Find Out More on The Blues

Booth, Stanley. “Memphis and the Beale Street Blues.” In Gadfly Online Archives, May 1998.  (accessed November 23, 2011).

Brooks, Tim and Richard K. Spottswood. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

The first in-depth history of the involvement of African-Americans in the early recording industry, this book examines the first three decades of sound recording in the United States, charting the vigorous and varied roles black artists played in the period leading up to the Jazz Age. Applying more than thirty years of scholarship, Tim Brooks identifies key black artists who recorded commercially in a wide range of genres and provides in-depth biographies of some forty of these audio pioneers. Brooks assesses the careers and impacts, as well as analyzing the recordings, of figures including George W. Johnson, Bert Williams, George Walker, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, W. C. Handy, James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, Harry T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, Booker T. Washington, and boxing champion Jack Johnson, as well as a host of lesser-known voices.

Brown, Cecil. Stagolee Shot Billy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

In 1895, “Stag” Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons in a St. Louis bar. From this incident has come over a century of song, with each new decade adding new meaning to it. The author’s exploration into the facts behind the song, seeking the true story (here presented for the first time), show the complexities of both the society of the day and the desire of the following generations to define their place.

Charters, Samuel. The Blues Makers. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991.

The Blues Makers is Samuel Charters’s monumental study of the blues, its makers, and the environment from which they merged. IT was originally published in two separate volumes, The Bluesmen and Sweet as the Showers of Rain, and for a long time languished out of print. Now, with the addition of a new preface and a new chapter on Robert Johnson which reconsiders his life and art based n recently uncovered information, The Blues Makers takes its rightful place as one of the greatest blues books of all time.Samuel Charters has long been considered a leading authority on the blues, and here he explores the personal, social, and musical backgrounds of the great blues makers. Charters proceeds from Mississippi, through Alabama and Texas, Memphis and Atlanta, to the Atlantic Coast and the Carolinas, stopping on the way to examine the music and lives of native blues makers such as Skip James, Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Memphis Minnie, Willie McTell, Tommy Johnson, Ishman Bracey, Son House, The Memphis Jug Band, Charley Patton, and many others. In a style remarkable for both its clarity and its beauty, Charters analyzes these men and their work, using musical and textual examples and extraordinary documentary photographs. The result is simply one of the most remarkable books ever written on the blues.

Cohn, Lawrence, ed. Nothing But the Blues. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.

This compilation of 11 articles, edited by Grammy Award-winning blues producer Cohn, examines the beginnings and progress of the blues. The book starts with a penetrating essay by noted blues writer Samuel Charters, who investigates the origins of the blues. It follows with chapters that clearly, extensively, and intelligently describe early blues in the Deep South and Texas, women and the blues, urban blues, the Sixties blues revival, and such often-neglected aspects of the blues tradition as gospel, Piedmont regional blues, white country blues, and the role of music researchers like John and Alan Lomax. Only chapters about the current blues scene and rhythm and blues offer disappointingly superficial treatment. Lavishly illustrated, well researched, and written in a lively style. – David Szatmary

Donoughue, William E. “Biographical Notes on Alex ‘Rice’ Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II).” (accessed October 30, 2011).

–––. ’Fessor Mojo’s “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’. Seattle, WA: Elliott & James Publishers, 1997.

The first publication of the most extensive oral history research ever conducted into the life, the world and the recordings of Aleck or Alex Rice Miller AKA Sonny Boy. Preview the contents of Don’t Start Me Talkin, a forthcoming book and video documentary of the mysterious world of Sonny Boy Williamson II. Sonny Boy Williamson II was an escaped convict who became an international blues star using another man’s name. And, if I am correct, that is only the beginning of his story. In a world turned upside down by poverty, segregation, exploitation and illiteracy, Sonny Boy Williamson found the courage to stand tall and proud. As this is a major research project still in progress, ‘Fessor Mojo offers ten yet unsolved Sonny Boy mysteries offering $100 reward for information leading to factual verification.

Evans, David, ed. Ramblin’ on my Mind: New Perspectives on the Blues. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

This compilation of essays takes the study of the blues to a welcome new level. Distinguished scholars and well-established writers from such diverse backgrounds as musicology, anthropology, musicianship, and folklore join together to examine blues as literature, music, personal expression, and cultural product. Ramblin’ on My Mind contains pieces on Ella Fitzgerald, Son House, and Robert Johnson; on the styles of vaudeville, solo guitar, and zydeco; on a comparison of blues and African music; on blues nicknames; and on lyric themes of disillusionment.

Contributors are Lynn Abbott, James Bennighof, Katharine Cartwright, Andrew M. Cohen, David Evans, Bob Groom, Elliott Hurwitt, Gerhard Kubik, John Minton, Luigi Monge, and Doug Seroff.

