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Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey

Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey

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by Peter Guralnick

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A companion to the groundbreaking PBS documentary series, this volume is a unique and timeless celebration of the blues, from writers and artists as esteemed and revered as the music that moved them.

Included in this stunning collection are

  • Essays by David Halberstam, Hilton Als, Suzan-Lori Parks, Elmore Leonard, Luc Sante, John Edgar Wideman, and


A companion to the groundbreaking PBS documentary series, this volume is a unique and timeless celebration of the blues, from writers and artists as esteemed and revered as the music that moved them.

Included in this stunning collection are

  • Essays by David Halberstam, Hilton Als, Suzan-Lori Parks, Elmore Leonard, Luc Sante, John Edgar Wideman, and many others
  • Timeless archival pieces by writers such as Stanley Booth, Paul Oliver, and Mack McCormick
  • Evocative color illustrations and rare vintage photography
  • Illuminating and in-depth conversations and portraits of musicians, ranging from Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith to John Lee Hooker and Eric Clapton
  • Lyrics of legendary blues compositions
  • Personal essays by the series directors Martin Scorsese, Charles Burnett, Richard Pearce, Wim Wenders, Marc Levin, Mike Figgis, and Clint Eastwood
  • Excerpts from literary masters James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and William FaulknerTracing the art form's path from juke joints, house parties, and recording studios to musicians such as Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles, Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues proves, in the words of Willie Dixon, "The blues are the roots; every-thing else is the fruits."

Editorial Reviews

In 2003, Martin Scorsese directed a seven-part documentary series called Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues. The series covered all aspects of blues and how this genre of music influenced rap, hip-hop, and even rock and roll. This book is a companion piece to the PBS series, and it offers a wealth of information on the beginnings of blues in the United States. Each section supplements an episode from the documentary. Many different people have contributed to the book, including writers, musicians, politicians, and actors. These people share their experiences with the blues and how the music affected their lives. The book is filled with amazing pictures of singers and excerpts from songs that date back to the early 1900s. Each chapter contains a section called From the Archives, in which different persons, such as William Faulkner, Robert Palmer, and Zora Neale Hurston, recount their first experiences with the blues. Some share personal stories, excerpts from songs, and parts of novels in this section. With possible curricular tie-ins for history or music classes at the high school level, this companion book will assist in teaching students about the times during which the blues became popular and how this music developed out of spirituals sung by African Americans during the days of the Underground Railroad and the Great Depression. Music teachers will connect how rap and hip-hop are closely tied to the blues. The book will appeal to most young adults with some encouragement. VOYA CODES: 4Q 3P J S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult-marketed bookrecommended for Young Adults). 2003, HarperCollins, 288p.; Illus. Photos. Source Notes., Ages 12 to Adult.
—Jonatha Masters
Toronto Star
Miami Herald
“Read the book … essential … for anyone who cares about American history, black culture and current music.”
Crain's New York Business
“Breaking new ground.”
Calgary Sun
“[One of the] ‘Twelve Books of Christmas’ ... the perfect gift for the music lover.”
Chicago Sun-Times
“A must for any real blues fan.”
The Times (Shreveport
“A literary sampler as vibrant and original as the films and music that inspired it.”
The Times (Shreveport))
"A literary sampler as vibrant and original as the films and music that inspired it."
The Times (Shreveport)
"A literary sampler as vibrant and original as the films and music that inspired it."

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Read an Excerpt

Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey

A Century of the Blues

1903. The place: Tutwiler, a tiny town in the Mississippi Delta, halfway between Greenwood and Clarksdale. It is dusk, and the sky is rich in summer color. The slight breeze, when it visits, is warm and wet with humidity.

William Christopher Handy, better known by his initials, W.C., waits on the wooden platform for a train heading north. Handy, the recently departed bandleader for Mahara's Minstrels, a black orchestra that mostly plays dance music and popular standards of the day, is a learned musician who understands theory and the conventions of good, respectable music. He had joined the Minstrels as a cornet player when he was twenty-two years old and traveled widely with them: the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Cuba. In time, he became their band director. Now, some seven years later, here he is, fresh from agreeing to lead the black Clarksdale band Knights of Pythias.

The train is late, so Handy does the only thing he can do: He waits patiently, trying to stay cool, passing the time with idle thoughts, and scanning the scenery for anything that might prove the least bit interesting. Finally succumbing to boredom, Handy dozes off, only to be awakened by the arrival of another man who sits down nearby and begins to play the guitar. His clothes tattered and his shoes beyond worn, the man is a sad specimen, especially compared to Handy, whose clothes bespeak a black sophistication not often seen in these parts.

