100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own

100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own

by Edward Komara, Greg Johnson

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Search the Internet for the 100 best songs or best albums. Dozens of lists will appear from aficionados to major music personalities. But what if you not only love listening to the blues or country music or jazz or rock, you love reading about it, too. How do you separate what matters from what doesn’t among the hundreds—sometimes thousands—of books


Search the Internet for the 100 best songs or best albums. Dozens of lists will appear from aficionados to major music personalities. But what if you not only love listening to the blues or country music or jazz or rock, you love reading about it, too. How do you separate what matters from what doesn’t among the hundreds—sometimes thousands—of books on the music you so love? In the Best Music Books series, readers finally have a quick-and-ready list of the most important works published on modern major music genres by leading experts.

In 100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own, Edward Komara, former Blues Archivist of the University of Mississippi, and his successor Greg Johnson select those histories, biographies, surveys, transcriptions and studies from the many hundreds of works that have been published about this vital American musical genre.

Komara and Johnson provide a short description of the contents and the achievement of each title selected for their “Blues 100.” Entries include full bibliographic citations, prices of copies in print, and even descriptions of specific editions for book collectors. 100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own also includes suggested blues recordings to accompany each recommended work, as well as a concluding section on key reference titles—or as Komara and Johnson phrase it: “The Books behind the Blues 100.”

100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own serves as a guide for any blues fan looking for a road map through the history of—and even history of the scholarship on—the blues. Here Komara and Johnson answer the question of not only what is a “blues” book, but which ones are worth owning.

Editorial Reviews

The Bristol Press
It is a good read with a nice way of getting the facts across.
Blues Beat News
This is the 101st book every blues fan should own.
Steve Chavis
The Blues are all about the stories, and there are many stories out there about the women and men who create this music. EdwardKomara, former Blues archivist of the University ofMississippi, and his successorGregJohnson pulled together perhaps the definitive bibliography of books about the blues in their new release 100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own.
Living Blues
Komara and Johnson have combined their considerable experience and expertise to curate a list of books they deem essential to a thorough understanding of African American blues music and cultures. . . .The authors adopt a readable style for their entries: each is given a short title that summarizes the particular book's thesis, and they outline its contents in clear prose as well as provide critiques and context, bibliographic information, and purchasing advice. . . .100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own is a worthy resource for all admirers of the genre.
Music Reference Services Quarterly
The authors acknowledge...their ambition “to make 100 Books That Every Blues Fan Should Own the 101st that every blues fan should own." In this, the authors have succeeded. Their informative book is a welcome primer for any serious blues fan seeking to engage the scholarly literature of this musical genre. It would also be an invaluable resource for any instructor building a course about the blues.
All About Jazz
The re-discovery and ultimate academic invention of the blues occurred during the latter part of the larger American folk music revival (roughly between 1940 and '60). The authors note that prior to 1959 and the publication of The Country Blues (Reinhart/Da Capo) that blues discourse was largely an oral (and aural) tradition. Since 1959, this oral tradition has been canonically codified in books and periodicals devoted to the blues and blues scholarship in measures large enough to repave Highway 61 from Chicago to Clarkdale. The story of the blues is one that warrants the attention of all the writers who have contributed to its vast bibliography and of all the old and new readers wanting to discover her depth and beauty. But where to start? 100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own offers a grand place to start. The two authors present a book, first with a brief (and often colorful) descriptor followed by a complete bibliographic citation and book prices for the editions in print. The citations are followed by critical essays about the book: why it is important, what are its strengths and shortcomings. Both authors' works is well balanced and fair minded and above all, informative.
American Reference Books Annual
Written by the former (Komara) and current (Johnson) blues archivist of the University of Mississippi, this book provides a highly selective list of significant books covering the history of blues music. The authors provide the criteria for selecting the 100 books including the importance of a readable style. . . .All of the books are written in English (most foreign-language publications have been periodicals and most international writers have written in English) and treat African American blues and its associated culture, not white British and American blues. Books providing overviews are listed first then the ordering follows a historical timeline working from 1890 up through the early twenty-first century. . . .There is a 'playlist' at the end of the volume recommending a recording illustrative or pertaining to each book. There is also a list of reference works used to help select and compile the bibliography. The volume concludes with an index listing the artists, authors, and books titles listed throughout. Unique in its selectivity, anyone interested in exploring the blues through the printed word will find this source a pleasure to consult.
Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association
With an engaging text, Komara and Johnson have assembled a very utilitarian bibliography, and present estimated costs for the out-of-print books, various editions and publishers, hardcover or paperback. The authors compare several non-Blues 100 books as well. One also learns many of the names associated with the blues, and who is linked to whom. These qualities make 100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own a valued purchase for serious blues lovers and librarians alike.
Library Journal
This readable and informative book's premise is simple: coauthors Komara (Crane Librarian of Music, State Univ. of New York, Potsdam; former blues archivist, Univ. of Mississippi) and Johnson (blues curator, Univ. of Mississippi), both very knowledgeable blues fans, have assembled 100 titles that they feel could and should be read by those who want to know more about the scope of blues history in the United States. The examples range from scholarly works to popular, more readable books. The aim was to include titles still readily available through libraries or popular booksellers. The first entry covers Lawrence Cohn's Nothing but the Blues: The Music and the Musicians, a great place for anyone to start. Each entry lists price, availability, and layout and provides a description of the subjects covered. Most people will probably not read the book from cover to cover, but it is quite browsable. The table of contents lists the subject matter and titles, so neophytes and experts alike can easily find a suitable book for further investigaton. VERDICT This is the sort of work that all libraries with blues collections should own. Highly recommended.—Bill Walker, Stockton-San Joaquin Cty. P.L., CA

