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Face of the Bass

Recommend Me Books on the Blues

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So, far, far, too late, I've been getting into listening to blues music recently (Blind Willie McTell, Charley Patton, Bessie Smith, etc.) and need to know what are the best books out there on the history of the blues. Basically the only thing I've read that touches on the topic is Leroi Jones's Blues People.

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It's been many years since I read it, but I remember enjoying Robert Palmer's Deep Blues.

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The first book on the blues that I'd recommend is The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings by Tony Russell and Chris Smith. I say that even though I never bought a copy. That was because I looked through the book thoroughly and already had 90-95% of the records they recommend and didn't need to know more about them. But these gentlemen know of they write. Buy the book, use it as a guide, and listen to the music. That's more important than any history.

Or - when Hans (J.A.W.) updates his Songsters, Blues and Rhythm & Blues list http://www.organissimo.org/forum/index.php?/topic/371-songsters-blues-and-rhythm-blues/

you can use that as a free guide to blues recordings. It's not as complete as the Russell/Smith book, but it's still immensely useful.

Blues Records 1943-1970, a discography, is another source, in some ways a bible, but it seems to be out of print and very expensive.

As far as general histories of the blues go, I generally don't trust them. The authors of the ones I've read tend to have their own take/spin on things and tend to make the music fit their agenda(s). The blues covers too wide a range for any one history book to hold, at least imo.

There are some selected histories of the blues that you might find checking out. I have several on my shelves that I'm ashamed to say that I haven't read or have only read parts of. I'll still bring them to your attention:

Red River Blues by Bruce Bastin is a history/discussion of "The Blues Tradition in the Southeast". I've read much of this one, and while it may cover more of the southeastern blues than you want to know, Mr. Bastin covers his subject well. He's done fieldwork, done recordings, and released records of the music on his Flyright and Traveling Man labels.

Michael Gray's Hand My Down My Travelin' Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell

Gayle Dean Wardlow's Chasin' That Devil Music (includes a CD with some great tracks.)

I'll also list two "as told to" books that I've only read parts of but are worth considering:

Henry Townsend: A Blues Life as Told to Bill Greensmith

I Say to Me a Parable: The Oral Autobiography of Mance Lipscomb, Texas Bluesman, As Told to Glen Alyn

Making this post has made me ashamed of my own ignorance and has made me realize that I have to get some books off my shelves and do some reading of my own.

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Or - when Hans (J.A.W.) updates his Songsters, Blues and Rhythm & Blues list

Thanks for the recommendation, but that won't happen anytime soon. I've got more important things to do :)

The first book on the blues that I'd recommend is The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings by Tony Russell and Chris Smith. I say that even though I never bought a copy. That was because I looked through the book thoroughly and already had 90-95% of the records they recommend and didn't need to know more about them. But these gentlemen know of they write. Buy the book, use it as a guide, and listen to the music. That's more important than any history.

Blues Records 1943-1970, a discography, is another source, in some ways a bible, but it seems to be out of print and very expensive.

As far as general histories of the blues go, I generally don't trust them. The authors of the ones I've read tend to have their own take/spin on things and tend to make the music fit their agenda(s). The blues covers too wide a range for any one history book to hold, at least imo.

There are some selected histories of the blues that you might find checking out. I have several on my shelves that I'm ashamed to say that I haven't read or have only read parts of. I'll still bring them to your attention:

Red River Blues by Bruce Bastin is a history/discussion of "The Blues Tradition in the Southeast". I've read much of this one, and while it may cover more of the southeastern blues than you want to know, Mr. Bastin covers his subject well. He's done fieldwork, done recordings, and released records of the music on his Flyright and Traveling Man labels.

Michael Gray's Hand My Down My Travelin' Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell

Gayle Dean Wardlow's Chasin' That Devil Music (includes a CD with some great tracks.)

I'll also list two "as told to" books that I've only read parts of but are worth considering:

Henry Townsend: A Blues Life as Told to Bill Greensmith

I Say to Me a Parable: The Oral Autobiography of Mance Lipscomb, Texas Bluesman, As Told to Glen Alyn

Making this post has made me ashamed of my own ignorance and has made me realize that I have to get some books off my shelves and do some reading of my own.

