Category: Music and Dance

Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music

By Ted Gioia. 2009. New York: W.W. Norton. 464 pages. ISBN: 978-0393337501 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Barry Lee Pearson, University of Maryland

[Review length: 917 words • Review posted on December 15, 2015]

[Cover ofDelta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music]

A well-written foray, albeit into well-travelled territory, Delta Blues offers another updated retelling of America’s favorite musical origin story. While not universally accepted as our only, or even primary, story, it has a familiar plot and is easy to remember. As the story goes, blues emerges from the Mississippi Delta mud where it is noticed by musician promoter W.C. Handy, shaped by Charlie Patton, refined by Robert Johnson, carried north, restructured in a band format and electrified by Muddy Waters, and handed over to the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, who successfully put it on the world rock and roll stage. Repetition and a near fanatical support of its adherents has fixed the tale in American memory.

This version covers 400 pages divided into eleven chapters (note: all chapter headings are in lower case). Chapter 1, “blues and the old kingdom,” provides a context briefly discussing blues, the Mississippi Delta, and African diasporic traditions. Chapter 2, “where the southern crosses the dog,” cites early references to proto-blues. Chapter 3, “dockery’s plantation,” focuses primarily on Charley Patton, talent broker H.C. Spair, and the race record business. Chapter 4, “parchman prison,” presents Son House, Bukka White, Willie Brown, and several obscure artists. Chapter 5, “hard time killin’ floor,” looks to Tommy Johnson and Skip James. Chapter 6, “hell hound on my trail,” focuses on Robert Johnson, of course. Chapter 7, “i’m a rolling stone,” discusses Muddy Waters, Lomax’s fieldwork, the move to Chicago, and the Chess brothers. Chapter 8, “hooker’s boogie,” is an overview of John Lee Hooker’s life and art. Chapter 9, “smokestack lightnin’,” does the same with Howlin’ Wolf. Chapter 10, “riding with the king,” concentrates on B.B. King; and finally chapter 11, “the blues revival,” considers the 1960s white interest in blues as folk music and as rock, and includes the rediscovery of John Hurt, Bukka White, Son House, and Skip James. The author also provides notes, a list of 100 suggested songs, a brief list of suggested readings, an index, photographs, and eleven drawings by graphic artist, musician, and Stella guitar historian Neil Harpe.

As the chapter headings and cast indicate, Gioia works with familiar Delta artists, “the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music,” yet for all the focus on musicians, the book shows no evidence, acknowledgements, or citations indicating that he talked to the blues tradition-bearers he presents. Instead, he talked to researchers who talked to musicians: Sam Charters, David Evans, Mack McCormick, Gayle Dean Wardlaw, Stephan Calt, Alan Lomax, et al. So despite the fact that the author is a jazz musician, the voices in the book besides his own are those collected by other researchers and the researchers themselves. This would be fine were his subject a history of blues scholarship, but that’s far from his intent. In fact, he shows little awareness of or tolerance for recent blues scholarship, unless it supports his own orthodox vision. His book may as well be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Charters’s The Country Blues by returning to the mystery, romance, and speculation that characterized that influential work. The difference, however, is that Charters, working alone in an information vacuum, used forced imaginative writing and mystery to augment his own limited field research. Gioia, on the other hand, with an incredible wealth of information at the tip of his fingers, chooses to frame his subjects in an aura of mystery. Moreover, like Charters, he leans toward unnecessary speculation. For example, he speculates that if Charley Patton had not died in 1934, he may have been discovered and been recorded by Alan Lomax in the 1940s, become a mainstay on the Chicago scene during its golden age in the 1950s, and gone on to become a living legend during the blues revival in the 1960s. Perhaps not impossible but highly improbable and more a question of Gioia’s high regard for his hero’s drawing power than what black record buyers demonstrated.

But that’s the trouble with his overall attitude toward and approach to Delta blues. He may be a jazz musician, but he follows a literary path blazed by Charters, Griel Marcus’s Mystery Train, and Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues, all of which share a vision of blues as stark, unworldly, fraught with guilt and trauma—a vision most blues artists find hard to fathom. As Gioia presents it, Delta blues is to the rest of the blues tradition what the book of Revelations is to the rest of the Bible, and its masters tend to be haunted by guilt, outsiders singing the trauma of their own experiences. Such portraiture reflects common stereotypes about pre-war Delta artists, in this case Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Son House, and Skip James, but by and large falls apart when blues hits the big town. But, even so, Gioia seeks mystery wherever he can find it, in John Lee Hooker’s boogie or Howlin’ Wolf’s voice. Despite edging towards a more even-handed interpretation of his artists’ work, he seems constantly drawn back to mystery, so much so that it becomes clear that the mystery derives less from the artists or the blues than from the author’s own preconception, which conveniently also has popular appeal. Along the same lines, he seems unaware of the ways in which white researchers and writers have shaped popular perception of blues and its practitioners. Finally, where most recent blues scholarship has sought to demystify blues and humanize blues artists, Delta Blues reverses the process.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.