Francis, John Davis. The History of the Blues. New York: Hyperion, 1995.

Davis, music critic for the Atlantic, treats the history of the blues with an emphasis on his own involvement with this music. He believes that attempts to discover the origins of the blues, often based on simplistic theories about slavery and Africa, are inconclusive, and he stresses that the interaction between recordings and the actual music makes it difficult to follow the music’s internal development. He touches on the issue of white involvement with the blues and concludes with an elaborate “Blues Timeline” showing how significant dates in blues history relate to developments in jazz, pop, theater and literature as well as to important events in American history, arts, sciences and technology. His impressionistic text rambles at times, but numerous passages on individual performers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and others are engaging, as are accounts of his trips to Memphis and Mississippi to see where it all began. Selected discography.

Garon, Paul and Beth Garon. Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992.

Universally recognized as one of the greatest blues artists, Memphis Minnie wrote and recorded hundreds of songs, among them the famous “Bumble Bee Blues,” “I’m Talking About You,” and “What’s the Matter with the Mill?” Blues people as diverse as Muddy Waters, Johnny Shines, Big Mama Thornton, and Chuck Berry have acknowledged her as a major influence. At a time when most female vocalists sang Tin Pan Alley material, Minnie write her own lyrics and accompanied her singing with magnificent guitar-playing.

Thanks to her merciless imagination and dark humor, her songs rank among the most vigorous and challenging popular poetry in any language. Although organized feminism was at it’s lowest ebb, Memphis Minnie, a black working-class woman, called no man master, defied gender stereotypes, and exemplified a radically adventurous life-style that makes most careers of the ’20s and ’30s seem dull by comparison. Woman with Guitar is the first full-length study of the life and work of this extraordinary free spirit, focusing on the lively interplay between Minnie’s evolving artistry and the African American community in which she lived and worked. Drawing on folklore, psychoanalysis, critical theory, women’s studies, and surrealism, the Garons’ inspired explorations of Minnie’s songs illuminate the poetics of popular culture as well as the largely hidden history of working-class women’s self emancipation.

Gioia,Ted. Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.

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.

Guralnick, Peter. Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.

This masterful exploration of American roots music–country, rockabilly, and the blues–spotlights the artists who created a distinctly American sound, including Ernest Tubb, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, and Sleepy LaBeef. In incisive portraits based on searching interviews with these legendary performers, Peter Guralnick captures the boundless passion that drove these men to music-making and that kept them determinedly, and sometimes almost desperately, on the road.

Guralnick, Peter, et al. ed. Martin Scorcese Presents The Blues. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Rock & roll, jazz, R&B, hip-hop: Without question, today’s most popular sounds owe an incalculable debt to that uniquely American musical creation — The Blues. But the powerful influence of the blues, with its dramatic, artful storytelling about the elemental experience of being alive, is found in the works of some of our most important literary voices as well.

This volume — a companion to the groundbreaking seven-part documentary series Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues — represents a literary sampler every bit as vibrant and original and diverse as the films and music that inspired it. Included in this stunning collection are newly commissioned essays by David Halberstam, Hilton Als, Suzan-Lori Parks, Elmore Leonard, Luc Sante, John Edgar Wideman, and others; timeless archival pieces by the likes of Stanley Booth, Paul Oliver, and Mack McCormick; evocative color illustrations and rare vintage photography; illuminating and in-depth conversations and portraits of musicians, ranging from Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith to John Lee Hooker and Eric Clapton; lyrics of legendary blues compositions; personal essays by the series directors Martin Scorsese, Charles Burnett, Richard Pearce, Wim Wenders, Marc Levin, Mike Figgis, and Clint Eastwood; and excerpts from such literary masters as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and William Faulkner.

The result is a unique and timeless celebration of the blues, from writers and artists as esteemed and revered as the music that moved them. In these pages one not only reads about the blues, one hears them, feels them, lives them. Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues is more than a timeless collection of great writing to be savored and shared: it is an unforgettable initiation into the very essence of American music and culture.

Handy, W. C. Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. edited by Arna Bontemps. New York: Macmillan, 1941.

W. C. Handy’s blues—“Memphis Blues,” “Beale Street Blues,” “St. Louis Blues”—changed America’s music forever. In Father of the Blues, Handy presents his own story: a vivid picture of American life now vanished. W. C. Handy (1873–1958) was a sensitive child who loved nature and music; but not until he had won a reputation did his father, a preacher of stern Calvinist faith, forgive him for following the “devilish” calling of black music and theater. Here Handy tells of this and other struggles: the lot of a black musician with entertainment groups in the turn-of-the-century South; his days in minstrel shows, and then in his own band; how he made his first $100 from “Memphis Blues”; how his orchestra came to grief with the First World War; his successful career in New York as publisher and song writer; his association with the literati of the Harlem Renaissance.Handy’s remarkable tale—pervaded with his unique personality and humor—reveals not only the career of the man who brought the blues to the world’s attention, but the whole scope of American music, from the days of the old popular songs of the South, through ragtime to the great era of jazz.

