Murray (Crosstown Traffic, not reviewed) turns his attention to one of Hendrix’s musical forebears, bluesman John Lee Hooker.
It is tempting to see Hooker, as Murray does, as an archetypal figure. Indeed, his story has been duplicated in the lives of many African-Americans who made the trek northward from the Mississippi Delta to the burgeoning industrial Midwest in search of an escape from the grinding poverty of sharecropping and the oppressions of Jim Crow. Hooker was born sometime between 1917 and 1920 (although he has claimed several other dates) near Clarksdale, Mississippi. He went north to Detroit just before WWII and, after a very brief stint in the Army, scuffled through a series of short-term day jobs, all the while expecting to make a living as a musician. Miraculously, he did just that, with a series of recordings made for a small label owned by Bernie Besman. One of the very first sides Hooker cut for Besman, “Boogie Chillen,” became an instant and enormous success—it continues to sell even today—and put Hooker on his way to fame. Since that explosion, Hooker’s career has charted the same ups and downs common to other blues giants of his generation (Muddy Waters comes to mind) with a mixture of classic blues recordings and misguided attempts to capture a rock audience. Now somewhere in his 80s, Hooker continues to tour with a band, an experience that Murray limns convincingly. The author’s reach often exceeds his grasp, however, as he tries to render Hooker as a larger-than-life figure of myth—even going so far as to invoke Joseph Campbell. Hooker is a musician, a master of a narrow slice of a much larger and complex pie called the blues; Murray should have let his story speak more for itself.
Nevertheless, as cultural history and biography this is both cogent and entertaining, if occasionally over-written.