By Ed Ward
Do we really need another book about Mississippi Delta blues? Hasn’t this topic been covered adequately by now? True, there is the towering figure of Robert Johnson, whose disproportionate influence on white postwar popular music continues to dominate the mass image of this music, and whose legacy and legend still churn up reams of commentary (most notably a new biography, “Crossroads,” by Tom Graves, and a story in the current issue of Vanity Fair that tells of the possible discovery of a new photograph of this elusive figure), but the rest of the story—or, I should say, the mythology—of the Delta blues had, I thought, long ago been folded into the larger mosaic of the story of rural African-American acoustic music.
Young, middle-class white listeners’ rediscovery of the rural musics recorded in America’s pre-Depression recording boom started in the late 1950s, fueled by record collectors who were annoyed by jazz fans’ domination of the era’s discography and by ambitious young folklorists eager to document any survivals of these musics while their practitioners were still alive. Much of this can be laid to the catalytic influence of the three double-LP boxes of Folkways Records’ “Anthology of American Folk Music,” issued in 1952 and curated by a weird little man named Harry Smith. For Smith, the anthology was as much a space-clearing move, whereby he’d donate his collection of 78s to Moses Asch’s Folkways Records in return for being allowed to pick the tracks for the resulting collection, as it was a labor of love—which, make no mistake, it was.
By Ted Gioia
W.W. Norton, 448 pages
The thing is, the title was wildly misleading. There was as much self-consciously composed music on the anthology as there was actual traditional music, which was hardly surprising: Many of the people who recorded wanted to be stars, and several of the ones who appear on the anthology, most notably the Carter Family, which survived in one form or another until just recently, but also the Stoneman Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Grand Ole Opry star Uncle Dave Macon, became stars. It’s also not an accident that with the exception of Jefferson, all were white: So-called hillbilly music had a much greater chance of mass exposure than did any of the “race” musics except jazz.
But everybody on Smith’s anthology wound up becoming stars simply by their inclusion. By 1960, it had become almost a religious document: People would gather at other people’s homes to listen to it, learn the music on it and speculate about what they’d heard. I was one of them, thanks to my local public library. A couple of my junior-high friends had lefty parents who encouraged their interest in folk music, we went to New York to see Pete Seeger, and I was hooked: time to investigate this folk-music stuff. There was a small bin in the library’s records marked “Folk,” and in it were the three black boxes purporting to be an anthology. Instant education! How was a 13-year-old white suburban kid to know that this wasn’t a canon—especially when, in New York, Boston, Chicago and California, older people, especially performers, were treating it as such?
The anthology led to the reissuing of other collections of 78s, these a bit more carefully selected. Columbia Records discovered that it (probably) owned the Robert Johnson recordings, and put out a cautious selection from its vaults. (For some reason, Johnson doesn’t appear on Smith’s anthology.) Record collectors realized that their treasures were out of copyright and they released legal bootlegs. And while respectful revivalists like the New Lost City Ramblers learned the “hillbilly” repertoire, others listened to the one-man (and it was pretty much all men), one-guitar (and it was almost always a guitar) country blues and wrestled with a couple of problems. One was practical: How in the hell did they do that? The other was moral: Can/should a white man sing the blues?
I was attracted to all of it, but the blues was a particular mystery. I’d grown up with black harmony singing on rock ’n’ roll radio, but how you got from Furry Lewis to the Flamingos was utterly imponderable. My dad had some 78s with the word blues in the title, but they were by this guy Louis Armstrong, and that didn’t help. The public library was buying some of the Origin Jazz Library blues reissue titles, and the more I listened, the more mysterious it all got.
Fortunately, some of those older folkies were also intrigued, and they started heading south looking for some of these old guys—and found them. Robert Johnson was long dead, of course, but there were others, and soon they were sitting in front of high-fidelity microphones in sophisticated studios, as well as in rooms full of respectful fans 50 years younger than they were. A few of them made small fortunes which sustained them in their last few years.
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.
By Ted Gioia
W.W. Norton, 448 pages
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.
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.
By Ted Gioia
W.W. Norton, 448 pages
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.