Delta Blues by Ted Gioia

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Delta Blues by Ted Gioia

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A history of the blues from its origins in the Delta region of Mississippi, through the careers of the early performers and to the 'blues revival' of the 1960s and beyond. It's highly recommended by Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: November 2008
Publisher: W W Norton & Co
ISBN: 978-0393062588

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Without Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry or the Beatles, rock'n'roll and the music industry as we know it today might never have existed. But without the Delta bluesmen who were recording from the 1920s onwards, there would probably have been no Elvis (or else he would have spent the rest of his life driving trucks as he did in his teens).

Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, Muddy Waters and many others are by and large shadowy figures who are known largely for having inspired a later generation of enthusiasts such as Eric Clapton, Paul Jones, and the Rolling Stones. This first-rate book not only traces the careers of the founding blues fathers, but also puts them in the socio-economic context that shaped the sound and the lyrics. The Delta region of Mississippi was for years a byword for poverty and social deprivation. Far from being a barrier to creativity, the repression of daily life was to some extent an inspiration for music making. Needless to say, the true origins of the blues are lost in history, but the Delta soil and some of the people who made their living on it were at the forefront of the genre.

Gioia's depth of research is breathtaking. He weaves the geographical and social background skilfully with the early days of recorded music, and the importance of early blues legends like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. I was amused by the parallels he draws between Robert Johnson, who allegedly made a pact with the devil, and the hype that would surround the marketing of Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson half a century later. Some of the less remembered figures in the story, such as Ishmon Bracey, turned away from the blues after religious conversion, refusing to have anything to do with such weapons of devilry as guitars ever again. (Luckily the aforementioned Paul Jones, of Manfred Mann/Blues Band and Radio 2 fame, is living proof that it doesn't happen to everyone).

Though biographical details on some of these personalities are slender and often obscured by legend, he tells the stories as well as evidence will allow. He also discusses not only the performers themselves, but also the folk song collectors, promoters and producers, such as Alan Lomax and John Hammond, without whom the blues would never have reached such a wide audience. Moreover he finishes with a chapter on the blues revival and its rediscovery (to say nothing of that of the surviving and more or less retired elder blues musicians themselves) by younger fans and a mass audience in the 1960s.

It's sad that many of the great bluesmen died in ill-health and poverty. Thankfully some lived long enough to reap their just reward. For example, Skip James's last years were made more comfortable by the royalties when his seminal I'm So Glad was covered by Cream on their first album. John Lee Hooker was drawn out of retirement around the same time by his eager disciples Canned Heat, ditto Muddy Waters by Johnny Winter, while from a slightly later generation, B.B. King was feted by U2 and many of the other young guns - and is still performing into his eighties. On a slightly different note, Howlin' Wolf showed he could upstage the likes of Alice Cooper or Jim Morrison any day with some of his in-concert antics, not least his party piece involving a bottle of Coke.

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. Very wisely, he eschews an appendix of must-have compilations, which tend to date rapidly and are as he says rather superfluous in the digital downloading age. Instead he gives us a list of 100 recommended tracks at the end of the book.

Our thanks to Norton for sending a copy to Bookbag.

For another look at modern American music, why not try Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N Meyer.

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