Raw and untamed in its sound, performed by larger-than-life characters who might have popped out of fiction, and shrouded in a (often self-mythologizing) mystery, it's no wonder that the Delta blues attract such interest and scholarship, and is lauded as the most "true" distillation of the genre.
Combining history, sociology, biography, and analysis, musician/author Ted Gioia has produced perhaps the definitive book on the subject, just detailed enough for the hardcore fans and just accessible enough for the casual ones.
Gioia does a superb job in not only profiling the big names of Delta blues (Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf) but also scores of other performers of whom only a handful of recordings, if any, exist. Portions read like a detective novel, as in true "ramblin'" style, bluesmen appear in and out of towns, recording studios, juke joints and hotel rooms (often under different names), only to disappear into the void and emerge decades later - or not at all.
Those fascinated with the apocryphal story of Robert Johnson "selling his soul" to Satan at the crossroads in exchange for a wicked playing ability might be interested to know that the story was originally connected to another blues guitarist named Johnson - Tommy - who is an even bigger ghost. At least there are two known photos of Robert - there's only one of Tommy!
Like jazz - any scholarly pursuit of the Delta Blues can bring out he music nerd in fans as they throw around terms like "griot," "diddley bow," "minor thirds and seventh chords," and "Stovall Plantation." But it is these aficionados like Dick Waterman, Alan Lomax, Gayle Wardlow, John Fahey and many others that we have to thank for their tireless research in tracking down music, songs and performers that would have otherwise been lost.
Some of Gioia's most interesting sections relay these stories, in which intrepid professional and amateur musicologists sludge through Mississippi, knocking on doors and asking about long-forgotten men who played guitars and searching out stashes of 78s. Without their persistence in the pre-Internet age, bluesmen like Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Bukka White would have never enjoyed a resurgence during the '60s blues/folk revival, playing to rapt (and mostly white) audiences in the U.S. and Europe.
In today's era where a performer's every stage appearance and studio outtake is available seemingly within hours of its appearance, there's an Indiana Jones appeal to uncovering the history of Delta blues. But instead of looking of the Ark of the Convenant, a fedora-topped blues fan could search out a copy of a 78 of Son House's "Clarksdale Moan," of which only one surviving copy exists, surfacing in 2005 - 75 years after it was released!
If anything, Delta Blues
will send readers back to these men and their music, either to dig deeper into the catalogue of a performer they know about or to try a new name. And today, you can have a Son House or a Skip James in your living room simply by clicking a mouse instead of schlepping out across Southern state lines under a blistering sun. John the Revelator - meet John the Downloader.
W.W. Norton, 448 pp., $27.95.