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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
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Best Music Books Series
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Read an Excerpt

100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own

By Edward Komara, Greg Johnson


Copyright © 2014 Edward Komara and Greg Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8108-8922-4



1. The Grand Debate of the Blues

Nothing but the Blues: The Music and the Musicians. Edited by Lawrence Cohn. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993. 432 pp. ISBN 1-55859-271-7 (hardcover), ISBN 0-789-20607-2 (paperback)

Lawrence Cohn's Nothing but the Blues may be the most visually attractive book in the Blues 100. It is printed indelibly on heavy paper stock, bound in signatures (this is as true for the paperbound version as for the hardbound), and bursting with photographs and record label reproductions supplied by leading collectors and historians. This is not be mistaken with the anthology of the same title that was edited by Mike Leadbitter and published in 1971 (see "The Books Behind the Blues 100" chapter). The Cohn version is bigger, splashier, and—figuratively as well as literally—weightier. It is an excellent first book for the fan new to the blues to buy.

The main content is given in the eleven essays by ten expert writers. Samuel Charters writes on the African antecedents and early American roots of the blues. David Evans treats rural pre–World War II blues. Richard "Dick" Spottswood surveys women in the blues, focusing on the pre-1942 singers in the cities and in the counties. Mark Humphrey contributes two pieces, one on the relation of blues to black sacred music, the other on blues in the cities from the 1900s to 1970. Bruce Bastin presents Piedmont blues in the Carolinas. The late country music historian Charles Wolfe provides a detailed history of cross-relations between blues and early country music. John Cowley looks at the field recording trips undertaken by commercial labels and folklorists through 1960. Barry Pearson gives a short history of rhythm and blues through the mid-1950s. Jim O'Neal assesses the blues revival of the 1960s, and for the concluding essay, Mary Katherine Aldin sketches the blues history up to the early 1990s. An extra contributor is Frank Driggs, who provides many of the historical photographs of blues musicians and African American culture to illustrate the essays. Thanks to Driggs, Nothing but the Blues is the blues counterpart of his great compendium of jazz images, Black Beauty, White Heat (New York: William Morrow, 1982; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1996).

The individual pieces serve as good introductions to other writings by the authors. The Blues 100 contains selected books by Charters (nos. 29, 63, and 82), Evans (no. 14), Bastin (nos. 27 and 28), Pearson (no. 92), and O'Neal (no. 91). The other writers deserve additional comments here. Spottswood compiled and published the authoritative discography Ethnic Music on Record (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990; 7 volumes), and he continues to host a radio show of pre–World War II music. Charles Wolfe's books on classic country music are too important even for a blues lover to ignore, such as his history of the Grand Ole Opry, A Good-Natured Riot (Nashville: University of Tennessee Press/Country Music Foundation, 1999). In addition to blues, John Cowley has undertaken research in Caribbean music, including calypso. Through December 2011, Aldin hosted the radio show "Alive and Picking," and since then she has maintained her music research on her website, http://aliveandpicking.com, which among other offerings provides access to her selective index of blues magazines. Mark Humphrey has been a freelance writer since 1979, and for many enterprises he has often been a most thoughtful contributor; a book collecting his best pieces would be welcome.