–––Blues: An Anthology. New York: Da Capo Press, 1926.

In 1926, W.C. Handy published Blues: An Anthology, a classic collection of great blues songs arranged for piano and voice—the most famous blues collection in history. Among the first black men to write and publish blues music, Handy (1873–1958) did more than anyone else to make blues popular and accepted. The composer of “Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Beale Street Blues,” Handy became widely recognized as “The Father of Blues.”Revised in 1949 and 1972, this edition of Handy’s anthology incorporates the music to more than fifty songs with Abbe Nile’s introductory historical notes that discuss blues as music, as verse, as an influence on jazz and popular song, and W. C. Handy and his place in music history. In addition to Handy’s tunes and arrangements such as “East St. Louis,” “Juba,” “Yellow Dog Blues,” and “Aunt Hagar’s Children,” there are notes for each song, a bibliography, and a chart of guitar chords. The text is supplemented with an outstanding new introduction by William Ferris, and highlighted by a series of striking drawings and lithographs by the renowned Mexican illustrator Miguel Covarrubias (1902–1957).

Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Blues students will undoubtedly be familiar with Daphne Duvall Harrison’s central thesis: she sees the blues queens of the 1920s as the popularizers of a new image of black women in the United States, one communicated through the lyrics of the blues songs these artists sang. It should nevertheless be added that Black Pearls is neither a repetition of the arguments presented by other authors nor a superficial overview of the phenomenon. Harrison offers here a detailed and exhaustive treatment of the emergence, productions, and impact of these “black pearls.”

Mamie Smith’s August 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues” started the classic blues craze that would last until the Depression. But it was only after Bessie Smith’s recordings brought these blues full-fledged acceptance into popular artistic productions that classic blues singers could truly propagate, through both their lyrics and their lifestyles, the image of a new black woman. This new black woman was no longer the traditional “Mamie” or “Auntie” (as suggested by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, a remarkable artist whose stage nickname is revealing), but the blues queen, the “Black Pearl.” The lyrics of the blues recorded by these artists further illustrated the change: These women, with a new attitude toward love, were not at the mercy of their men; they stood steadfastly against the rampant poverty among blacks in the urban ghettos, and they were not bashful when they vented their own anger and frustrations at their personal situations or the society at large.

Daphne Duvall Harrison’s book is useful for both the blues enthusiast and the student of American society because it clearly and deeply documents the emergence and development of a new type of popular performer whose role was not limited to the black community: the “Black Pearls” of the twenties played a role in the evolution of black popular music, but they also played a key role in the history of American show business. The many carefully chosen illustrations, the glossary of colloquialisms, the bibliography, and the indexes will undoubtedly help the student of Afro-American popular music. —André J. M. Prévos

Harvey, Hank. “How King Biscuit Blues Got Its Start in Helena.” In Helena Daily World, October 16, 1986. (accessed October 30, 2011).

Hay, Fred J., ed. Goin’ Back to Sweet Memphis: Conversations with the Blues. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

Memphis, Tennessee, is a major crossroads for blues musicians, songs, and styles. Memphis is where the blues first “came to town” and established itself as a cosmopolitan performance genre, and the city has long been a center of synthesis and evolution in blues recording. This volume tells the story of the blues in Memphis through previously unpublished interviews with nine performers who helped create and sustain the music from the days before its commercial success through the early 1970s. Their attitudes, experiences, and insights impart a deeper understanding of the blues aesthetic and philosophy.

The performers’ backgrounds range across the blues genres, from classic blues (Lillie Mae Glover) to country blues (Bukka White), from jug band blues (Laura Dukes) to tough, postwar electric blues (Joe Willie Wilkins and Houston Stackhouse). Some, like Furry Lewis and Bukka White, are known around the world. Others, like Laura Dukes, are locally popular, while Boose Taylor is virtually unknown. The range of instruments mastered by the musicians—banjo, fiddle, guitar, fife, bass, ukulele, piano, and harmonica—testifies to the many expressive voices of the blues. Some of the interviewees were singing and performing mostly for white blues/folk revivalist audiences by the 1970s; others, such as Joe Willie Wilkins and Houston Stackhouse, continued to perform mostly for black audiences in Memphis and in the small cafes that dotted the Mississippi Delta.

Hoover, Elizabeth. “Robert Johnson, the Devil, and Me.” American Heritage 56, no. 1 (February 2005): 19-21. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 27, 2011).