Excellent recommendations!

Another important source is Godrich & Dixon's Blues and Gospel Records 1902-1943 discography.

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I second all of the above, and would add Samuel Charters' The Blues Makers.

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the rest of my chronicle of the blues (1890--1959) will be out in the fall as an e-book, with a link to listen to the cuts listed. Also my rock and roll history, which deals with concurrent musical issues.

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I fully agree with Paul Secor's recommendation of the Penguin guide and the discographies for reference (am not familiar with the other bios he mentions so cannot comment no them).

For a general history of the blues that gives you the overall picture both with excellent and vivid (and therefore not overly scholarly) texts as well as great illustrations, I strongly recommend

"Nothing But The Blues" by Lawrence Cohn (Abbeville Press).

As I assume you lean towards the older forms of the blues the following books may be of interest:

- "In Search of the Blues" by Marybeth Hamilton

- "Escaping the Delta - Robert Johnson and the Invention nof the Blues" by Elijah Wald (I bought it upon recommendations on this board and the consensus seems to be that this book is less controversial on this complicated subject matter than other well-known books on Robert Johnson)

- "Screening the Blues - Aspects of the Blues Tradition" by Paul Oliver (looking at the topics of the blues through its lyrics)

- "Voyage au pays du blues - Land of the Blues" (bilingual French/English) by Jacqes Demetre and Marcel Chauvard (covering a trip by two French blues enthusiasts to the key places of the blues in the USA of 1959 - puslished in book form quite a few years ago but should still be available through the website of the French blues mag "Soul Bag").

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Some good recommendations.. I would add Alan Lomax's The Land Where The Blues Began - an enjoyable read. Also for an overall survey, Paul Oliver's Story Of The Blues

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Some good recommendations.. I would add Alan Lomax's The Land Where The Blues Began - an enjoyable read. Also for an overall survey, Paul Oliver's Story Of The Blues

I would have included both of these as well but on the one hand I understand the book by Alan Lomax (which I found very interesting) is seen critically by some who have a problem with the persona of Alan Lomax as such.

And "The Story of The Blues" was an excellent, one-of-a-kind book for a very long time (I remember I borrowed our local "Amerika Haus" library copy countless times in the mid-to late 70s and early 80s) but I am not sure whether it is still that easily available. But if you can pick up a secondhand copy at a nice price -- grab it and use it as a history source book along with "Nothing But The Blues" They complement each other well.

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Have to agree - once more - with Paul Secor's assessment of the blues books situation.

And second BBS's recommendation of Demetre and Chauvard's 'Voyage au Pays du Blues'! Fascinating. The two were old friends who introduced me to most of the blues masters when I was still in highschool...

Another good introduction to the albums of the blues singers is Frank Scott's 'The Down Home Guide to the Blues' which seems easy (and cheap) to find:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Down-Home-Guide-Blues/dp/1556521308

Paul Oiver is a must read but you should also look for his JSP compilation 'The Meaning of the Blues':

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Paul Oliver is apparently working on a big Texas blues book with loads of unseen stuff in it

Edited by cih

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By all means check out Paul Oliver's books including "Savannah Syncopaters," in which he speculates on the possible African sources of blues. About half of "The New Grove Gospel, Blues And Jazz" is an excellent Max Harrison survey of 20th-century jazz; the rest is Oliver's survey of 2 other main African-American musical traditions. Both these books are probably hard to find by now.

Robert Palmer's research in "Deep Blues" is admirable but his Mississippi-delta-centric book has axes to grind and he gets carried away too far by his enthusiasm.

Gayle Wardlaw, often with Stephen Calt as co-author, has done fascinating research in books and articles.

Gayle Wardlaw

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Another big vote for Deep Blues (Robert Palmer). Michael Rowe's Chicago Breakdown is also a nice overview of the classic Chicago tradition. I agree that the writings of Paul Oliver are highly worthwhile. David Evans is also an excellent and knowledgable writer on the blues who has different views than Oliver in some areas that are worth considering.

I also second the suggestion of the volume "Nothing But the Blues," edited by Lawrence Cohn. Although it is a bit inconsistent, the best essays in the book are truly excellent.