To be sure, the essays may not combine to form a complete history of the blues. In his preface, Cohn demurs from claiming completeness, stating he is presenting an expert overview of the major aspects of the blues. When several aspects are presented individually and fully in an anthology, discrepancies are bound to occur, and indeed they do in Nothing but the Blues. For example, Charters supposes that the blues came from rural Mississippi. Evans thinks instead that it came from the rural southeastern United States. In his essay "Bright Lights, Big City: Urban Blues," Humphrey asks that early blues in the cities be given every due consideration, since they appeared at the same time as the kinds of rural blues that Charters and Evans discuss. It would be too easy to criticize Cohn for not editing these and other differences toward achieving a consistent historical narrative like Paul Oliver's Story of the Blues (no. 2). On the other hand, though, these same differences may be viewed positively as questions for debate. Over the past twenty years, these questions have still not been answered, and so Nothing but the Blues remains as fresh now for comparison and discussion as it was upon its publication.

The hardcover and the paperback editions are the same in size and content. As of this writing, the paperback edition is still available through Abbeville Books and Amazon. Hardcovers may be obtainable from online used-book dealers at prices equal to or slightly higher than new paperback copies. However, many libraries purchased the book in the early 1990s, and so some hardcovers on the used-book market may be worn discards, often lacking the dust jacket. —EK

2. A History of the Blues from the Mouths of Many

The Story of the Blues. By Paul Oliver. London: Penguin, 1969. London: Barrie and Rockliff/Cresset Press, 1969. Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company, 1969. Reprint, London: Book Club Associates, 1972; London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1972, 1978; Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1972, 1978; Radnor, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1975. Spanish translation, Madrid: Nostromo Editories, 1976. Japanese translation, Tokyo: Shobunsha, 1978. German translation by Walter Hartmann published as Die Story des Blues. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1978. Second edition, London: Northeastern University Press, 1997. ISBN 1-55553-355-8 (hardcover), $50.00, ISBN 1-55553-354-X (paperback), $22.95

First published in 1969, The Story of the Blues was the first in-depth history of blues from its origins to the first decades after World War II. Indeed, all subsequent blues histories owe a huge debt of gratitude to Paul Oliver's seminal work. While works such as Lawrence Cohn's edited Nothing but the Blues (no. 1) might be easier reads for an introduction to the blues, The Story of the Blues still remains the most important solo-authored history of the blues. Anyone interested in a general history of the blues through the first half of the twentieth century should read this book.

As Oliver notes in the introduction, blues has had a profound impact on the development of modern popular music, particularly on rock and roll. As such, people often talk about blues as an influence on other types of music. Oliver determines to examine blues for its own sake and finds it "necessary to place blues in its cultural context" (vii). Oliver seems driven by the need to get to the old-timers before their memories have faded: "Today it's no longer possible to hear the history of the blues from the mouths of many of those who shaped it" (2). [A 1960 expedition across the southern United States with his wife and Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz formed the basis for many of the interviews for this book but receives fuller treatment inConversation with the Blues (1965).]

The Story of the Blues comes out of an exhibition Oliver curated for the United States Information Service at the American Embassy in London in 1964. The more than five hundred photographs used in the exhibition form the basis for the book. The book draws on government data, the emerging body of blues scholarship of others, interviews with blues musicians, and Oliver's already extensive publication record: Bessie Smith (1959), Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues (1960), Conversation with the Blues (1965), and Screening the Blues: Aspects of the Blues Tradition (1968).

