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In Search of the Blues Hardcover – January 28, 2008

3.4 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"High Fidelity excepted, books about record collectors are pretty rare, but here's one, and it's brilliant...An instant classic." -- Record Collector

"In Search of the Blues renders, in shimmering prose, superb field recordings of the blues searchers themselves, revealing why they searched, what they found, and how their humble, obsessed pursuits helped change the world." -- Sean Wilentz

"Marybeth Hamilton is a detective pursuing other detectives--the motley group of characters who, over the course of the twentieth century, bit by bit uncovered the mysteries of the blues--who are, as it turns out, both so many Schliemanns at Troy and so many blind men circling the proverbial elephant. Hamilton's story is riveting, her prose is elegant and concise, and her insights about the music, race relations, and the mechanics of cultural transmission are unfailingly acute." -- Luc Sante

"Though critical, Hamilton's portraits aren't one-sided. Rich bits of context--including memorable excerpts from Lomax's love letters--insure that we sympathize with the usually well meaning enthusiasts. The result is a challenging and surprisingly timely book: In Search of the Blues serves as a reminder that even in the hip-hop era, white connoisseurship of black culture remains a complicated matter." -- Time Out New York, 2/6/08

"Wherever you happen to light in Marybeth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues you find Columbus--the discovery of America in the drama of Americans discovering each other. It's no matter that it's the twentieth century, not the fifteenth--blacks and whites are strangers, so white people turn into detectives and black people into fugitives, shadows on the wall or hiding in plain sight. In this book, you never know how any story is going to turn out, and as the story goes on the suspense builds up." -- Greil Marcus

About the Author

Marybeth Hamilton teaches American history at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is the author of When I’m Bad, I’m Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment and the writer and presenter of documentary features for BBC radio. She lives in London, England.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; New edition edition (January 28, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465028586
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465028580
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,354,680 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
In her book, "Inventing the Blues" (2008), Marybeth Hamilton advances the provocative claim that the blues, more specifially tbe Delta Blues, is a form of music created in large part by the imaginations of white men. I do not find her argument compelling, to say the least. Nevertheless, I found this book worth reading for the story it tells about how various individuals pioneered in the study of the blues beginning early in the 20th Century to the revival of interest in blues music in the 1960s. Although her book is unconvincing and even infuriating in some respects, it is valuable for those readers with an interest in the blues. Hamilton, born in California, teaches American history at Birkbeck College, University of London, and has written other books on aspects of American popular culture.

Early in her book, (p.22) Hamilton says she is not going to cover the development of the Delta Blues as a musical style by analyzing the songs of Charlie Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson and other bluesmen. She points to Robert Palmer's study "Deep Blues" as among the works that have explored the music. Instead, Hamilton proposed to show how her central characters, all of whom are white, "set out to find an undiluted and primal black music." Hamilton then asks what it was that drove these indivduals to think that an "undiluted and primal black" music existed and why it was important to these individuals to find it. The way Hamilton frames her question largely presupposes her result. The works of Palmer and other writers such as Ted Gioia in his excellent recent study "Delta Blues" examine the blues by looking at the blues, bluesmen and blueswomen. Hamilton will have little of this and begins with the assumption that the blues was somehow a conceptual creation of whites.
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Format: Hardcover
In this remarkably misguided book, author Marybeth Hamilton (ex-punk rocker, now professor of American History) asks why historians who write about the blues often do so romantically, without the "methodological rigor (and) unsparing eye" of true historians, like, presumably, herself. As the opening chapter makes abundantly clear, Hamilton possesses far too little knowledge or interest in blues, the Deep South, or the early recording industry to even be asking such questions, much less to be writing a book around the subject. That the author cannot discern between an orchestrated jazz disc with the word "blues" in the title (Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues") and the music of Charley Patton says a great deal about her fundamental (mis)understanding of the blues and vernacular music. In the pages that follow, we learn much more about Marybeth Hamilton than we do about the blues.

An example: The fact that the records of Delta bluesmen were not found on a Delta jukebox in 1941 supposedly tells us that "even in the heart of the Delta, the so-called Delta bluesman had limited appeal." No doubt an important point. But since none of the artists she names (Patton et al.) even had records currently in print in 1941, the jukebox actually tells us nothing -- so much for the author's "methodological rigor." We have no idea how much or how little appeal these artists actually had locally when their records were current, a crucial point Hamilton misses completely in her mad rush to dismiss the mythos of Delta blues as purely the invention of "faintly colonialist" white obsessives (a dumb epithet used to describe every single folklorist in this book).
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Format: Hardcover
The premise of In Search of the Blues is that "delta blues" is a nothing more than the sham creation of white men. This is an interesting proposition, and, ever the skilled advocate, Ms. Marshall does a fair job of making her case. But from the beginning, Marshall overlooks the most important "fact" of all: the music is real. Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy, etc. -- these are real people who lived real lives playing real music on real instruments and who made real records. It is not the contrived creation of some New York publishing company. To be sure, as Marshall goes to great lengths to point out, many of the records are obscure, produced in limited quantities and sold only regionally, only to be discovered an championed years later by record collectors. So what! What is important is not the contents of a jukebox in 1941, but what has been played and spread in jukes, porches, churches (yes, churches -- consider the Fred McDowell record "Amazing Grace" and Mississippi John Hurt's recording of "I shall not be moved") for nearly a 100 years. This is revisionist blather with an agenda. Avoid.
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Format: Hardcover
I've actually read this book.

It's a good, thorough, entertaining, and well-written account of the where blues came from and where it fits into the history of music.

I found myself at the end before I realized it. There are copious end notes (a good thing), so the text itself comprises only 2/3 of the size.

There is no hidden agenda or historical revisionism; you'll find no identity politics or apologists for racism here.

Modern blues legends aren't mentioned because this covers the advent of the blues and how those in the midst of its birth wrote about it. Therefore, it does not include any of the many artists of the 60s and onward who were influenced by the original blues artists.

Of great interest to me personally was the brief history of recorded music in general, and the views of various strata of society at the time.

This book deserves to become part of the cannon for classes on music history.
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