Delta Blues: The Life And Times Of The Mississippi Master Who Revolutionized Paperback – Oct 27 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Gioia (The History of Jazz) succeeds admirably in the daunting task of crafting a comprehensive history of the art form known as the blues, depicting the life story of the music from its cradle in the Mississippi Delta all the way to its worldwide influence on contemporary sounds. His sweeping examination focuses on the legends in detail, including Charley Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King and many more. He often deconstructs myths, such as the story that both Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson made midnight deals with the devil at the crossroads, and digs deep to clarify many murky stories, including untruths and wild speculations about the life and early death of Robert Johnson. His narrative follows the northern migration of the blues to Chicago, where Muddy Waters recorded for Chess Records, and along the way he analyzes the influence of Delta blues on Elvis, the Rolling Stones and other rock 'n' roll icons. Gioia dissects many songs, but he doesn't write beyond the understanding of general readers, creating the rare combination of a tome that is both deeply informative and enjoyable to read. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"...the passionate blues singing of Mississippi's steamy cotton fields ultimately gave rise to rock'n'roll. Ted Gioia expertly traces its colourful history and heroes." Books of the Year 2008, The Economist "[A] rich and illuminating study... Gioia, who has researched thoroughly and listened carefully, does a splendid job of telling the story on a broad canvas..." Mick Brown, The Daily Telegraph "Gioia's depth of research is breathtaking...The author's sheer passion for the music comes through on every page, and you can almost hear those old shellac 78s as you read his descriptions." thebookbag.co.uk "He uses original research, interviews with reliable sources and his own calm, argument-closing incantations to draw a line through a century of the Delta blues." International Herald Tribune "Gioia's intermittently brilliant and always compelling investigation of the blues is marked with a musician's ear for the form and a fan's enthusiasm for both the recordings and the artists." The HeraldSee all Product Description
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I would add, however, be sure to read this book with your iTunes open and youtube available. I read this book on vacation and felt I lost an added layer of understanding that would have been added by listening to the music as he describes it.
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The book begins by examining the various ideas as to how the blues developed. The introductory sections also discuss how African-American music came to gain acceptance by the larger society (minstrel shows, for example). But the heart of the book is the exploration of the variety of blues singers and musicians. One problem to recognize at the outset is that very little is known about many of the earlier musicians, including people as important to the blues as Son House and Charley Patton. One aspect of the book that was compelling to me is the detective work by Ted Gioia, the author, to provide as much decent information as possible about the biographies of the men and women in the book. He tries to make sense out of sketchy information and earlier biographical sketches of the blues players.
The subsequent discussion considers the "Mississippi masters," one by one. Some are rather brief, given the paucity of information, of talents such as Louise Johnson or Willie Brown. Others are more detailed, where more abundant and credible information is available. We read of Son House's battle between religion and music; we learn of the travails of Robert Johnson; the Odyssey of Muddy Waters from the Delta to Chicago.
The book concludes by examining how some of the old blues players were rediscovered in the 1960s and actually experienced career success in a way not possible earlier, such as Mississippi John Hurt or Son House or Bukka White. We also read of the possibility of a rebirth of talent in the Delta, with speculation about the future of the blues there. Once can quibble about stretching what we know of these old musicians based on limited evidence, but--all in all--this is a terrific addition to the literature on the blues and should be welcome to those interested in this genre.
"I found myself listening to the same blues music I had heard in my youth with much different ears, and certainly no longer with the glib assurance that I had plumbed its depths. On the contrary, the music now seemed multilayered, otherworldly, elusive. I sensed a richness to these songs, especially the older blues from the Delta tradition, that I had missed before." (p. x)
Throughout the book, Gioia writes about the history of the Delta blues, the performers, and the music with passion and knowledge.
The history of the Delta blues can be divided into two large parts. The first is the traditional blues, performed by artists on the farms, plantations, prisons, juke joints, streets, railroad stations of the Delta itself. Generally traditional blues were performed by one person or sometimes two persons, singing and accompanying himself on guitar or harmonica. This type of traditional blues generally ended with Muddy Waters's recordings on the Stovall Plantation in Mississippi for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress in 1943.