Oliver begins his blues narrative with an examination of the slave trade and its legacy, looking at African antecedents to the blues as well as how the institution of slavery and its aftermath influenced the development of the blues through field hollers, work songs, and the blending of diverse musical cultures. In chapter 3, Oliver examines the development of the blues techniques in the Mississippi Delta, and, in chapter 4, he looks at guitar and piano music developments in Alabama, Georgia, and Texas. The next two chapters address jug and string bands, as well as the rise of the "classic blues" female singers through vaudeville, tent shows, and minstrel shows. Oliver next examines the migration of southern piano blues styles northward into Chicago and Detroit and then looks at boogie-woogie developments in the midwestern cities. "Hard Time Everywhere" studies the record industry, paying most attention to the post-Depression era. Oliver once again takes us back to Chicago and the major developments of blues there in the 1930s and 1940s. We travel back south in the next chapter to look at rural blues music in Mississippi up to World War II. The Piedmont styles of blues, particularly in Tennessee and the Carolinas, are examined in the following chapter. Oliver then turns to the barrelhouse piano sounds of Kansas City and the migration of blues to California. In "King Biscuit Time," Oliver explains the role of radio in the dissemination and influence of blues in the post–World War II era. The final chapter, "Blues and Trouble," traces the rise of rhythm and blues and other early post–World War II blues sounds and examines the emerging international audience for blues sounds.

If any sections of this blues history seem lacking, gaps get filled in when The Story of the Blues is seen as one part of a much larger work, that of Oliver's entire output. African influences are examined in much more depth in Savannah Syncopators (no. 6), the meaning behind blues lyrics in Blues Fell This Morning (no. 64), or sacred/secular issues surrounding blues and gospel music in Songsters and Saints (no. 19).

Despite his primary education and profession as an architecture historian, Oliver does write quite well about music and has established himself as one of the world's top experts on blues. While most of Oliver's scholarship is extremely good, the descriptions of the musical aspects of the blues occasionally miss the mark. When describing the piano, for instance, Oliver writes that it is "tuned to a European diatonic scale and with a purity which is alien to blues" (94). While he was attempting to show that the piano's fixed pitches don't allow for microtones and bending of notes, Oliver should have substituted "chromatic scale" for diatonic, as this is technically accurate. In describing washboard playing, he writes, "The player often wore metal thimbles on his fingers to obtain a crisp, rattling sound, more satisfying to the blues ear than the drums" (52, first edition). What exactly is the blues ear? While he drops the subjective comparison in the second edition, he still makes reference to a seemingly unified blues ear (57). He also uses language that sounds poetic but isn't musically clear: "tweed-textured holler" (44) or "rough complaining voice" (49).

The "thrust" of the 1997 edition is "as it was originally conceived," though it does have a few "minor adjustments," which Oliver says are "mainly biographical, reflecting the emphasis of research in the past quarter-century." There are also some corrected transcriptions, and the newer edition includes fewer photographs than the original and groups them all together in photo sections in the center of the book, unlike the first edition, which interspersed the photos throughout the text. The original book was published as a quarto (12" × 9"), allowing for larger images than the newer 9¼" × 6" edition.

A companion double LP was released on Columbia in 1970 and rereleased by Sony as a two-CD set in 2003. The CD release left off the last three songs from the original recording but includes thirteen additional tracks. —GJ

3. A Hands-On Definition of the Blues

12-Bar Blues: The Complete Guide for Guitar. By Dave Rubin. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 1999. ISBN 0-7935-8181-8, $19.00

Every blues fan should seek a definition of the blues, and whenever one thinks one has found it, one should continue seeking. Some of the dopey definitions are one-word ones: blues is "life," blues is "truth," blues is "nourishing." Thankfully, the definitions offered by many authors of the one hundred books we present are much better, yet they reflect the educations of those authors. For example, an African Americanist may say the blues is "celebration," an anthropologist may say it is "ritual" and "culture," a folklorist may state that blues is a "folk art" or "folk music," a literary critic may call it "poetry," and a musicologist may describe it as an American combination of African music and European music. Cohn's Nothing but the Blues (no. 1) and Oliver's Story of the Blues (no. 2) contain some definitions of relevance for most readers. But it is good if one can learn a few musical rudiments toward identifying blues forms during a performance. Dave Rubin's 12-Bar Blues is a basic primer for many styles of blues, along with the use of the blues form in jazz and rock.