Celebrate the blues at Starbucks!  proclaimed the sign at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. I was catching a plane to Memphis, then driving south to Greenville, Mississippi, for the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival, the second oldest of its kind in the country. I was going to explore the Delta, the wedge shaped region in the north of the state between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. If I’d had a laptop with a wireless portal, I could have just stayedat the airport Starbucks, sipping a five-dollar cappuccino and singing along with Precious Bryant: “I’m broke and I ain’t got a dime…”

Johnson, David W. “Fixin’ to Die Blues.” Southern Cultures 16, no. 3 (Fall 2010): 15-34. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 27, 2011).

In this interview, Booker T. Washington (“Bukka”) White shared a remarkable account of the actual life of a blues musician—not the romantic conception of that life that many in music, film, and the print media have portrayed before and since. It presents the last months of Bukka White with an afterword from B.B. King on Bukka White’s legacy.

Lauterbach, Preston. “Beale Street Stories: Sweet Willie Wine.” In American Blues Scene (accessed October 30, 2011).

Lee, George W. Beale Street, Where the Blues Began. New York: R. O. Ballou, 1934.

Lee was born near Indianola, Mississippi in 1894 . He first came to Memphis in 1912 where he worked each summer as a bellhop at the Gayoso Hotel to finance his education at Alcorn A&M College. With the onset of World War I, Lee was accepted for admission to a segregated officer training school. The title ‘Lt. Lee’ remained with him for the rest of his life. Lt. Lee went on to become one of the most successful African American business and political leaders in the South. Lee acquired the nickname ‘Boswell of Beale Street’ through his gift of describing African American life and music in his books and stories. Beale Street: Where Blues Began received national acclaim and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. River George and Beale Street Sundown also portray African American life in the South. Lee’s admiration for W.C. Handy’s music and his recognition of its significance in American culture led him to support the creation of a park and statue in honor of the great blues writer. Lee remained an active member of the Memphis community until his death on August 1, 1976.

Lomax, Alan. The Land Where Blues Began. New York: The New Press, 1993.

Working for the Library of Congress and other cultural institutions, legendary roots-music connoisseur Lomax (Mister Jelly Roll) visited the Mississippi Delta with his father, folklorist John Lomax, and black folklorist Zora Neale Hurston in the 1930s; with African American sociologists from Fiske University in the 1940s; and with a PBS film crew in the 1980s, researching the history of the blues in America. Addressing this wonderfully rich vein of scarcely acknowledged Americana, Lomax has written a marvelous appreciation of a region, its people and their music. Burdened early with now long-forgotten technology (500-pound recording machines, etc.) and encountering pronounced racial biases and cultural suspicions about black and white people mixing socially and otherwise, Lomax sought out those in the Delta who knew Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton and others acquainted with musicians once less well known, such as Doc Reese, young McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters), Dave Edwards, Eugene Powell and Sam Chatmon. Traveling across the South “from the Brazos bottoms of Texas to the tidewater country of Virginia,” Lomax discovers the plantations, levee camps, prisons and railroad yards where the men and women of the blues came from and the music was born. In a memoir that will take its place as an American classic, Lomax records not just his recollections but the voices of hard-working, frequently hard-drinking, spiritual people that otherwise might have been lost to readers.

Oliver, Paul. Barrelhouse Blues: Location Recording and Early Traditions of the Blues. Memphis, TN: Basic Civitas Books, 2009.

In the 1920s, Southern record companies ventured to cities like Dallas, Atlanta, and New Orleans, where they set up primitive recording equipment in makeshift studios. They brought in street singers, medicine show performers, pianists from the juke joints and barrelhouses. The music that circulated through Southern work camps, prison farms, and vaudeville shows would be lost to us if it hadn’t been captured on location by these performers and recorders.

Eminent blues historian Paul Oliver uncovers these folk traditions and the circumstances under which they were recorded, rescuing the forefathers of the blues who were lost before they even had a chance to be heard. A careful excavation of the earliest recordings of the blues by one of its foremost experts, Barrelhouse Blues expands our definition of that most American style of music.

––– “Blues.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. (accessed October 9, 2011).

Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Palmer’s love of the blues shines through in this exceptional book. He’s not interested in showing off his knowledge of the form (although that knowledge is exceptional); he’s interested in illuminating for the reader the roots of a great indigenous art form and how that form developed in the 20th century. In that effort, he succeeds masterfully.

A fine early section explores how the music that we call the blues was seeded in N. America by African music. That chapter is a mini-history lesson in itself; Palmer shows how the music of slaves from W. Africa was viewed as subversive and dangerous by whites in the new land.

The remainder of the book is chock full of portraits of the heroes of early blues in the Mississippi Delta, from Charley Patton to Son House to Robert Johnson to Little Walter to Muddy Waters and beyond. Palmer shows how these men developed a music that grew directly out of the soil of the Delta, making do with the instruments they had and often living itinerant lives, moving from tiny town to tiny town to play dances and juke joints to keep the music alive.

