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Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music Hardcover – October 17, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

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.)
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From Booklist

A decade after The History of Jazz (1997), Gioia is back with some blues history. Even casual fans know the tales of deals with the devil in which the supplicant bargains for preternatural musical talents. Gioia merrily dissects those and other myths while, for all intents and purposes, comprehensively updating Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues (1981). Applying sound research methods, Gioia addresses the contention that the blues masters weren’t trying to create great art but merely trying to eke out a living by pointing out that the artistry latter-day fans descry results from their dedication as performers, regardless of aesthetic intentions. Adherence to internalized stock artistic conceits, amplified by cultural isolation, eventuated in a body of art almost in spite of the fortunes of the individual performers. And speaking of individual performers, Gioia updates the biographies of blues players from legendary dealer-with-the-devil Robert Johnson to B. B. King, according special attention to less-celebrated musicians, such as Reverend Robert Wilkins, whose “That’s No Way to Get Along” became the Rolling Stones’ “Prodigal Son.” --Mike Tribby

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition first Printing edition (October 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393062589
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393062588
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #688,828 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ted Gioia is a pianist, critic and music historian. The Dallas Morning News has called him "one of the outstanding music historians in America." Two of Gioia's works have been named notable books of the year by the New York Times, and three others have been honored with the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award. In addition, Gioia was one of the founders of the jazz studies program at Stanford and formerly served as editor-in-chief of, a major music web portal.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Steven A. Peterson TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful work for those interested in the blues--and more specifically, the Delta blues. First thing to know: I used to think that the Delta blues came from the delta of the Mississippi River as it flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. Boy, was my geography wrong! The delta referred to is the land between and around the confluence of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers. And what blues players emerged from this poor, difficult country. To name some of them is to name some of the best known blues players of all time--Charley Patton, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and B. B. King.

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.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A. Levine on January 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This book offers a great synthesis of sharp analysis about the origins of the blues and its impact, coupled with trenchant biographical details about all the great Delta figures, from Charley Patton through Howlin' Wolf and beyond. Even if you've read Palmer's Deep Blues, Elijah Wald's revisiting of the music of Robert Johnson, Paul Oliver's work, Alan Lomax, Francis Davis's history of the blues, and other major works and biographies, this book offers something special. It will have you running back to your CD collection or ordering (or downloading) new albums. You'll listen to the music in fresh ways and learn something new about artists you thought you knew well.
Highly recommended.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 11, 2008
Format: Hardcover
For many years, the blues of the Mississippi Delta were all but forgotten. With the combination of cross over or urbanized performances and scholarly interest, the blues have experienced a resurgence. Ted Gioia's new book "Delta Blues: the Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters who Revolutionized American Music" (2008) is the most recent work which carefully studies the Delta blues tradition Gioia is a performer and a scholar who began with an interest in jazz. As a young jazz musician, Gioia tells the reader that he thought that he understood the nature of the blues in terms of harmony, rhythm, and chord patterns. Only as a result of maturity and years of close study did he become aware of the "deeper essence" of the music (page ix). Gioia writes:

"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.
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50 of 70 people found the following review helpful By R. Weinstock VINE VOICE on February 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This review originally appeared in my blog,

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.
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