The back roads of the blues are traveled anew in a biography-driven history.
Writer-musician Gioia (Healing Songs, 2006, etc.) undertakes the daunting task of reconsidering the blues of the Mississippi Delta, musicological terrain well-plowed in several noteworthy books, most prominently the late Robert Palmer’s seminal Deep Blues (1981). Gioia is up to the job. After some wide-lens discussion of the music’s African origins, W.C. Handy’s popularization of the form in the early 20th century and the early female “classic blues” singers, he plunges into chapters largely focused on the Delta style’s key recording artists. Equal weight is given to originators of the ’20s and ’30s (Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, the inevitable Robert Johnson) and postwar exponents (Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King). A final chapter summarizes the entry of the Delta’s music into the cultural mainstream via the blues revival of the ’50s and ’60s and recent developments, wrapping things up tidily. With the exception of House, all Gioia’s subjects have been covered in at least one full-length biography, but his prose moves with enough velocity and packs enough insight to keep even jaded readers interested. He roams easily into sidebar discussions about topics as diverse as the role of Mississippi retailer and talent scout H.C. Spier in the spread of the Delta sound; the tenuous economics of the “race records” business, which screeched to a halt during the Depression years; and the careers of such chimerical performers as Kid Bailey and Geechie Wiley, one of the very few women to play in the Delta style. Gioia has absorbed all the previous research and organizes it with verve and economy, and he’s not afraid of being argumentative when it’s warranted. He has also undertaken fresh interviews with many of the obsessive scholars, including Gayle Dean Wardlow, Mack McCormick and Stephen Calt, whose fieldwork first unearthed the elusive history of the Delta’s bluesmen.
Comprehensive and smart—a solid text for blues aficionados.