In what can almost be considered a time warp, there were a great many years when trade papers like Cashbox helped, even if only in minor fashion, to push blues music as a viable commercial product. That might be hard to believe, but back in the 1950's, record labels like Chess, Vee Jay, and Modern kept a close eye on each other to see where they stood in the hit market, something that sounds strange to us today. Those labels, and others indeed, sported artists like Muddy Waters, Billy Boy Arnold, and John Lee Hooker, who at many times in their illustrious careers had 78 rpm discs running hot on the rhythm and blues charts. Blues by this time had pretty much left its disconcerting term, "race music" behind, but the records were still directed at an African-American market. Today, blues holds a lowly place, if ever even seen in major music trade papers. While the masses flock to buy product dished out by radio-friendly incompetents, blues enthusiasts are finally getting their reward, perhaps through rebellion, as labels both independent and major, take on a larger role in supporting blues.
Maybe it began when "Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings" made its unexpected assault on the charts by selling in unheard of numbers for a blues release. Maybe it was earlier when the young British bands helped us, as Americans, find our roots and give blues a long enough look to recognize it for what it is, and always has been; a true American art form filled with soul, passion, and expressiveness. Those adjectives which describe blues so well seem vacant in nearly every other form of music. Jazz has become watered down and antiseptic, country is commandeered by formulaic hit-seekers, and what is considered R&B today has little rhythm, and no blues whatsoever. Even though blues has changed considerably over time, the music as a whole still remains glued to its roots. Practitioners like Corey Harris dig through ancient Country Blues for their basis, Kim Wilson relishes the classic 1950's Chicago stylings for inspiration, and James Harman, who takes pages from nearly every varied format in the blues dictionary, combines them for a sound that is as fresh as it is vital.
For the most part, blues hasn't been over-commercialized to the point where we see mechanical hacks racing up the charts. Surely, there have been a few exceptions, and we can all spot a few now and again, but in blues, what matters most isn't so much the sales figures... it's the staying power. While we've witnessed the passing of hundreds in the field, men like Muddy, Little Walter, Lightnin' Hopkins, and others from those days long ago, play just as important a role as the established top performers of today. While most of the old masters are now gone, this younger generation of artists continue to carry the torch proudly, consistently releasing potent statements in an ongoing tradition. As Otis Spann said, "the blues never die."
While blues recordings are finding new listeners on a constant basis, that interest has spilled over and resulted in an extensive list of books which feature blues as the main topic of discussion, and that is what I have chosen to focus on here instead of reviewing the large number of CD's I usually write about. CD reviews will remain an important part of my contributions, but I think it's necessary on an occasional basis, to take some time to look at the growing number of fine books we have at our disposal. We have seen a good number over the last several years from authors perhaps previously unknown to us, and their inclusion in the growing appendix of blues study has helped us gain more knowledge on the subject. Also, many recognized classics from a healthy number of years ago have been reprinted with updated text, new forewords, and further light shed on blues and the men and women who help in spreading the gospel.
While the items here are by no means an extensive or exhaustive look at what's available, I'll keep this an ongoing project and continue adding as I read what comes in for review or re-read what I have in the growing archives here. I hope this helps you, the reader, and entices you to head out to a local bookstore, or shop on-line, as many of these titles are readily stocked. Most can be garnered by ordering, and waiting patiently until they come in, and in writing on this subject, I did notice a good number are available used at discounted prices from numerous e-tailers. When compared to thirty years ago, the wealth of information at our fingertips today is staggering.
I welcome suggestions and comments from readers who are interested in seeing more. If you have ideas that you would like to share, please email me and let me know.
The Story of The Blues
Paul Oliver's credentials should hardly need any background for serious blues enthusiasts or collectors. Simply put, he was at the forefront of blues research decades ago, and became an authority on African-American music. First published in 1969, "The Story of The Blues" is exactly what the title implies and a marvelous journey from the earliest forms through more modern interpreters and creators. Easily readable, Oliver's chapters flow together making for a seamless trip from the 'Cottonfield Hollers' section to 'King Biscuit Time,' where we learn about the development of blues as an electric music. More than a dozen areas are focused on, and with every page, the information that unfolds is stunning. Discussions include 'Froggy Bottom To Buckhead,' a fun trip that takes you from Blind Lemon Jefferson's Texas over to Atlanta, where Barbecue Bob Hicks held court with his brother, Laughing Charlie. Oliver's knowledge is apparent in each area, be it the music itself, or the migratory patterns that took Texans to the West Coast, or Mississippi Delta residents, who moved in a northerly direction, winding up in St. Louis, or further North, in Chicago. No stone is left unturned, and in the end, what is accomplished is a breathtaking ride through important centers of blues, whether Jackson or Clarksdale, MS, Dallas or Houston, TX, or the ever-loudening urban axis of Chicago. Paul Oliver, throughout a long career, authored "Blues Fell This Morning," "Blues Off The Record," liner notes to countless albums, and more, and his work belongs in any blues aficionados' library.
