture, but seeing as they were both under the influence of Fats himself, why was he not a featured part of this book when his background included gigs with Hutto, Waters, Jimmy Witherspoon, and many more? Duke Robillard is graciously covered, yet the absence of Ronnie Earl or Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, a longtime Muddy sideman, becomes reason for question since Paul Rishell, Dave Maxwell, Bob Margolin, and others with close ties to New England and the East Coast are spotlighted in this book. Another confusing issue is that there's no mention of Eddie Shaw and his guitar playing Son, Vaan, nothing on Snooky Pryor, or his son, Earl, vacancy concerning Lane Wilkins, the daughter of the late Reverend Robert Wilkins, and blanks on John Lee Hooker's daughter, Zakiya. Also, considering that Jimmie Vaughan has five pages of space in the book, why would the author leave Vaughan's son, Tyrone, who played on Jimmie's latest CD, completely out of the picture?
Additional ineptitude appears in the Bobby Rush area of the book when the southern bluesman explained to the author that, at one time, he employed both Elmore James and "his cousin, Boyd Gimball," as guitarists in his band. First of all, this would most certainly be Boyd Gilmore, a guitarist who later found Elmore's slide riffs spliced into his 1952 recording of "All In My Dreams." Proper research would have shown that Elmore and Boyd were not cousins, yet there is no note of this made anywhere, which only perpetuates a false rumor that the two were related. As is the case throughout this book, Tipaldi shows complete disregard for factual writing, and the poorest example of timing in recent memory is where the author compares Rush's stage presence to "a terrorist holding a hand grenade with the pin removed."
Were it these problems only, certain questions could be directed at the writer or the process of later proof-reading and editing, but when an author of a book devoted to the younger generation of blues players comments that Big Jack Johnson's "music reaches back beyond today's electric imitators of the blues," discussions of sincerity must be raised. Are these younger artists carrying a torch passed from their elders, as the author states at various points, or are they merely imitators, as Tipaldi refers to them in this passage? Guitarist Carl Weathersby pointed out to the writer that Albert King "influenced four times the guitar players that B.B. has because Albert was a unique player." While many will agree that Albert King was definitely unique and influential, the inclusion of Weathersby's comment deserves question when considering the legions of players who fell under the shadow of B.B. King's dynamic, explosive guitar work of the 1950's. We also find that blues from Louisiana differs from Chicago, Texas, and the Delta, and were it not for Tipaldi boldly pointing out that it's some sort of simmering process that makes the difference, we might never have known at all.
Art Tipaldi deserves be taken to task in explaining his indifference over the course of the many errors that arise in this book, as much as the person, or persons, who gave the final 'okay' before this went to the publisher. Much of this could easily have been fixed if thoroughly considered, instead, it comes across as almost juvenile. Perhaps we have come to expect too much, because, as Kim Wilson states, "American society is about instant gratification," which could lead some to think that thought might well have been at the forefront of this work. Had proper consideration, time, research, and attention to detail been the main focus, this would surely have been a much stronger book than it is, unfortunately, readers stand a better chance of garnering solid information from "Blues For Dummies," by Lonnie Brooks, Cub Koda, and Wayne Baker Brooks, who at least saw to it that names were correctly spelled in their informal look at blues.
To research what we love should not be considered a chore, instead, it should be thought of as a blessing, since it brings us closer to our passion. In his acknowledgments at the beginning of this book, Tipaldi thanks his mentors, Bill Ferris, Dick Waterman, Peter Guralnick, and Bruce Iglauer for teaching him "to move with integrity, sincerity, and respect." Those three qualities are, at times, a complete void in this work. Instead of making a serious attempt to continue proper documentation of blues, it is more like fodder for those who drift into the world of blues for a small portion of their lives only to drift off to some other interest that takes up their lunchtime, unmissed by those of us who truly love and admire the art and its people, and their history. There are scores of available examples where artists are correctly and respectfully covered, and had better preparation gone into "Children of the Blues," we'd all have been proud to welcome its arrival. In essence, it offers a brief look at the tradition of blues by showing how the featured artists learned their craft, but the author went at it with tunnel vision, leaving gaping holes in the process. Furthermore, while a book of this sort has been missing in the ongoing chronicles of blues, its artists, and its traditions, the lack of respect for some who helped create the music, as well as some of those who carry it on, is simply inexcusable.
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