The second period of the Delta blues began when blues musicians migrated from the Delta and moved to Chicago or other cities. When they did so, they generally electrified their guitars and began performing in bands rather than as individuals. Their music became influenced by other musical styles and by commercial considerations. It led to rock and roll and then in turn became heavily influenced by rock. Here again Muddy Waters is the prototypical figure with his move to Chicago shortly after his sessions with Lomax.
In his book, Gioia discusses thoroughly both these forms of the Delta blues and he shows their relationship. But his heart clearly is with the early blues masters. This early music is wild, raw and primitive. In its anguish, simplicity, repeated guitar patterns, and harmonic quirkiness, it brought something to music that was not found elsewhere, either in the classics or in other forms of popular music. The Delta blues was music of outcasts and loners, of untutored musicians who lacking musical training struggled to express what was in them. The bluesmen lived undisciplined lives filled with wandering, alcohol, violence, prisons and Parchman Farm, and lost love. These passions they expressed through music.
Most importantly, many bluesmen were conflicted between what they perceived as their rootless, sinful life in the blues and the force of religion. The Delta blues show a distinctively metaphysical, personal cast. The tension between the life of a vagrant musician and a life devoted to God pervades the music of Son House, Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson and others. Gioia is at his best when he describes this tension and gives it central place in his treatment of the Delta blues. He describes as well the origins of the music, its recording history, and the biographies of its practitioners. He analyzes the music in a way that lay readers may follow easily. In addition to the musicians that have now become well-known, Gioia describes obscure figures such as blueswomen Geeshie Wiley and the rare Delta woman blues pianist Louise Johnson.
Gioia offers as well a sympathetic portrayal of the Delta blues beginning in the 1940s with its urbanization and increased sophistication. His portrayals of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and their relationship with Leonard Chess and Chess records in Chicago were brought home in the recent movie "Cadillac Records" which I found captured the spirit of this urban transformation of the Delta Blues. Besides Waters and Wolf, Gioia devotes extensive attention to the long careers of John Lee Hooker and B.B. King. Gioia's treatment of King is particularly detailed as he portrays King's early days in the Delta, his blues scholarship and knowledge, and the many transformations in his music and in its reception over the years.
Writing of the early Delta blues in particular, Gioia states "This is strange, wonderful music no less peculiar for having achieved lasting appeal and commercial success" (p.5). Gioia's in-depth treatment of traditional Delta blues has inspired me to revisit this great American music. The book includes an excellent bibliography and a list of 100 Delta blues songs for listening and study.
It's been some four decades since this writer developed his love and enthusiasm for the blues, particularly those blues artists rooted in the Mississippi Delta and surrounding area. As a freshman in college, I bought and read Samuel Charters The Bluesmen, as well as various books by Paul Oliver. I also purchased reissues of rare country blues on Yazoo, Origin Jazz and Blues Classics, as well as albums by Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson on Chess; B.B. King and John Lee Hooker on Bluesway; Elmore James on United and a variety of other acts. Charters' book brought alive the music and personalities of the artists he focused on, which included not simply the great artists from the Delta, but also such pioneering Texas blues artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Texas Alexander. Written at the time that Son House, Skip James and Bukka White had been rediscovered and were performing, and with the contemporaneous interviews that he drew upon, he made these artists and their recordings larger than life.
The Bluesmen was a major factor that led me into my four decades old obsession with blues artists and their music. I start reading DownBeat for the incisive articles and reviews by Pete Welding and John Litweiler, the pioneering British publications Blues Unlimited and Blues World, (to which I made modest contributions), and then Living Blues when it began publishing. New information on the blues legends came out along with numerous reissues of rare recordings. Robert Palmer published his pioneering Deep Blues, while Living Blues and Blues Unlimited (and after Blues Unlimited folded, Juke Blues and Blues & Rhythm) published lengthy interviews with the likes of Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood, Eddie Taylor, Snooky Pryor and others. In light of the surprise success of the Robert Johnson reissue box around 1990, much was written on Johnson and his music and influences, with Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues being important in both debunking myths about Johnson's life, as well as highlighting Johnson's place in the history of the blues. And, in addition to several books about Johnson, we have been fortunate to have had biographies about some of the major figures in blues from the Delta including Skip James, Charlie Patton, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Elmore James, Little Walter, Memphis Minnie, and Jimmy Reed. And if Mack McCormick never finished his planned Robert Johnson biography (or his equally important book on Texas Blues and Music), his work has been drawn on others including Peter Guralnick.