Searching For Robert Johnson
Another who should need little introduction is Peter Guralnick, responsible for such looming titles as "Feel Like Going Home," "Lost Highway," and his fictional work in "Nighthawk Blues." The pocket-sized "Searching For Robert Johnson," while short, compiles what has been found through years of diligent work on the most elusive and influential artist blues has ever known. Johnson was a rambler, hardly ever staying put in any one location for more than a brief spell, and while much more is known today than 15 or 20 years ago, many questions still remain unanswered. Through the efforts of Steve LaVere, Mack McCormick, Gayle Dean Wardlow, and others; friends and family members were interviewed, photos were found, marriage and death certificates uncovered, and ultimately, films on Johnson's life are now available, with luminaries like John Hammond Jr. and Danny Glover taking part. Guralnick's work is a brief but riveting spin through the life and times of Robert Johnson, who more than fifty years after his death, remains as one of the most important linchpins that linked the earlier work of Delta masters like Son House, Charley Patton, and more, to the wrenching music created by Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Johnny Shines, when Chicago was their home. Research on Johnson continues through today, yet we still aren't even sure where his final resting place is, decades after his death in 1938. As a side note, Alan Greenburg's remarkable "Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson," is a written film score from 1983 that still hasn't been fulfilled, even though a new foreword was written by Martin Scorsese when the book was reprinted in 1994.
The World Don't Owe Me Nothing
David Honeyboy Edwards
David Honeyboy Edwards, who traveled with Robert Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Johnny Shines, and many other distinctive names, is now in his 80's, and still making incredible music. In Edwards' own words, "The World Don't Owe Me Nothing" rolls like a Terraplane across the dusty crossroads of Mississippi, all the way to Chicago's booming Southside, with many stops in between. Highly influenced by his running partners of earlier decades, Honeyboy takes us back in time to the days when Tommy Johnson and others were competing for recognition as leaders of the expressive Delta Blues style, to the clubs of Chicago in the 1950's when men like Howlin' Wolf could be seen nightly, all the way to what is the present time. One ingredient that makes this so special is the process in which Edwards opens the doors of his life, and in turn, he gives a better view of the kings he roamed and played with, and that number is staggering. What is unfortunate is that this sort of book, with the actual performer telling the entire story, only now seems to be gaining momentum; Henry Townsend's recent autobiography, "A Blues Life," is another fine example along the same lines. Honeyboy's recollections are many and all worth spending time with, and since there are very few left who were around in the 1920's and 30's, it is fast becoming a time almost lost. Thankfully, we have this old-timer giving us a bird's eye view of Mississippi and its many wonderful blues artists, and indeed many more memories. Edwards continues to ramble to places we have never seen, playing his blues just as he did some seven decades ago.
A Blues Life (Music In American Life)
Henry Townsend with Bill Greensmith
Henry Townsend is now in his nineties, and one whose life in blues has been nothing short of remarkable. With the help of blues writer and researcher, Bill Greensmith, Townsend tells his story in blow by blow detail, and while he may have crossed an imaginary line from time to time, between right and wrong, he has little if any regret. Having played a pivotal role in the development of blues around the St. Louis area, his skills have rewarded him with a long career (Townsend is the only living bluesman to have recorded in each decade from the 1920's up to his 1999 project, "My Story," which was released in 2001 on the APO label). With that long a period under his belt, it has given him a great many memories that unfold in this strongly crafted work. Townsend has an uncanny ability to be reflective and humorous in the same breath, all the while, giving a highly visual account of his years as a musician, which still continue in 2002, with his equally astounding abilities as a guitarist and piano player. Townsend, like Honeyboy Edwards, has played with an amazing list of blues greats, and their names are recalled with pride throughout "A Blues Life," which is a wonderful journey with an equally wonderful man.
Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records
Nadine Cohodas' marvelous, "Spinning Blues Into Gold," is the story of Chess Records, as the title suggests, but through the amazing number of interviews it must have taken to put this incredible work together, the author produced an astounding amount of detail on the many artists that walked through the doors at 4858 South Cottage Grove, and later, 2120 South Michigan Avenue (both Chicago addresses housed the empire that was Chess Records). Leonard, and his brother Phil, both Polish immigrants, arrived in America in 1922, and soon found themselves with a new surname; their Czyz name was changed to Chess. After long years and hard work, they developed the label from the old Aristocrat concern which was home to Muddy's early sides, as well as those by Robert Nighthawk, and other blues, R&B, and jump artists. Details abound in this excellent book, not only on what it took to make the imprint as powerful as it was, but the spot-on writing gives humorous accounts as well. When Little Walter was recording "Just A Feeling," Leonard stopped the proceedings to tell the artist he couldn't say "my pants are coming down." Walter then explained to the producer that the line wasn't about pants at all, it was "my pains is coming down." This is an amazing tale of one of the most influential record labels in the blues and R&B field, and discusses many of the great artists who played a role in its growth; Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James, and countless others. All these facets explain why "Spinning Blues Into Gold" became a New York Times 'Notable Book Of The Year' - its story is loaded with sweat, hard work, determination, and the sometimes questionable practices that were so rampant in the recording business years ago.
Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man
Sandra B. Tooze
For anyone who's ever wondered what made Muddy Waters one of the most influential blues artists of all-time, Sandra B. Tooze has opened the doors wide with "Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man." Written with a deep love and respect for her subject, the author packed these pages with all the necessary ingredients for a stunning and near-exhaustive account of the life of McKinley Morganfield. From his meager beginnings in Mississippi, Waters went on to become the link that carried blues from the Delta to the booming and industrious North that was Chicago. His recordings are legendary, and no small wonder when one considers the sidemen that assisted him on his sorties into the studio; Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Junior Wells, Big Walter Horton, Otis Spann, and the younger guns, who have now become road-hardened veterans themselves; Paul Oscher, Jerry Portnoy, Bob Margolin, Pinetop Perkins, Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson, and more. The blues created by these men, with Muddy Waters in the pilot's seat, are brilliant and enduring classics that remain timeless examples made of raw grit that, in turn, produced a luster still glowing today. Not only are recording sessions explained, but first-hand accounts of life on the road with Waters and his accomplices come from interviews with many who traveled with him. In addition, we get a close look at Muddy's later years, and the praises heaped upon him by a multitude of followers, whose covers of his songs and the royalty payments from them, played a large part in allowing him to live his later years with the comforts he so justly deserved.
Chicago Blues: The City and the Music
Originally published as "Chicago Breakdown," Mike Rowe's fascinating book still remains one of the best-written examples of the dawning years of blues in the Windy City. Each paragraph is jammed with flowing and informative phrases and the amount of research that went into this work is stunning to say the least. There is page after page of historical documentation on the numerous small labels that cropped up in Chicago after World War II. While Chess, its subsidiary Checker, and the Vee Jay imprint are well-covered, Rowe discusses at length, the throngs of basement and backroom labels like Ora-Nelle, Parkway, Chance, Old Swingmaster, and many more. Great detail is also given to the men and women who created the powerful blues of Chicago; from John Lee Williamson to Rice Miller (both known as Sonny Boy Williamson), Little Hudson to Little Walter, Memphis Minnie to Memphis Slim, and scores more including Floyd Jones, Johnny Young, Snooky Pryor, Johnny Shines, Homesick James, and the battling kings, Muddy and The Wolf. Perhaps the only disappointment is that nothing was added when this was republished in the way of updates or newly uncovered information. But, for those interested in Chicago Blues and how the music detached itself from the similar sounding Bluebird Beat of the 1940's, to the slashing and powerful tracks we continually return to, Mike Rowe's "Chicago Blues" is the best place to start.
Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History...
Robert Palmer was an exceptional journalist and author who happened to know blues music inside and out. "Deep Blues," which first hit the shelves in bookstores in 1981, is recognized today as a classic. The seven chapters included are broken down into three basic sections which cover with unerring detail, the foundation of blues. 'Beginnings' and 'Heart Like Railroad Steel' trace back to the Mississippi Delta and beyond laying the framework for Mojo Hand and Chicago Pep, where blues parted from its rural origins, becoming more of an urban music. The three chapters titled 'King Biscuit Time,' 'I Believe I'll Dust My Broom,' and 'Kings of Rhythm,' give better understanding to where the music again changed, this time to an amplified urban style which reflected the growth of small communities and major cities alike. Palmer's knowledge of blues leaps from the book in a visual sense, giving the reader painted landscapes of hallowed locations like Clarksdale, Holly Ridge, and Crystal Springs, all in Mississippi, to the loud and raucous surroundings of Chicago's Southside and its block after block of famous blues taverns, while delving into Helena, West Helena, Memphis, and West Memphis, and many other areas. Robert Palmer taught American music at the Smithsonian Institution and Memphis State University, wrote for Rolling Stone, Saturday Review, plus many other publications, and went on to film, where his documentary, "Deep Blues," was received with open arms, both from fans and critics.
Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues
Collected and Edited by Bruce Jackson
This is an amazing piece of work that was initially published in 1972 and reprinted in 1999. Bruce Jackson, former president of the American Folklore Society, and a Professor of American Folklore at the University of New York at Buffalo, researched, collected, and edited what is perhaps the finest book on the prison worksong tradition. Not content to work from the confines of a safe environment, the editor traveled to some of the most harrowing penitentiaries in the United States where he met, befriended, and recorded the inmates through hours of interviews, and put together a finely crafted book on what is today, a near-lost form with close ties to blues. Along with the diligently researched subject matter, pictures give glimpses of the men themselves, detailed musical examples show the direct connection to blues, and we gain better understanding of what it took "Making it in Hell." While this subject has been briefly touched upon by numerous authors, Bruce Jackson has put together the definitive work on Prison Blues.
Been Here And Gone: A Memoir of the Blues
While everything up to this point has been on historical essays of blues, a few authors have gone into what is mostly uncharted territory with fictional settings. David Dalton, who has written extensively about rock and roll, with books on Janis Joplin, the Beatles, Jim Morrison, and others, penned this humorous and careening tale of Coley Williams. Anyone familiar with blues history, through reading any of the previous books discussed in this column, will find many correlating points in "Been Here And Gone." Williams is as cantankerous a character you'll find in blues, and one who knew them all, played with many, and crossed his wires as often as he traveled. This is an incredibly fun read, and through Williams' own "conversations," we learn firsthand how he managed to get Rice Miller blamed for a robbery, we join him when he runs up on Robert Johnson in a graveyard, and we're along for the bizarre trip to Memphis, with Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup in tow, which begins when Tampa Red relates a convoluted dream. Dalton's deep respect for blues, and his knowledge of the music, comes across wonderfully in this riveting tale and in the process, we learn more about Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, and a cast that perhaps you had only imagined before. While deepening your background in blues through the many histories available, "Been Here And Gone" is a terrific yarn that places you alongside Coley Williams, a man who is as bitter as he is howlingly funny. Another side note... Peter Guralnick's ripping journey, "Nighthawk Blues," first released in 1980, is currently out-of-print, but well worth the search for the story of the Howling Nighthawk, Teenochie Slim, and other imaginary cronies (based on real blues artists) who were catapulted to fame during the folk blues revival years ago.
A Nick Travers Mystery
Ace Atkins, a former crime reporter for The Tampa Tribune, has been nominated for numerous awards through his writing. "Crossroad Blues" is A Nick Travers Mystery, the first in an ongoing series about a former football star turned blues historian and occasional teacher, who also happens to be a hard drinking, harp blowing private detective from New Orleans that falls face-first into the underworld of blues. Looking into the disappearance of a not-too-well-liked associate, Travers hits the road for Mississippi and stumbles upon a deranged killer who more than resembles Elvis, falls for a guitar slinging femme fatale, and accepts the possibility that there are unreleased Robert Johnson acetates at the root of all the trouble he finds himself in. If you're thinking this might be a little too pedestrian for your tastes, you might do well to think again. Virginia Dare, the love interest, seems based on Susan Tedeschi, while the Blues Shack, a chain of clubs which is more smoke and mirrors than a true blues joint, smells much like The House Of Blues, that corporate-run sideshow/funhouse bent on deflating your wallet. "Crossroad Blues" is a great spin that includes all things necessary in a solid mystery; back alley characters, murder, the search for the truth, and a woman any man would fall for. And who can truthfully say that they wouldn't be the first to sign on when the mystery revolves around unreleased Robert Johnson acetates?
Leavin' Trunk Blues
A Nick Travers Mystery
This second volume in A Nick Travers Mystery by Ace Atkins revolves around Ruby Walker, a powerful and dynamic blues belter who left her roots in Mississippi, heading for the burgeoning Chicago blues scene, where her brash approach made her a bonafide blues queen. Convicted of murdering her producer and lover, Billy Lyons, Travers departs New Orleans to interview the former star. Investigating a forty year old homicide, Travers soon finds that there are those who still have reason to hide the truth behind lies and more mayhem. Returning characters like old Crescent City friend JoJo, who runs a blues bar, and his wife Loretta, make this seem like a made-for-TV series that would have us all glued to the screen. In a visual and virtual writing format, Atkins conveys the grime in Chicago's tenement neighborhoods, the loud and booming sounds of the city's blues joints, and the smells of Polish sausages cooking nearby. As if that's not enough interest, folks like Peetie Wheatstraw show up at a local White Castle burger stand telling amazing tales. While blues fiction might well be a small commodity market, Atkins has found an audience, and the series will continue with "Dark End Of The Street," due this Summer from his new publisher, Harper-Collins.
Hopefully, if you're reading this wrap-up, you've gained insight into the vast amount of material available to everyone. Reading about blues is an extremely rewarding experience where much can be learned about artists who are as much loved and admired, as they are revered, by authors who tackle their lives and stories as writers. Just as CD's give an opportunity to better understand blues, books can be looked at over and over again, and in turn, that information is stored making the reader a more knowledgeable person. Please stay tuned for more in the coming months, and again, suggestions are welcomed.
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