The book also describes the historic migration of African-Americans from the Deep South to the industrial cities of the North, most importantly, of course, Chicago, where the musicians transformed the blues again, creating the electrified sounds that exerted such a powerful influence on white rock musicians from London to Liverpool to La Jolla, California.— Tyler Smith

Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia. New York: Penguin,1993.

This ambitious biographical encyclopedia delivers the goods, listing over 600 entries from every era and style of the blues. Santelli’s wide definition of blues music includes styles from folk to rock to zydeco. Important British artists like Eric Clapton and John Mayal are covered, and songwriters and producers also receive recognition. Some purists may quibble about the inclusion of Lucinda Williams and the absence of Koerner, Ray and Glover (the trio that introduced country blues to many white college students in the Sixties). Still, the concise, informative biographical data and the lists of essential recordings that follow each entry make this book essential for any comprehensive music collection. Highly recommended.— Dan Bogey

Sawyer, Charles and Dorset Poole. B. B. King: the Authorized Biography. New York: Blandford Press,1981.

Sawyer’s work represents the latest addition to the small list of book-length biographical studies of blues artists. Unlike most other studies, it deals with a living artist and popular contemporary stylist. Furthermore, it was researched and written with the full cooperation of the artist. The author did not simply conduct a quick series of interviews with B. B. King and supplement this information with press releases and liner notes. Instead,he spent a great deal of time with his subject on the road and in LasVegas. He also interviewed many relatives, friends and musical associates of King in Mississippi, Memphis and elsewhere, studied King’s many recordings and sought hard documentation of King’s life and career,including such sources as plantation records. The presentation of all this material is enhanced by the inclusion of ninety-nine photographs,including a number of early shots of King from the 1940s never before published and other vintage photos of southern rural life, dance halls, and persons involved in King’s musical career. Sawyer’s own photographs are of outstanding quality.

This book is much more than a life history.The author also examines King’s personality and life-style, tries to view him in a broad historical and social context, discusses his musical style, and probes the reasons for King’s extraordinary and long-lasting success. Sawyer constantly seeks to uncover that combination of personal qualities,social factors, lucky breaks, and so on, that enabled B. B. King to stand out from countless other blues artists and remain at the top of his field for so many years. The result of Sawyer’s efforts provides us with a deep insight into the man, his music and a slice of American life that ranges from a tenant farmer’s shack in the hills of Mississippi to Las Vegas casinos, college campuses and mingling with the international jet set.

The amount of detail and new information on King in this book is remarkable.The material on his early days in Mississippi, which were rarely discussed previously by other writers, is outstanding. Sawyer has a good straightforward writing style that manages to convey a great deal of information on an interesting subject without becoming duller than the subject itself or overly sentimental. The main text is supplemented with five appendices that deal with Jim Crow, plantation organization and lynchings, the problems of oral history, an analysis of a B. B. King guitar solo and a note on the photographers. There is also a thirty-page annotated discography and a thorough index. Throughout the book Sawyer displays a rare combination of talents in research, writing, musical analysis and photography. —David Evans

Scorcese, Martin. “Blues Roadtrip.” In Martin Scorcese Presents The Blues. Public Broadcasting Service. (accessed October 27, 2011).

–––. The Blues: A Musical Journey. Seattle, WA: Vulcan Productions. DVD. 2003.

It may have been underrated when first broadcast on PBS on consecutive nights in the fall of ’03, but executive producer Martin Scorsese’s homage to the blues is a truly significant, if imperfect, achievement. “Musical journey” is an apt description, as Scorsese and the six other directors responsible for these seven approximately 90-minute films follow the blues–the foundation of jazz, soul, R&B, and rock & roll–from its African roots to its Mississippi Delta origins, up the river to Memphis and Chicago, then to New York, the United Kingdom, and beyond. Some of the films (like Wim Wenders’s The Soul of a Man and Charles Burnett’s Warming by the Devil’s Fire) use extensive fictional film sequences, generally to good effect. There’s also plenty of documentary footage, interviews, and contemporary studio performances recorded especially for these films.

The last are among the best aspects of the DVDs, as the bonus material features the set’s only complete tunes. Lou Reed’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and the ElektriK Mud Kats’ (with Chuck D. of Public Enemy) hip-hop-cum-traditional updating of Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy” are among the best of them; on the other hand, a rendition of “Cry Me a River” by Lulu (?!) is a curious choice, even with Jeff Beck on hand. The absence of lengthier vintage clips, meanwhile, is the principal drawback. For that reason alone, Clint Eastwood’s Piano Blues is the best of the lot; a musician himself, Eastwood simply lets the players play, which means we get extensive file footage of the likes of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Nat “King” Cole, as well as new performances by Ray Charles, Dr. John, and others. Overall, this is a set to savor, a worthwhile investment guaranteed to grow on you over the course of repeated viewings. —Sam Graham

Trail of the Hellhound: Delta Blues in the Lower Mississippi Valley. (accessed September 27, 2011).