Ted Gioia's new book Delta Blues was a surprise when I heard of it. I was familiar with his History of Jazz and his book on West Coast Jazz, but a new book on the deep blues that came out of Mississippi was intriguing. This music, that moves so many of us, was rooted in a community living under the most oppressive conditions. In summarizing what we know about the music's early days and the lives of some of the pioneering artists, Gioia provides a useful service. Gioia integrates the writings of Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow in putting together portraits of Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson and Skip James, and adds some brief sketches of Big Joe Williams and Tommy McClennan as well as highlight the importance of H.C. Speir, who was the talent scout that led to most of the great Delta artists recording. But his focus, even on the early Delta blues, is on the guitarist-vocalists, and outside of brief mentions of Louise Johnson (who recorded at one of Charlie Patton's sessions) and Skip James, there is essentially no discussion of the blues piano tradition of the Delta region or its proponents.
Gioia perhaps places too much relevance in the fact that some early blues recordings were reworked by such rock acts as Cream, Rolling Stones, Canned Heat and Led Zeppelin. In discussing James' I'm So Glad, Gioia goes beyond simply noting Cream would rework the song, and incredulously includes Cream's jam-rock live recording as one of the 100 Essential Blues Recordings. Discussing Johnson, he traces his life and discusses his recordings while integrating the recollections of Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood, Honeyboy Edwards and others who knew the pioneering blues artist. In addition to the music and biography, he also attempts to counterbalance the writings of Elijah Wald and Barry Lee Pearson who had debunked the Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil myth with a suggestion that Johnson may have presented himself as having done so to the public.
Gioia takes us forward with discussion of the Delta recordings for the Library of Congress that Alan Lomax made, focusing on the sessions with Son House and Honeyboy Edwards as well as Muddy Waters. The discussion of Muddy Waters leads off a detailed discussion of his music and career, along with similarly detailed examinations of John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King. There is a brief overview of Mississippi blues in Chicago and a chapter on the blues revival, detailing the rediscovery and postwar careers of some early blues pioneers. However, seminal Mississippi blues artists like Elmore James and Jimmy Reed are dealt with not as thoroughly, and such equally important Delta artists as Albert King and Sonny Boy Williamson are not dealt with in any substantial fashion.
There are also curious statements made, including one that Jimmy Reed failed to achieve fame or critical recognition in the blues world. The statement simply is foreign to my understanding as a blues fan. Also, in the limited discussion of Elmore James he doesn't discuss James' travels with Robert Johnson or Steve Franz's assertion that Dust my Broom was as much James' song as Johnson's. Enamored by Honeyboy Edwards, Gioia repeats Edwards' claim, without challenge, that Chess held his material back because they would not compete with Muddy Waters. Honeyboy's rendition of Drop Down Mama was first issued on a Chess album of that name nearly four decades ago along with rare and previously unissued recordings by Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Shines, Blue Smitty, Floyd Jones and Big Boy Spires. Listening to that one song in the context of the others on that album, it is likely that Honeyboy's Chess recordings lay unissued because they weren't very good.
You will not find the names of Floyd Jones, Arthur Big Boy' Spires, or Blue Smitty, or their recordings discussed in this book, despite them being equal to some of the recordings that Gioia considers essential. Nor will you find any detailed discussion of the commercial post-war delta recordings of Drifting Slim, Junior Brooks, Boyd Gilmore, Joe Hill Louis, Dr. Ross, J.B. Lenoir, John Littlejohn, Charlie Booker, Walter Horton or Willie Nix. While Sam Phillips and Sun records is acknowledged, the important role of Joe Bihari's field trips in the South, usually with Ike Turner, and the legacy of the recordings he made of Delta artists is ignored. One will not find Pinetop Perkins, whose piano played such a big role in the Delta blues scene of the forties and fifties, in the book's index.
