THE LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN by Alan Lomax

THE LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Singingly well-written cornbread-and-moonshine odyssey of folk-archivist Lomax's second swing through the Mississippi Delta in search of seminal blues songs and players, this time during early WW II. In 1942, Lomax (Mister Jelly Roll, 1959, etc.)--who with his father, John Lomax, has by that date already discovered Leadbelly and introduced Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie to radio audiences--is empowered by the Library of Congress to use a new acetate recording device to gather discs made on the spot with blues singers in the Delta, where the blues were born. Lomax considers the blues as noble as Shakespeare and the greatest art form yet produced by America, and anyone who reads the many heartsick lyrics he reprints here may agree with him. His first stop is Memphis, where he records Willie B. and son House and picks up background on ``Little Robert'' Johnson. Moving on to Clarksdale, Mississippi, he's at once in trouble with law and is told not to address ``Negroes'' as ``mister'' or ``miss'' and never to shake a black hand. What's more, blacks have now reversed Jim Crow and have their own ``Coloreds Only'' shops and bars where whites aren't allowed. Blacks are heading north by the trainload; black draftees sullenly await conscription and shipment overseas; deep night has settled on the songsters. White-hatred embitters Lomax in a way it never has during his earlier song-recording trips in the South. Just as bad, he discovers that educated black preachers now bury spirituals under pale, four-square gospel pieces with written-out harmonies, a sentimental dilution that replaces the heroic spiritual with agonizing ``I am tired, I am weak, I am worn'' choirings. Bios follow, as well as talks with blues men Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, and other songsters and guitar giants. A summa musicologia whose sobering humanity and thoughts about an American voice echo Whitman. The devil's own music gets its due. (Photos--16 pp. b&w--not seen.)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-679-40424-4
Page count: 544pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1993