Various ArtistsMemphis Blues. Jsp Records. CD. 2006.

As usual, JSP is not shy with the quantity of titles provided in this amazing 4-CD set of Memphis Blues. All of the songs in this collection were recorded by Sam Phillips at his Memphis Recording Services studio between 1951 and 1954, with some of them getting released on his home-grown Sun label. Many of the titles however, were not released until years after they were recorded, due to recording quality issues or due to Phillips’ reluctance to market them as hit-parade material.

While some of these songs overlap the ones issued on the Varese 3-CD set “Sun Records: Ultimate Blues Collection”, there is plenty of stuff here for collectors and non-collectors alike to go crazy with. The sheer volume of material itself is almost overwhelming but the musical integrity suffers not in spite of.

Sam Phillips had a sensitive nose for talent and this attribute ensured that many who came to his studio looking to make a record were not overlooked. Even Sam Phillip’s janitor/plumber got to put down 2 songs (Mose Vinson) and the evidence is that the guy could have made a living as a musician. The long term result of all of this musical activity is that JSP have compiled here, a priceless miniature archive of indigenous Memphis area blues circa post-WW2.

Here also, are some rare and early titles by better-known artists like Earl Hooker, James Cotton, Little Jr. Parker, Little Milton, Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, Big Walter Horton, Ike Turner, Bobby Bland, and Johnny Ace. All of these artists went on to other labels and more success following the demise of Memphis Recording Services.

The real treasures however, are the numbers waxed by the artists who made a few titles then left the business or vanished. The listener of this set will be treated to much additional pleasure from Doctor Ross, Joe Hill Louis, Jimmy DeBerry, Sammy Lewis, Willie Johnson (who became Howlin Wolf’s working guitarist for a while), Willie Nix, and Houston Stokes.

Liner notes by long-term blues booster Neil Slaven are comprehensive and do a good job of drilling directly to the political times, the music business, and to the historical significance of this fine music. Collect this music now while it is still available in an artistically presentable format; it won’t stay around like this forever.

Listeners who enjoy the music on this collection are encouraged to seek out the 4 single CD volumes of Memphis and neighbouring area blues, recorded for the Modern Records label (a competitor to Sun Records) around the same time, and re-released recently by Ace Records in England.—Curtiss Clarke

–––. The Memphis Blues Again: An Anthology Of The Blues Today In Memphis, Vol. 1 & 2. Adelphi. vinyl recording. 1969.

This is devoted to the Memphis country blues recorded in the 1960’s. Of course the heyday of the Memphis blues was in the 20’s and 30’s. Memphis is the capital city of the Mississippi Delta, which stretches out south and west of the city in the states of Mississippi and Arkansas. “The Mississippi Delta begins on the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends at Catfish Row in Vicksburg”, David Cohn wrote in 1935. The Peabody also happened to be the location of several recording sessions by artists such as Furry Lewis, Charlie McCoy, Speckled Red, Robert Wilkins, Big Joe Williams, Jed Davenport, Garfield Akers, Jim Jackson and others. By the time the race market was picking up in popularity nearly every major recording company either made field trips to Memphis or attracted Memphis artists to their Northern studios. Consequently, many great blues records from this era were made in Memphis or by Memphis area musicians. Among those names were men like Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes, Robert Wilkins and the great jug bands the city was so famous for, such as the Memphis Jug band and Cannon’s Jug Stompers.

During the first half of the century Beale Street was the center of blues activity in Memphis. Writing at the end of the 1960’s, researcher Begnt Olsson wrote: “Some years ago Beale Street was a rough, tough, gambling, whoring, cutting, musical, living street. Money was spent on cards, woman and whiskey. The liqueur and the music flowed in the many dives along Beale; ambulances howled; men and women were killed. Expensive cars were parked outside the gambling houses.” By the 1960’s urban renewal decimated Beale Street yet many old time musicians remained; veterans like Furry Lewis, Bukka White, Will Shade, Dewey Corley, Memphis Piano Red, Laura Dukes and Gus Cannon were still hanging on. During the blues revival of the 60’s many went down to Memphis to record these old musicians with the results mostly issued on small specialty labels. Many of the resulting records are long out-of-print.

Among those long out-of-print albums is The Memphis Blues Again Vol. 1 & 2. The records were issued on the Adelphi label and recorded in Memphis in October, 1969 and at the Peabody Hotel in June, 1970. These are wonderful gatefold albums with excellent notes and photos. Spin superb performances by Mose Vinson, Willie Morris, Hacksaw Harney and Van Hunt among others. —Jeff Harris

–––. Memphis Country Blues Greatest Hits. Memphis Archives. CD. 1994.