And it is not that the missing artists are biographical phantoms. The late Mike Leadbitter conducted pioneering research on the post-war blues in the Delta Region that has been followed up by many, including most notably, Jim O'Neal. There have been articles published and essays in the booklets accompanying recent reissues of these Delta Blues recordings. Several of the English Ace Records reissues of the Modern Downhome Blues Sessions contain Jim O'Neal's scholarly discussion of the sessions and artists. The volumes devoted the Delta region have been available for a couple of years. In fairness, I have no idea whether Gioia approached O'Neal and others (such as Bill O'Donohue who is writing a biography of Rice Sonny Boy Williamson' Miller) about their research. It is possible that work is still ongoing on the post-war Delta blues volume and that some material was not open to be shared, awaiting its separate publication. But the fact is that some of the results of this research have been published. Nothing in the text, or the list of recommended reading provided by Gioia indicates he made use of such material. There is also no reference or the use of the autobiography by the late Delta blues harmonica player, Sam Myers.
His discussion of the blues revival provides an overview of the rediscovery of some of the prewar artists who found a new audience for their music as well as discusses some of the more recent artists uncovered such as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough and the Fat Possum label, but there is no mention of the late Jesse Mae Hemphill, nor of Roosevelt Booba' Barnes, the remarkable singer-guitarist who ran his own Mississippi juke joint, or Joe Willie Wilkins, another associate of Robert Johnson and later guitarist on King Biscuit Time, who Steve Lavere recorded and produced an extremely rare, but excellent album by.
Gioia provides a list for further reading, which also has significant omissions relating to books germane to his text. He does not include several of Paul Oliver's writings (a couple of Oliver's books are included, but not The Story of the Blues, and Oliver's writings specifically directed at the questions of the blues origins are not listed). Another significant omission is Mike Rowe's Chicago Breakdown. Gioia also provides a dubious list of 100 essential blues recordings (Gioia selects songs, not albums, because albums might go in and out of print). The uselessness of this list is seen by the inclusion of a Cream recording but nothing by Eddie Taylor, Floyd Jones, Boyd Gilmore, Junior Brooks, Willie Huff, Little Johnnie Jones, Sunnyland Slim, Robert Lockwood or Jesse Mae Hemphill to name a few. If one is going to include Bessie Smith and Blind Lemon Jefferson for context, where are representative recordings by Leroy Carr and Lonnie Johnson? I would also question some specific choices such as Tommy McClennan's Bottle Up and Go, whose controversial lyrics was atypical of McClennan's recordings. I would suggest checking out Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, and track down the various recordings Wald discusses.
One might be more forgiving of Gioia if there was substantial new material presented here, but there is little, if any, here. There is discussion that many will find insightful of the music, and Gioia's consideration of the musical legacy of John Lee Hooker is the most credible discussion of John Lee Hooker's recordings readily available; and there is also cogent discussion with respect to early 78-RPM recordings by Mississippi artists. In fact, he shares, with long-standing enthusiasts of the music, the recognition that some of the recordings that reach us so deeply had little, if any, commercial success. At the same time, one still must place the performers accurately in the history of this music, not simply relying on the fact it influenced modern popular artists. Gioia simply does not cover the full spectrum of Delta Blues or the idiom's performers.
In addition to photographs of some of the principal figures here (many from Dick Waterman's collection), the book does benefit from Neil Harpe's artwork. Neil, based in Annapolis, Maryland, is an accomplished artist as well as a pretty darn good blues guitarist and vocalist, and even if I am not very enthusiastic about this book, I am about the artwork. That does not change the fact that this book is simply not the authoritative work on the Delta Blues that it is proclaimed to be on the back cover. That work requires substantially deeper digging into the entire Delta Blues history.
Gioia writes with the hand of an historian and the ear of a musician. Much more than a "fan book," Delta Blues places the history of this musical form into its unique context as history, folk art and commercial endeavor. He never bogs down in detail, and manages to keep up a central narrative told across episodes from the history of the Delta blues. Each chapter tells a different story of the Blues, but maintains the momentum of the previous chapter and contributes to the next.
Even if you're not a music lover, read this book!
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