Cataloguing the Blues | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Cataloguing the Blues

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Ted Gioia's "Delta Blues" (W.W. Norton, 2008, $27.95) rambles from Mississippi to Memphis, from Chicago to New York and across Europe, just like the musicians it documents. The book traces the development of acoustic country blues from the 1920s onward, showing how the music adapted itself to new fashions, recording techniques and audiences.

Gioia focuses each chapter on a particular musician, who exemplifies a new development in the music. In chapter 3, Charley Patton represents the rough, raw blues that emerged from plantations and prison farms. Chapter 6 concentrates on Robert Johnson as the music's first true virtuoso and recording star. Chapter 7, the Muddy Waters chapter, shows how the former McKinley Morganfield personified the music's electrification and then its migration to Chicago.

The penultimate chapter examines how B.B. King exemplified the Memphis blues, and its fusion with jazz and rock. With the chapter on Son House, Gioia shows how the influential artist demonstrated the music's tension between the secular and the Christian.

Although a single key figure governs each chapter, Gioia branches out from them regularly, connecting these representative musicians with those who influenced them and who they, in turn, affected. So, while the famous names are all here, "Delta Blues" also discusses the obscure paths down which the music has traveled. Robert Johnson shares space with Tommy Johnson, and relative unknowns, such as Bukka White, garner significant attention alongside John Lee Hooker. Through careful research and judicious speculation, he conjures up an entire world in which musicians are not isolated but always part of a larger picture.

A major part of this world consists of the amateur scholars who preserved the Delta blues. Throughout the book, Gioia discusses how collectors, agents and producers are central to shaping our understanding of "the blues." Scholars such as Alan Lomax, David Evans and Gayle Dean Wardlow recorded and researched the music, bringing now-seminal figures as Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell out of obscurity. Legendary impresario John Hammond promoted the country blues during the 1940s and 1950s, keeping it alive when mainstream white audiences weren't keen on accepting gritty black music. Sam Phillips (of Sun Records) and the Chess brothers (founders of Chess Records) among others mass-produced and sold the music. In the 1960s, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones rekindled interest in the blues when American audiences thought it was passé.

While the Delta blues creators were almost all black, the music's producers and preservers are almost all white. Gioia doesn't shy away from analyzing this tension and how often the musicians were exploited, or how often the music's reception and influence was racially charged. In chapter 7, for instance, Gioia takes on the claim that Lomax, perhaps the most famous of all preservers of black popular music, "unfairly downplayed the contributions of his (black) collaborators from Fisk University." Gioia ultimately brushes aside the argumentדRoger Abrahams, a noted scholar of African-American culture, has indicated that Lomax was very open in talking about his Fisk collaboration. Lomax even opened up his files, showing Abrahams the Fisk documents, and offering to share themԗbut his willingness to engage such arguments throughout the book is refreshing.

Gioia's prose is vivid, but the narrative suffers from repetition. Some of this is unavoidable. The Delta is geographically small; the music's primary developments happened over a relatively short timeframe; and most of the musicians knew each other and recorded for the same labels and producers. Gioia wisely shows these people in conversation with each other, so it's inevitable that the same kinds of anecdotes and journeys repeat themselves.

Still, by making each chapter essentially a musician's biography, there's a sameness to the chapter trajectories: (1) recording in obscurity in youth; (2) decades of labor and hard times; (3) discovery about 30 years after the fact; (4) fame and touring; (5) and then slow decline and death. Some of the lives blur into each other. When, near the end, Gioia writes that "moral scruples—yes, again!—almost derailed (Mississippi Fred) McDowell's guitar career long before he was discovered by Lomax." That "yes, again!" rings out. Gioia has already told a variant of this story about Son House, Skip James, and several others, and it's as if even the writer realizes how monotonous this is.

Gioia's prose loses some vigor near the end. He discusses the possibilities for blues renewal and change only briefly. He lists several young blues-based acts—the Black Keys, Chris Thomas King, Keb Mo, the North Mississippi All Stars—but rarely fully describes their sounds. Though he notes the rise of the fife-and-drum tradition in north Mississippi, Gioia barely mentions modern Africa's connections with American blues.

In the end, "Delta Blues" is slightly dispiriting. Gioia makes clear that, by the mid-1960s, most of what's happening in blues music is blues revival (preservation) rather than blues resurgence (continuation and moving forward). Though Gioia never explicitly says so, the blues has become a museum exhibit. As such, this book is its definitive catalog.

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