Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music

Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music

3.9 8
by Ted Gioia

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“The essential history of this distinctly American genre.”—Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionSee more details below


“The essential history of this distinctly American genre.”—Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Editorial Reviews

Ben Ratliff
Much of this material has been covered in other books, though without so much synthesis and circumspection…Gioia uses original research, interviews with reliable sources and his own calm, argument-closing incantations to draw a line through a century of the Delta blues—a history that is probably more over than he cares to admit in his book's final pages. He has balanced the story of the music with that of its reception, and where the truth of either one is inaccessible, he says so. He's in favor of the blues retaining some mystery, but only highly informed mystery.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Gioia (The History of Jazz) succeeds admirably in the daunting task of crafting a comprehensive history of the art form known as the blues, depicting the life story of the music from its cradle in the Mississippi Delta all the way to its worldwide influence on contemporary sounds. His sweeping examination focuses on the legends in detail, including Charley Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King and many more. He often deconstructs myths, such as the story that both Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson made midnight deals with the devil at the crossroads, and digs deep to clarify many murky stories, including "untruths and wild speculations" about the life and early death of Robert Johnson. His narrative follows the northern migration of the blues to Chicago, where Muddy Waters recorded for Chess Records, and along the way he analyzes the influence of Delta blues on Elvis, the Rolling Stones and other rock 'n' roll icons. Gioia dissects many songs, but he doesn't write beyond the understanding of general readers, creating the rare combination of a tome that is both deeply informative and enjoyable to read. (Oct.)

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Library Journal

Well-known jazz pianist and author Gioia (The History of Jazz) recently took a serious interest in blues music. Here, he begins with a brief explanation about the African roots of the music and discusses such non-Delta roots as minstrel shows, W.C. Handy, and Bessie Smith. Gioia then starts in earnest, describing the beginnings of the Delta sound with Charley Patton and former Parchman inmates Son House and Bukka White. He relates the stories of such obscure Delta artists as Tommy Johnson and Big Joe Williams before delivering the bulk of the book, which describes the lives and influences of Delta blues icons Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, and John Lee Hooker. Gioia ends with a chapter about the rediscovery of Delta legends by rabid blues collectors during the 1960s and then oddly leaps to 1990s performers such as Chris Thomas King and Junior Kimbrough in the last few pages. Gioia has read the essential books and spoken to blues scholars to provide a concise, fast-paced volume about Delta blues basics. Though presenting little new information and not geared for the blues fanatic, this is an excellent introduction to Delta blues for the novice and the general reader. [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/1/08.]
—Dave Szatmary

Kirkus Reviews
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 andeconomy, 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. Agent: Brettne Bloom/Kneerim & Williams

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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