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The year of the blues: searching for the origins of roots music.

There is no doubt that blues music is considered the greatest single art form given to the world by African Americans. Without the blues there is no jazz. Without the blues there is no rhythm and blues, no rock 'n' roll, no soul, no rock, no funk, and no hip hop. The problem with the blues, however, is that its scope is so wide that trying to define it is no easy task. Some folks look to Chicago for the blues. Others look to Kansas City or New Orleans. Still, many purists seek out the Mississippi Delta as the birthplace of the blues, which dates back to the late 1800s. Before the blues--as we know it--there was only field hollers and chants. Nonetheless, Willie Dixon said it best when he stated "The blues is the roots; everything else is the fruits."

Auteur Martin Scorsese, along with a group of directors, screenwriters and editors, has undertaken the mighty task of defining the blues. The result is a PBS series and companion book called Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey (Amistad/HarperCollins), both made their debut in September.

The documentary includes the work of seven directors, covering the seven nights of the series. The book to the series, however, easily stands on its own as a literary work. There are essays by noted authors Hilton Als, David Halberstam, Elmore Leonard, Luc Sante, Studs Terkel and John Edgar Wideman to name a few. Each essay presents a personal reflection or interaction of the writer's life and the blues. One particularly moving essay is David Halberstam's "On the Road With Louis Armstrong." Here, Halberstam relates a tale of America's most celebrated musician having to stop on the side of the road to use the bathroom because none of the white-owned gas stations along the highways would let Negroes use their restrooms.

The hardcover is edited by Peter Guralnick, Robert Santelli, Holly George-Warren and Christopher John Farley. None of these folks are strangers to the blues. Guralnick's most recent book on music is Searching for Robert Johnson. Santelli is the author of The Big Book of the Blues. George-Warren is the author of American Roots Music, and Farley is the music editor at Time magazine. Their collaborative research is quite comprehensive in its scope.

Of course, the writers take the reader down to the Mississippi Delta, where early bluesmen such as Charlie Patton, Son House and Charles Johnson honed the 12-bar blues. As you would expect, they show how this lyrical form was passed on to Willie Dixon and John Lee Hooker.

Ladies who sang the blues get a lot of attention in a section called "Warming by the Devil's Fire." Farley does an excellent sketch on Bessie Smith, and Hilton Als offers a piece on Billie Holiday. There is also a wonderful section on New Orleans blues piano with Joel Dorn and Dr. John, glorifying that tradition. To show the sort of reverse Diaspora that blues has put on the world, a section called "Red, White and Blues" highlights British modern musicians and singers who tell how the blues influenced them.

In the foreword by Chuck D. He speaks of Jimi Hendrix and the blues legacy by saying, "Hendrix was able to take the blues and put it on steroids." Amen!

When music and blues fans talk about ladies who sing the blues, they will undoubtedly bring up pioneers like Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith. Others will talk about the modern blues singers like Koko Taylor and Etta James. Whoever they start out talking about, discussion always turns to "The Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith.

Many people who think of Bessie Smith conjure up images of her singing some tale of woe. What they might be surprised to know is the fact that Smith was the highest-paid African American entertainer of the 1920s. They may also be surprised to discover that she changed her style completely during the 1930s and became a sophisticated club singer of early jazz and pop standards. Author Chris Albertson shines the light on these and other facts about this early diva in his newly revised biography Bessie (Yale University Press, June 2003, $29.95, ISBN 0-300-09902-9).

In Bessie, originally written in 1972, Albertson doesn't pull any punches concerning Bessie's bisexuality, her sham of a marriage, public fistfights with men and women, and her love of bootleg whiskey. He keeps those negatives balanced, however, by showing Bessie's triumphant rise from the speakeasies to Vaudeville to top billing as "The World's Greatest Torch Singer."

If anyone missed PBS's American Masters documentary on Muddy Waters this past spring, they now have the chance to learn about the great bluesman in book form. This is not only the story of a cotton picker from Mississippi making it big, it is also the story of the evolution of the blues. Author Robert Gordon hit a home run with this account of Waters's life in Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters (Back Bay Books/Little Brown and Company, June 2003, $15.95, ISBN 0-316-16494-1).

Credited by most modern rock guitarist as the man who brought electric guitar to the blues, Waters is shown as one of the main connections between blues and rock 'n' roll. Gordon's research is so thorough in its documentation he is able to make this book read more like a movie than a clinical dissertation. There are some eye-opening glimpses into the business of recording, musical discoveries with amplification, sharecropping life, and the get-down funkiness of the juke joints and barrelhouses. Can't Be Satisfied contains notes that map out a timeline of the blues, and it includes a list of Waters's impressive personal record collection. Blues fans will find themselves referring to the book like an encyclopedia.

Whether or not anyone believes Robert Johnson went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his dynamic guitar playing talent is up to you. The undisputed truth is that Johnson played guitar well enough to be called "The King of the Delta Blues." Among the latest books to enhance the unending volumes about the legendary singer-guitarist is Robert Johnson: Lost and Found, by Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch (University of Illinois Press, April 2003, $24.95, ISBN 0-252-02835-X).

Much has been written about the mystical Johnson, who only lived to the age of 27. He also made only 41 recordings during his career compared to the thousands made by his guitar descendants. Here, the authors attempt to show the man behind the music. They remind us that Johnson won a Grammy Award, and was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Pearson and McCulloch spend a lot of time debunking all of the voodoo surrounding the Johnson persona, and with good statistical research. They dig at the roots of the conjecture and hyperbole surrounding the many different stories about Johnson's death. This is just the type of scholarly study that one might expect about an enigmatic yet influential voice of the blues.

Blues Discography

Bessie Smith: The Complete Recordings, Vol.1-Vol. 5 (box sets) SONY, B-000-0027HT $22.95 per set.

Lord have mercy! They have reengineered the sound from the old 78-rpm records, and came up with smooth, hiss-free Bessie. This is blues you can feel in your bones ...

Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (box set)

SONY, B-000-000275, $22.95.

Johnson died at 27, and this set contains all 41 of the records he ever made. His licks inspired Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Santana.

Muddy Waters: The Anthology 1947-1972, (two discs) MCA B-000-05NHL, $26.99.

This is without a doubt one of the best blues purchases you could ever make. You get 50 songs that cover the Chess years. You can hear outright where Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn got their stuff.

Chess Blues: Various Artists (box set) MCA B-000-0020BW, $59.95.

This compilation is worth every cent. It represents some of the best southern and mid-western blues. This 101-track set is a Who's Who or the blues.

House of Blues: Essential Women in Blues

House of Blues Records B-000-003QY8, $9,99.

If you want to hear ladies wine sing the blues, then get this wide ranging disc featuring Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and many other gifted women.

One Nation Under the Blues p-O-Records B-000-00AG9P, $14.99

This is a fine sample that shows the evolution of the blues art form. Blues children B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Ruth Brown, Luther Allison and more contemporary blues artist make this a must-have in any collection.

Anthony C. Davis is a frequent contributor to Black Issues Book Review.
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Title Annotation:rhythm & books
Author:Davis, Anthony C.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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