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Ed Ward on Ted Gioia’s ‘Delta Blues’
Posted on Nov 7, 2008
By Ed Ward
A lot of this activity was driven by obsessives, though, and almost by definition obsessives have narrow visions. Both because of the rarity of the recordings and the deep emotionalism of the music by performers from there, a lot of the blues researchers focused on Mississippi. (Well, that and the hope of discovering more about Robert Johnson.) On the other hand, I knew nothing about most of what I was listening to, and if you’d asked me when I was 15 which old blues records meant the most to me, it would have been a snap. First would have been Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blues,” which turned my blood to ice water the first time I heard it on the “Anthology,” and which just now gave me a chill when I typed the title. Then another “Anthology” track, “Expressman Blues,” by Sleepy John Estes, which featured a piano and a mandolin with Estes’ guitar. “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” by Mississippi John Hurt, too, since I was one of 10,000 aspiring guitarists deceived by how simple his guitar style sounded. And without a doubt, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” an unearthly bottleneck guitar solo untethered from any rhythmic considerations and made even spookier by Johnson’s hummed, wordless vocal.
And this list, which is pretty unremarkable—plenty of blues fans would agree this is a good selection—brings me to Ted Gioia’s book “Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music.” All of the recordings on my list are deeply personal songs, all (except the Estes, which remains obscure) are considered touchstones, classics of the blues. But only one of them has its origins in Mississippi, and it’s not blues. Brown was from New Orleans, Estes from Tennessee, and Blind Willie Johnson from Plano, Texas (where, I see, Gioia now lives). Hurt, although some of the songs he recorded for Okeh in 1928 have the word blues added to their titles, was in the “songster” tradition that predates blues, which is thought to have been invented around 1900.
For something which was actually invented, blues spread incredibly fast. I think this was due to several factors. First, it could be performed by a single person, unlike the string band music that preceded it, with only a guitar (or a piano) for accompaniment. Second, it allowed for more personal lyrics, which allowed the performer to think of himself as a creator or an artist: an individual. Third, the stereotypical chord progression and AAB lyrical format made it easier to compose, leaving the performer room to supplement the composition with virtuosity, which also made it easier for him to be an artist. It was like rap in this respect (another African-American musical form that is very popular in the Mississippi Delta these days). And it gave a common language to its performers, meaning they could travel (something they were predisposed to) and perform for people far outside their area of origin. Robert Johnson is thought to have performed as far away from Mississippi as New York and perhaps Canada, and it’s likely he wasn’t unique in this. The one-man, one-guitar format also made it easier to record this music on primitive equipment.
So while blues may have originated in Mississippi—Gioia naturally repeats W.C. Handy’s anecdote about hearing “a lean, loose-jointed Negro” playing “the weirdest music I had ever heard” at the Tutwiler, Miss., railroad station in 1903—it shouldn’t be considered the exclusive property of the state any more than bluegrass should be confined to Kentucky (it did start in Kentucky but spread to Appalachian performers in Virginia and Tennessee as fast as Bill Monroe’s records could be sold). (The only American folk music that does have an exclusive origin is Hawaiian.)
To see a comment by Ted Gioia, author of “Delta Blues,” click here.
But, like the original folkie blues fans, Gioia prefers to … fetishize is perhaps too strong a word … focus on the Delta as the primary residence of the blues. Particularly in the later chapters, this trips him up. Furthermore, he doesn’t consider that influences may have come to the Delta blues from outside the state, especially via recordings, which were easily available and, at least until the Depression, sold very well to Mississippi’s African-American population. You can’t tell me that a Mississippi guitar player hearing Blind Willie Johnson or the Floridian Blind Blake wouldn’t realize he’d just been given orders to practice a bit harder, or that, hearing some now-forgotten guy who blew into town to play a dance, he might not have picked up some lyrical tricks to incorporate into his own act.
The book is divided into chapters that coalesce around single performers, but are loosely enough organized that the context of the central figure’s influences and followers is given full due. (They are also preceded by ludicrously inadequate pencil drawings of them by one Neil Harpo, most of which are based on photographs that, in my opinion, impart vastly more information about their subjects.) The holy trinity of the Delta Blues is there: Charley Patton, an older man who was a wildly successful recording artist and responsible for helping some of his friends, like Son House, get record deals; Robert Johnson, who recorded later and really only had one successful record during his career; and Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), who recorded for folklorists Alan Lomax and John Work on Aug. 24-31, 1941, with former Patton associate Henry “Son” Sims and, invigorated by the record the Library of Congress sent him in thanks, headed to Chicago to start a career that would revolutionize the blues and, eventually, rock ’n’ roll.
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