The man plays and Handy listens, growing increasingly interested in the informal performance. Handy, of course, has heard many people, black and white, play guitar before, but not the way this man plays it. He doesn't finger the strings normally; instead, he presses a pocketknife against them, sliding it up and down to create a slinky sound, something akin to what Hawaiian guitarists get when they press a steel bar to the strings.

But it isn't just the unusual manner in which the poor black man plays his guitar. What he sings, and how he sings it, is equally compelling. "Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog": Most people around these parts know that "the Southern" is a railroad reference, and that "the Dog" is short for "Yellow Dog," local slang for the Yazoo Delta line. The man is singing about where the Southern line and the Yazoo Delta line intersect, at a place called Moorhead. But something about the way the man practically moans it for added emphasis, repeating it three times, strikes Handy hard; the combination of sliding guitar, wailing voice, repeated lyrics, and the man's emotional honesty is incredibly powerful. Handy doesn't realize it yet, but this moment is an important one in his life, and an important one in the history of American music as well. The description of this incident, written about by Handy thirty-eight years later in his autobiography, is one of the earliest detailed descriptions of the blues ever written by a black man.

Handy called his book Father of the Blues. It's a good title for a book -- but not, strictly speaking, an accurate one. What Handy did on that railroad platform in Mississippi a century ago was witness the blues, not give birth to it. But there's no disputing that he was forever after a changed man. "The effect was unforgettable," he wrote. Even so, he found it hard to bring the blues into his own musical vocabulary. Wrote Handy: "As a director of many respectable, conventional bands, it was not easy for me to concede that a simple slow-drag-and-repeat could be rhythm itself. Neither was I ready to believe that this was just what the public wanted."

But later, during a Cleveland, Mississippi, performance, Handy's band was outshone -- and outpaid -- by a local trio playing blues similar to what he heard in Tutwiler. Shortly thereafter, Handy became a believer. "Those country black boys at Cleveland had taught me something ... My idea of what constitutes music was changed by the sight of that silver money cascading around the splay feet of a Mississippi string band," wrote Handy.

In 1909 Handy penned a political campaign song, "Mr. Crump," for the Memphis mayor. He later changed the title to "The Memphis Blues" and published it in 1912. The song was a hit. Entrepreneurially savvy, Handy delved deeper into the music, following it with "The St. Louis Blues," "Joe Turner Blues," "The Hesitating Blues," "Yellow Dog Blues," "Beale Street," and other blues and blues-based compositions. Their commercial success made Handy well-off but, more importantly, solidified the idea that the blues could exist in mainstream music settings, beyond black folk culture. The blues had arrived, thanks to W.C. Handy. American music would never be the same.

♦ ♦ ♦

No one really knows for certain when or where the blues was born. But by the time of Handy's initial success with the music in 1912, it's safe to say it had been a viable black folk-music form in the South for at least two decades. With a couple exceptions, ethnomusicologists didn't become interested in the blues until later, thus missing prime opportunities to document the origins of the music and to record its pioneers. Still, there are enough clues to indicate that the blues most likely came out of the Mississippi Delta in the late nineteenth century.

Like all music forms -- folk, pop, or classical -- the blues evolved, rather than being born suddenly. So to understand the origins of the blues, you need to take a look at what came before it. You need to go back to the early part of the seventeenth century, when African slaves were first brought to the New World. Europeans involved in the slave trade stripped as much culture from their human cargo as possible before their arrival in the New World. But music was so embedded in the day-to-day existence of the African men and women caught in this horrific business that it was impossible to tear their songs from their souls ...

Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey. Copyright © by Peter Guralnick. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Peter Guralnick is the author of numerous seminal works of music and popular culture, including Searching for Roberth Johnson and a two-volume biography of Elvis Presley. He lives in West Newbury, Massachusetts.
Robert Santelli is the Executive Director of the Experience Music Project and author/editor of The Big Book of the Blues and American Roots Music; he lives in Seattle.

Holly George-Warren is an award-winning writer and editor who has contributed to more than forty books about rock & roll. She is the author of Punk 365, Grateful Dead 365, and Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry, among other books. She cowrote The Road to Woodstock and is coeditor of The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey, and Farm Aid: A Song for America. Her writing has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Mojo, and the Village Voice.

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Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you love the blues you will love this book. A good history of this special type of music along with personal stories that bring the music and the artists alive.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago