Serious scholarship. That’s what you’re getting in this book, folks. No fluff here!
If you, like me, don’t have much formal music education, and you don’t play an instrument, you may decide after a few pages to put Ramblin’ on my Mind: New Perspectives on the Blues aside. If you do this, you’ll be making a serous mistake because this collection is worthwhile, informative and in many ways groundbreaking. When I began reading the first selection in this collection, “Bourdon, Blue Notes, and Pentatonism in the Blues,” by Gerhard Kubik, I found myself saying “Huh?” It can be a difficult read, but it’s worth the time and effort to work your way through it. What isn’t groundbreaking is interesting and offers some different slants on the way we look at some of the things people have been talking about in the blues for years. In plainspeak, the contents of this collection are a must-read for any serious student of the blues.
Ramblin’ is an anthology of ten separate pieces offering looks at, opinions of, and views toward various aspects of the blues that few have thought of but are all the same necessary for a deeper understanding of the blues – and of some of its more famous musicians. The writings discuss the African influence on blues, Southern vaudeville, W.C. Handy, the hands of blues guitarists, Bumble Bee Slim, Black Boy Shine, Son House, Robert Johnson, the “St. Louis Blues,” and wraps up with a piece on Houston Creoles and Zydeco.
But coming back to Kubik’s piece, when I said you may want to throw the book aside, it’s definitely not because it’s not a compilation of good essays. It’s damned good. However, unless you’ve got some good music theory and education in your Curriculum Vitae, you may find much of it taxing, a little beyond your understanding. Work your way through it, though – you’ll be rewarded, and all the richer for it.
The title is, of course, from a Robert Johnson song that’s been covered by perhaps a thousand other musicians. But the content of this collection has not, for the most part, been covered. If it has, these compositions offer fresh, new looks and interpretations, and plow new ground.
You want to do something that makes you feel small, however, look up the biographies of the contributors to this collection. Kubik, if not the European grandmaster of African music research, is breathing down his neck. Skim through the other authors and you’ll find a mix of scholarship and performance that totals up to triple figures in years.
As the editor, David Evans, says in his introduction, “What was lacking, except among musicians themselves and their immediate audiences, was a sense of blues as a distinct type of music with its own personalities, stylistic variety, and history of musical development.” Evans goes on to mention various publications which added tremendous substance and understanding to our blues knowledge base, including works by Samuel B. Charters, Paul Oliver, and the British magazine Blues Unlimited. He refers to the “steady stream” of recordings of all styles, interviews with musicians and folklorists, and academic treatises covering their interrelationships and history.
I recently read elsewhere that blues recordings comprise less than two percent of recordings sold in the world today. But to look at the broad and rapid growth of blues societies and its members, it’s a little difficult to believe. Again quoting the editor, blues is “today more popular and widespread than ever,” and that interest “in blues has particularly increased since the early 1990s.” He then goes on to speak of the historical relationship of blues to “African ancestry and cultural inheritance of the creators of the blues.”