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

4.6 out of 5 stars 45 customer reviews

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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; y 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: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,202,445 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Steven Peterson TOP 1000 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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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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
For those would like to dig deeper into the roots of American music, this book offers an excellent, thorough investigation into the pioneers that developed what has become to be known as Delta Blues, or alteratively known as Country Blues. Mr. Gioia is a fantastic writer...his style of writing evokes thoughtfulness, intelligence, and witty humor, all written in an elegant style without being hard to understand. The way he phrases his ideas utilizes the best combination of clarity and sophistication that I have ever seen!

For those like me who are already familiar with (and/or a fan of) Delta Blues, I still consider this book a must-read, as he delves into areas not tirelessly already explored in other writings, and he does a great job contrasting/comparing the music/lives of various artists that define the genre. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There have been many blues books published over the years focussing on individual blues styles and artists. However, there isn't a single source that traces the entire arc of the Delta Blues from it's absolute origins at the turn of the century, through the era of the classic "blues singers" of the 20's and 30's...all the way through the great Chicago Blues heroes (with delta roots). This book does an excellent job of just that. This book runs in chronoligical order tracing the history of the blues with chapters dedicated to each "era" of the blues, with emphasis on a particular artists that personified that era. So we've got chapters that focus on (Charley Patton, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King...etc). As a bonus, each chapter not only focuses on the primary artist, but the artistis in their "orbits" as well...so the Charley Patton chapter talks about Son House and Willie Brown...the Muddy chapter talks about Jimmie Rogers and Little Walter...etc....The net result of this approach is a sort of "Greatist Hits" of blues books...you literally get snapshots of all the history/anecdoes that have been populated in various sources over the last 50 years...all in one place...making this the perfect place to start your blues history lesson.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is an exceptional reference book because it covers not only the musical side of the blues, but also the business side. I had seen Henry Speir mentioned before, but had not realized the full role that he played. He was an astute businessman in Jackson, Mississippi, who discovered a niche market among his black customers. This was the era of vinyl 78 rpm records, and he could sell them for 75 cents apiece making a profit of 30 cents - that does not sound like a lot until you multiply it by the hundreds and consider the time period in question. To enhance his sales, he sought out promising musicians and auditioned them at his store - not always an easy task - when he went to the Dockery Plantation to find Charlie Patton he was viewed with suspicion by plantation oversears, and he neglected to take along a flask for Patton. Spier was in it for the money, and he had a major influence on the blues both by his decisions on what type of music he liked and was willing to audition, and his efforts to get the music recorded by the labels such as Victor and Paramount. There were similar efforts by other businessmen, such as the store owner in Dallas who took Blind Lemon Jefferson to Chicago to audition at Paramount, but none were at the scale of Henry Speir.

Blues musicians were where you found them, whether they were busking on a street corner, working on a plantation, playing in juke joints, or confined to the state prison at Parchman. People seeking them out were able to capture some, but not all of the music. The book covers a good many of he main players, but not all, particularly when all were not from the Delta (leaving out Blind Willie McTell from Georgia, Blind Blake from who knows were, and others - Memphis Minnie, aka, Lizzie Douglas is only mentioned in passing).
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