This CD is one of 21 that the Memphis Archives has produced in order to preserve our rich American musical heritage for future generations. Eddie Dattel, bred and based in Memphis, champions hometown contemporaries on his Inside Sounds label, but reserves his Memphis Archives imprint for classics like this anthology. It comprises selections by early blues performers associated with the traditionally musical city, and Dattel credits its producer, the late Richard Hite, who was also Canned Heat’s bassist, for choosing archival jewels that cast their glow beyond the boundaries of purist circles. When Hite selected these 17 performances from 78rpm discs pressed in the 1920s and ’30s, he might have been stringing firecrackers—there’s not a dud among them. Hite and engineer Rick Caughron transferred the material meticulously, using just enough filtering to minimize artifacts while preserving the music and its vintage character. Some of these artists were rediscovered decades later and wreathed with laurel, while others vanished, yet all deliver compelling performances here. Vocals are vibrant, ensemble playing is superb, and the spirit that inspired Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and other latter-day apostles of the blues is evident throughout.— David Lander

Napoleon Hairiston; Frank Stokes; Willie Borum; Dan Sane; Georgia Tom Dorsey; Hammie Nixon; Hattie Hart; Jim Jackson; Allen Shaw; Memphis Jug Band; Memphis Minnie; Speckled Red; Tampa Red; Cannon’s Jug Stompers; Will Batts; Furry Lewis, Hambone Willie Newbern, Robert Wilkins, Bukka White, Casey Bill Weldon; Hattie Hart; Willie Borum, Allan Shaw, Sleepy John Estes, Vol Stevens; Noah Lewis; Kid Spoons.

–––. When the Sun Goes Down: The Secret History of Rock & Roll. Bluebird. CD. 2002.

Superb sound quality and sheer entertainment value make this a series by which other musical retrospectives should be measured. Over four discs (available individually as well as in this limited-edition set), the expansive selection of blues-based music from the RCA-Bluebird vaults celebrates artistry that still sounds vital 50 years after it was recorded. Among the highlights are such seminal recordings as “Catfish Blues” by Robert Petway (which Muddy Waters would transform into “Rolling Stone”), “Canned Heat Blues” by Tommy Johnson, “Sweet Little Angel” by Tampa Red (later a signature tune for B.B. King), and “That’s All Right” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (which ignited a rock & roll revolution in Elvis Presley’s hands). Every cut seems to have been chosen with care, and some of the more obscure rank with the greatest delights: “Memphis” Minnie McCoy’s “Selling My Pork Chops” and Washboard Sam’s “Soap and Water Blues.” As a blues anthology that surveys the roots of rock & roll, the set omits many of the biggest names (who recorded for other labels) and goes lightly on the 12-bar, guitar-driven style that flourished in Chicago after World War II. Yet the variety and vigor of the offerings should strike a responsive chord with casual fan and blues aficionado alike. –Don McLeese

Wardlow, Gayle Dean. Chasin’ that Devil Music. San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 1998.

Wardlow didn’t start off with the idea of becoming one of the world’s foremost blues detectives. At first he just wanted to expand his collection of Roy Acuff hillbilly records. A mail order dealer noticed his Mississippi address and proposed trading blues records for them. By the early 1960s Wardlow came to prefer the blues, especially the 1920s and 1930s acoustic, downhome kind.

Wardlow found their precious out-of-print records by “junking” for them, canvassing from door to door. He soon realized that the best places to look were houses that had flowerpots, for that indicated a long-term, female resident. It was primarily women who bought the windup victrolas and 78-rpm records to play on them. Using research skills he knew from working as a newspaper reporter, and encouraged by a growing network of blues collectors and scholars, Wardlow put his stock in verifiable documents, recovering information from city directories and birth, marriage, and death certificates. He also interviewed whomever he could track down.

The story of his sleuthing is as fascinating as his findings, and both are absolutely invaluable for lovers of the blues.  We owe much of our knowledge of the great blues pioneers and the details of the early recording industry to Wardlow’s work. We are even enriched, if saddened, by what he can say we have irretrievably lost: trails gone cold, missing artifacts. He unraveled mysteries of biography, geography, and song lyrics. In doing so he also locked horns with other researchers over disagreements that turned theories and conclusions into controversies.

The book combines reprints of album notes and magazine articles from the 1960s and later, at times with updates and corrections.  There is also some new material, from Wardlow and from editor Ed Komara, another blues detective. To make it all come alive, the book includes a CD of choice blues, a bit of gospel, and a few interview snippets.