Since 1993, Rubin has supervised the Inside the Blues series for the publisher Hal Leonard. After publishing some volumes, he realized that a basic presentation of the twelve-measure blues form was needed to give a comprehensive technical ground to the series. Of less concern to Rubin were the various lyric schemes to the twelve-measure form, such as the AAB (four-plus-four-plus-four) scheme, and the two verse-and-refrain schemes (whether four-plus-eight or eight-plus-four), as they were well documented and discussed as definitions in other blues books. Rather, he wanted to present the most common styles of guitar blues and some examples of blues for other instruments such as the piano. Moreover, he envisioned an interactive "hands-on" manual, which he expected his readers to try to play on guitars and thus produce the sounds for themselves.

All together, Rubin offers nineteen styles, ten of them relevant to blues. He starts with two types of slow blues, in 12/8 meter with its latent extension of the basic 4/4 beat (that latency becomes important in the boogie examples later in the book). Both of these slow 12/8 examples use seventh and ninth chords, which Rubin says may be heard in many postwar blues records. For the Mississippi blues of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed, there is a "Moderate Boogie Shuffle (no. 1)," and also a "Riff Blues (no. 3)." For the Chicago blues styles of the 1950s and 1960s, there are two "Chicago Riff Blues," a "Moderate Boogie Shuffle (no. 2)" that may be played with trumpet and harmonica players, and a "Riff Blues (no. 2)." For the 1960s and early 1970s approaches of Albert King, Willie Cobbs, and B. B. King, a "slow minor blues" is given. For blues-rock, the remaining "Riff Blues" (numbered one in the book) is offered.

The remaining ten style examples come from boogie-woogie piano and jazz. Although the two "Boogie Woogie Blues" are notated in 4/4 meter, they should be played in the 12/8 lope (the book's attached CD of performed examples should demonstrate the similarity of "feel" in playing blues in these two meters). Rubin explained to me that the reason why he notated the 12/8 swing rhythms in 4/4 time with the eighth-note/quarter-note swing symbol and triplets is that, in his teaching, his students have an easier time reading in 4/4 than in 12/8. The two "swinging shuffles" introduce the styles of 1930s Kansas City jazz and Western swing; Rubin further explores shuffles in blues and jazz in The Art of the Shuffle. Later jazz styles are demonstrated in "Bebop Blues" for mid-to late 1940s jazz, "Jazzy Minor Blues" (such as Kenny Burrell's 1963 "Chitlins Con Carne"), advanced "Jazzy Blues" and "Jazzier Blues" exercises using thirteenth and diminished chords, and the "Jazziest Blues" in the chromatic manner of jazz guitar masters Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass.

To help readers get closer to the performance of blues, Rubin adds lessons on providing accompanying chords to piano soloists, performing introductions at the start of a blues number, inserting "turnaround" licks during the last two measures of each blues chorus, and keeping one's cool while playing a featured blues solo. Readers who have never taken a music lesson should understand at least the blues and boogie exercises, but they may find the definitions for terms and notation at the end of the book to be very helpful for the rest of the book.

As an introduction, Rubin provides an account of the origin of the twelve-measure blues form; it was cowritten by this book's coauthor, Edward Komara. They present twelve-measure song antecedents in British music, Irish ditties, and mid- to late-nineteenth-century American song, ending with W. C. Handy's sheet music blues of the 1910s. The authors emphasize twelve-measure song as the structural basis of imitation and adaptation. (Later, in his definition of "blues" for the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Blues [2006], Komara would go on to state that the first twelve-measure blues [whatever it was] was likely an adaptation of a twelve-measure song and not a tailoring of a blues in eight measures or sixteen measures, as previous blues writers have suggested.)

12-Bar Blues has been published only in paperback. If one has to buy a used copy, one should make sure the CD of performed examples is included. —EK


Excerpted from 100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own by Edward Komara, Greg Johnson. Copyright © 2014 Edward Komara and Greg Johnson. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Edward Komara is the Crane Librarian of Music at the State University of New York at Potsdam. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Blues Archivist/Music Librarian at the University of Mississippi. He is the editor of The Encyclopedia of the Blues (2006) and author of The Road to Robert Johnson (2007).

Greg Johnson has served as Blues Curator and Associate Professor at the University of Mississippi's Blues Archive since 2002. As a musician, he regularly performs traditional and contemporary Irish and American folk music on Celtic harp, guitar, and tin whistle and jazz and classical music on double bass.

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