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Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music Hardcover – October 17, 2008
"Children of Blood and Bone"
Tomi Adeyemi conjures a stunning world of dark magic and danger in her West African-inspired fantasy debut. Pre-order today
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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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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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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. We read of Son House's battle between religion and music; we learn of the travails of Robert Johnson; the Odyssey of Muddy Waters from the Delta to Chicago.
The book concludes by examining how some of the old blues players were rediscovered in the 1960s and actually experienced career success in a way not possible earlier, such as Mississippi John Hurt or Son House or Bukka White. We also read of the possibility of a rebirth of talent in the Delta, with speculation about the future of the blues there. Once can quibble about stretching what we know of these old musicians based on limited evidence, but--all in all--this is a terrific addition to the literature on the blues and should be welcome to those interested in this genre.
The narrative envelops you in a layer of passion, but his objectivity is dispassionate as must to be in a great historian.
Now I'm reading his book about Jazz history.