Some sections are poorly written, others badly organized. There is lots of repetition, some typographical errors, many references that send the reader to other parts of the book, and an incomplete index. In other words, it would have needed a good copy editor. However, as readers dig around in the book, they will experience what Gayle Dean Wardlow does: chase and search. The effort is worth it: there is gold here.—Craig Morrison

White, Bukka. Complete Bukka White. Sony. CD. 1994.

Bukka White was a legendary slide guitar stylist with an ability to compose great blues songs for his style. He was a notable singer. This recording captures him in peak form, and, in addition, represents one of the last important country blues recording sessions to have taken place before WWII. By the early 40’s, musical tastes were changing. Electric guitars, big bands, pre-bebop, etc. were all hitting. There was a huge exodus of southerners from the rural south to northern cities, and the country blues was out of fashion as a musical form.

To his credit, Booker, when presented with this opportunity to record, stuck to what he did best and did not get trendy. The result was a legendary country blues session, and this CD documents that. Every song on this recording sounds great, and the sound quality is pretty good to boot (compared to other early blues recordings). The thing that always gets me is the rhythmic creativity. Even though this was an old time country blues recording, Mr. White was a true funkster, and his rhythmic sense still sounds contemporary and exciting.

–––. The Vintage Recordings 1930 – 1940. Document Records. CD. 2003.

This set contains the complete (20 tracks) recordings done by White in the period 1930-1940. There are other collections that say “complete” (most notably Sony’s “Complete Bukka White”), but they usually omit 6 or so tracks,which makes this the set to own. It’s a shame that music of this caliber is becoming harder to find.

Bukka (real name-Booker T.Washington White) White was one of the most important pre-war blues singer/guitarists of that era. His voice was rough and immediate sounding,and combined with his National steel-bodied guitar (oftentimes using a slide) style,which sounded like he was attacking his instrument,made for a very visceral listening experience. White was one of a small group of performers (Lightnin’ Hopkins was another) who could make up a (good) song while he played it. Like many blues singers of the time,his song themes were about personal remembrances,death,religion,and prison,where he spent time for shooting a man. Two of the tracks heard here,”Sic ‘Em Dogs”,and “Po’ Boy”,were recorded during his incarceration in the infamous Parchman Farm by the great chronicler of indigenous music, John Lomax.

There are a couple of tracks where White is accompanied by a second guitarist-Napoleon Harrison, and a couple with “Miss Minnie” (possibly Memphis Minnie), two more tracks with an unknown guitarist, and the remaining 14 tracks have the underrated Washboard Sam accompanying him on (what else?) a washboard. Sam is not known widely, but he recorded quite a few tracks of his own,which are worth hearing. — Stuart Jefferson

Wolf, Howlin’. Howlin at the Sun. Charly UK. CD. 1999.

That famous line from Sam Phillips about Chester Arthur Burnett, Howlin’ Wolf, is best illustrated by this disc – the best single disc collection of the Mighty Wolf’s earliest recording period out of the Sun studios. Forget the recording flaws and just listen to how it was the Wolf made his rep in the first place – not just his soul-deep phrasing and singular vocal sound but the flat-out rawest blues group in the United States in the early 1950s, including Willie Johnson, arguably the inventor of guitar distortion and fuzz. He wasn’t exactly the creme de la creme of guitar soloists – his few solos are elementary and passable – but as an accompanist who pumped his boss to the absolute crest of his blues power, Johnson was in a class by himself and, ultimatley, influenced a generation of the first rock guitar heroes, from Rick Burlison of the Rock and Roll Trio to Link Wray, as well as his successor and lifelong Wolf partner Hubert Sumlin. The rhythm section is so dead-on dropping on the backbeat that it was surely an influence on future soul rhythm sections. And, in case you were wondering, these cuts also make the case for Wolf as the top-rank blues songwriter he was right out of the box. Great as Muddy Waters was, this disc makes the case that, in the long term, maybe Howlin’ Wolf had the better of the real deep blues. Maybe.

–––. Memphis Days – The Definitive Edition Vol. 1 & 2. Bear Family. CD. 1999.

The word is that the Memphis tracks are “primitive” compared to Wolf’s later work for Chess. This is true and not true. In fact, the sound quality on this release is quite good and the band is cooking. Willie Johnson’s guitar work is simultaneously jazzy and distorted. It’s actually very compelling and unique, and Wolf’s harp work, while basic and limited, is absolutely perfect in this context. He and Johnson compliment each other very well. Bear Family does a great job with the remastering, considering it was done 20 years ago. Many of these tracks were finally released on The Chess Box and Don’t Wanna Be Your Dog, but this is still a definitive collection and prime Wolf. He certainly went on to great heights with Chess, and had access to Dixon’s songs and Chess’s production excellence, but whether he bettered these sides is certainly debatable.—Gordon Pfannenstiel


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