I am less enthusiastic about Elijah Wald or Marybeth Hamilton.

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A little off topic, but certainly worthy of more research...

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I think Palmer is over-rated; there's just not enough non-convenional insight. Lomax is problematic; Oliver good but dull and lacking deep insignt. Larry Cohn's book is great. The problem with a lot of the work in the field is that the writers lack anything but blues perspective.

the best living writer on blues and country, I think, is Tony Russell. Far and away. Gayle Dean Wardlow is great, as far as he goes.

the best thing, really, is to listen to the music and decide for yourself. There is too much ideology in the field. I daresay, immodestly, that my little e-book will be the most thorough book around.

(I think, btw, that Marybeth Hamilton's book is excellent and largely misunderstood)

Edited by AllenLowe

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the best living writer on blues and country, I think, is Tony Russell. Far and away.

Judging by his liner notes alone, I agree he is excellent. As for his book writing, did he ever do something corresponding to "Country Music Originals - The Legends And The Lost" (which I for one find really excellent) on the BLUES?

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he has an old title on black and white blues players - can't think of the name right off.

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I'm going to give a little sample of my book, from the first section, because I try to adress, in it, what I consider to be some of the weaknesses of most approaches to blues history:

"But beyond this, Armstrong, like Jabbo Smith, is the perfect and most specific answer to those who run in fear from the historical specter of American minstrelsy, and who see the blues as the great uncompromised leveler of racial expression (and as the great historical response to minstrelsy). First of all, listen to the singing of both those great musicians, Armstrong and Smith. It is deep and complicated and gloriously melodic, in a very American yet other worldly (read African Ancestral) sense, representing possibly the most radical restructuring of American popular song of the 20th century; but not necessarily, or only, a blue reconstruction. The perfectly, artfully coordinated slurs, the speech-impedimented inexactitude of the vocal rhythms, the uncanny coordination of the voices as they ruminate over and around the connective tissue of vernacularized speech, the sly, in-group re-writing and re–emphasis of lyrics, the great glissandos that emit from their voices and spread through the air like a maze of concentric and reversible water slides – where did this all come from? Sorry, but it certainly did not come from the blues, and an argument can be made for just the opposite, because these things really came from much older black habits of singing, talking and speaking, and these things acted on the blues as they acted on all of American song. And they were also likely based on neo-African ideas of rhythm and tonality mixed with (in a submerged, subterranean way) certain oblique aspects of Afro-Caribbean/Haitian rhythms and voodoo/trance sources (which are beyond the scope of this study, though there are many materials available for those who have an interest), leavened by ragtime and its own lesser-known barrelhouse song origins and habanera-isms, and modified and then recast as part of an oral tradition newly rejuvenated by both the literal and figurative use of instrumental techniques, all as applied (and vice versa) to triadic harmony and country modality. The blues is in there somewhere, I agree, but it is submerged in the obscure cultural leftovers of racial/ethnic cause and effect.

Furthermore, Armstrong and Jabbo’s singing was not the only sign or symbol of this radical restructuring of American pop. It was also captive of the thousands of black and white musicians who populated minstrel stages in the 19th century and into the 20th (for a clue and more as to the essentialness of this black entertainment continuum, read Tom Fletcher’s 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business, Lynn Abbot and Doug Serroff’s books on the black show tradition, Ragged But Right and Out of Sight. or the book Old Slack's Reminiscences). Evidence of it was all around, in everything from Ben Harney to Al Bernard to Arthur Collins, Bert Williams to George Walker to Marian Harris, Ethel Waters, and Sophie Tucker; in the work of all the roadside and juking entertainers of the rural and urban American and (primarily but not only ) Southern and Southwestern Diaspora; in the songs and dances of the street entertainers, street quartets and street merchants of New Orleans (where Armstrong got his first tastes, I would say, of more than one form of entertainment); in the street performers of old New York and their Afro-minstrel dances (see W.T. Lhamon’s revelatory book Raising Cain on the complicated ways of these archaically modern minstrel, Eastern street theaters); in those who entertained, as a book of nearly the same title calls it, “by gaslight,” in dingy old caverns in places like old New York, financed and lubricated by drugs, alcohol, and prostitution.

