Delta Blues:The Life and Times of Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music
by Ted Gioia
W. W. Norton, 2008
Reviewed by bluesman Billy C. Farlow
Delta Blues by Ted Gioia is the most recent scholarly attempt to make sense of a music and culture that has largely been badly chronicled, misinterpreted, and misrepresented since John Hammond's "Spirituals To Swing" concert at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1939 brought acoustic rural blues to the attention of white political Leftists.
The author breaks no new ground, but rather relies heavily on the research of his predecessors, namely King of the Delta Blues by Stephen Calt and Gayle Wardlow and Escaping The Delta by Elijah Wald. The former is probably the most accurate and concise work on this subject, and the latter not far behind, marred only by the quirks and prejudices of the author who for one thing has trouble getting over the fact that Muddy Waters wasn't allowed to record his favorite Gene Autry song for the Library of Congress recordings or that Leroy Carr couldn't record "Embraceable You" on Vocalion because it didn't fit the man at the controls idea of what the artist should record
At least Gioia picked good sources and writes with much sensibility and sensitivity on his subject, not getting caught up in the devil-dealing bluesman-as-legendary-cocksman muck that others, such as Robert Palmer in Deep Blues have wallowed in..
My biggest criticism regarding Delta Blues, and it's a whopper, is that its all about guitarists. True, most delta bluesmen played guitar: it was versatile, portable, relatively inexpensive and provided a full musical range of accompaniment for the solo artist, which most bluesmen usually were. But to leave out or downplay the importance such Delta giants as harmonicists Sonny Boy Williamson ll and James Cotton or ivory ticklers Little Brother Montgomery and Speckled Red, gives a lop-sided impression of the scope and variety of delta blues. Alas, upon reflection the reason becomes clear:the blues are the roots of Rock. Rock music is white music. Soooo, what we have is a book written by a white man for white readers and white musicians in a white world where guitars rule, plain and simple. Go to any music store in the country and tell me how many tyros you see (and, unfortunately, hear) at the guitar racks, then how many you see drooling on the glass case where the harps are displayed. Case closed.
Still this book is a good read. The are no outrageous claims or revelations or, near as I can tell, no bogus information. And for blues novices, there's a world of good things to learn from these pages.
(Read more about Billy C Farlow on Swampland)