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Ed Ward on Ted Gioia’s ‘Delta Blues’
Posted on Nov 7, 2008
By Ed Ward
What Gioia does best is to contextualize all these performers by giving plenty of detail about the secondary performers in their orbits. Patton and Johnson were both ramblers and solitaries, given to disappearing with no warning, leaving behind the women they were living with or married to, but also the guitarists and harmonica players who were sidemen on their gigs. Neither one liked the fieldwork and farming that were the primary source of income in the Delta, and Patton, at least, was viewed by some plantation owners as a disruptive influence on the workers, so this spurred his travels. Patton also had a sideline in preaching, which wasn’t as uncommon as the cliché of the blues as “devil’s music” would have us believe. Johnson, whose career started in earnest after his young wife died suddenly, took different names in different communities (to the chagrin of researchers trying to reconstruct his biography), and mentored the son of one of his girlfriends, Robert Lockwood, who became a blues performer himself. He also traveled extensively with a younger musician, Johnny Shines, who was rediscovered, intelligent, articulate and virtuosic, during the folk revival. Only Waters, who enjoyed farming (and bootlegging whiskey, a major source of income for him), stayed put on the plantation until his overwhelming ambition propelled him to Chicago.
The other usual suspects are here, too: the enigmatic John Lee Hooker, who migrated to Detroit via Memphis and Cincinnati in the early 1940s, leaving no trace behind in the Delta; Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett), a giant of a man who learned guitar from Charley Patton and harmonica from Rice Miller (who later found fame as Sonny Boy Williamson by appropriating the name of another star player who had been murdered) and hit Chicago in 1954 at the age of 44, driving a Cadillac his career in Memphis had bought him, his pockets stuffed with cash; and, of course, B.B. King, our last surviving connection with the Delta blues, who made his name in Memphis and eventually became an international star on a level that would have blown Charley Patton’s mind. A final chapter does a fairly good job of showing the folk revival’s rediscovery of Delta blues and Delta bluesmen, including the utterly enigmatic Nehemiah “Skip” James.
So while on the one hand we have a well-researched, detailed picture in a book that might well be called “Delta Blues: Everything We Know in 2008,” I found myself nagged by presences around the periphery of the picture. To begin with, there are the other African-American rural acoustic musics of which blues was just one genre at the birth of commercial recording and well into its adolescence. There is a remarkable, budget-priced four-CD collection on JSP Records called “A Richer Tradition: Country Blues & String Band Music, 1923-1941” which I recommend as an overview of the wealth of great music—including blues—being recorded at this time.
Then there are the inconvenient non-Mississippians who, as I said above, very likely spread their influences into the Delta via recordings. Blind Lemon Jefferson died in 1929 at the age of 32, but had sold an estimated tens of thousands of records by that time, still early in the era of recorded blues. Blind Blake, a phenomenally virtuosic guitarist (but a mediocre vocalist), was a near-contemporary of Jefferson’s and also sold very well. And although they were urban performers, pianist Leroy Carr and his guitarist, Scrapper Blackwell, outsold Jefferson and Blake (and Patton and Johnson), and rural bluesmen everywhere performed their material, particularly their huge hit “How Long.”
There are even inconvenient Mississippians missing here. Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who traveled with Patton as a boy, underwent a religious conversion early in life, packed up his family and moved to Chicago and then, with his son and daughters, founded a gospel group whose repertoire was anchored by his reverb-laden guitar playing, which certainly, at its best, has all the “deep blues” attributes of his contemporaries. Albert King, from Indianola, went pro in Arkansas and eventually found his way to Memphis, where the records he made reached Eric Clapton, who modeled a great deal of his style on him. And Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), from Glendora—who, along with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, was one of the towering presences on the electric Chicago blues scene in the 1950s and ’60s, and who was capable of evoking Delta mysteries armed only with a Hohner Marine Band harmonica and his eerie voice—is missing here, as is guitarist/wildman Bo Diddley, who was as important as a talent scout as he was as an artist.
For those of us with a good background in American roots music, “Delta Blues” is a useful if overheated gathering of known facts. But it has been surpassed by books like Elijah Wald’s “Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues,” which takes a more inclusive look at African-American roots music, and subverted by Graves’ Robert Johnson biography, which seems dull in that it has no hellhounds, no meeting with Satan at a crossroads, just the story of a young black guy who wasn’t all that responsible or well organized but could play the guitar quite well indeed. Maybe there is something to the Delta mystique (after all, I can’t think of a single bluesman from Alabama, the state right next door), or maybe it’s just what John Lee Hooker told a British journalist in 1964: “I know why the best blues artists come from Mississippi. Because it’s the worst state. You have the blues, all right, if you’re down in Mississippi.”
Ed Ward is the longtime rock historian for NPR’s “Fresh Air With Terry Gross.” His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
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