This music and its cause and effects just do not fit neatly into academic or popular historical categories; listen to Jelly Roll Morton talk to Alan Lomax for the library of Congress, to his profane and sexually transmitted content, which ranges further down into and casts a wider shadow than we might want to acknowledge over the less reputable sources of the blues, by way of African American folklore (shades, by the way, of Zora Neale Hurston, with her face-down, naked induction into the Voodoo cult and her matter-of-fact singing about the oversexed Uncle Bud). If you don’t shake you don’t get no cake, Jelly Roll tells us via Lomax, but if you don’t rock you don’t get no cock, and, furthermore, if you don’t fuck you’re out of luck. And that’s not necessarily the blues, to Jelly Roll, but where the blues comes from, a minstrel/showbiz concoction of street philosophy, talkin’ dirty, musical alleys, and the advancing consciousness of the new negro (before The New Negro), the tainted white collar world of the musical professional. Newly codified harmonically, it is also out of a world beyond Jelly Rolls’s immediate experience or knowledge, out of the underground’s underground, so to speak, of radically personalized reflection, especially as it surfaces in the freshly composed works of new and emerging Delta countercultural poets like Charley Patton and Son House (per Lawrence Levine, the most revolutionary aspect of the blues was its turn away from the more communal tendencies of African American song to a more individualized musical form of personal musical expression). Add the informal but deadly-serious methods of African American field communication (we can’t forget the holler and cry), multiply it tenfold by the sound of the sanctified church (which was blue but not really blue, more a stomping and circular shout of group feeling) and you do, indeed, have something resembling the roots of the blues. Really. "

Edited by AllenLowe

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That's really well-written, Allen. Thanks for sharing. This is giving me a lot to think about. In general I like provocative arguments, even if they are flawed; I like tracing the history of an idea, even an idea that might be out of date or wrong. I like histories that are more poetic than "objective" (since nothing is objective anyway), and I love good writing. I think I will snoop around my academic library and see what I find, then go from there. This has been really helpful. I knew you guys would come through!

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Looking up some of these titles now, is the Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings better than the AMG guide? The online reviews seem to favor the AMG a bit....

I have to say, the Marybeth Hamilton book sounds really interesting to me.

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he has an old title on black and white blues players - can't think of the name right off.

Blacks, Whites and Blues - Tony Russell, one of the Paul Oliver produced Studio Vista paperbacks, but more recently republished as a part of 'Yonder Come The Blues' and still available as such.

and btw those two Abbot/Seroff books Allen mentions are amazing and beautiful (expensive though)

Edited by cih

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Looking up some of these titles now, is the Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings better than the AMG guide? The online reviews seem to favor the AMG a bit....

I have to say, the Marybeth Hamilton book sounds really interesting to me.

The Russell/Smith Penguin Guide beats the AMG hands down. No matter what the online reviews say.

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I agree; I use it mostly for Tony's stuff.

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I just finished reading Gayle Dean Wardlow's Chasin' that Devil Muic. It's a useful source for someone who's beginning to get into pre-WWII Mississippi blues. Long time blues fans will already know about much of what's in the book - though that's not Mr. Wardlow's fault. Mr. Wardlow did a lot of first hand research in the 1960s and 70s, interviewing musicians, family members of musicians who had passed away, and friends of those musicians. He also interviewed H.C. Speir, who was a talent scout for a number of recoring companies in the 1920s and 30s, and was responsible for the recording of many of the legendary blues musicians from Mississippi and surrounding states.

The accompanying CD is also useful for a beginning listener, though long time collectors will find that they already have a good 90% of the material on it. The excerpts from interviews on the CD are somewhat interesting, but are too short (each less than a minute) to be deemed necessary.

The main problem that I have with the book is Mr. Wardlow's writing style. He was a journalist and his writing is fairly clear and concise, but not very interesting. The other problem I have with the book is that it needed a good editor. An editor is credited, but much of the book is essentially a collection of articles for various blues publications. The book would have been much better if time had been taken to blend the articles into a real book, rather than just a collection.

I recommend Chasin' that Devil Music to those who are starting to get into the blues and who want to read about and listen to some of the real deal. Then spend some time listening to a few Yazoo CDs.

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