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Gioia brings it all back home in Delta Blues...

Book Review: Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music by Ted Gioia

"Whether your tastes gravitate toward country and western, or pop standards, or doo-wop, or heavy metal, or hip hop or jazz… the whole spectrum of popular music betrays the fingerprints of the blues. The lonesomest cowboys and the most impassioned Christian vocalists; neatly coiffured boy bands and pierced, tattooed renegade rockers; faceless commercial jingle singers and American Idol wannabes: all share the vocal inflections, the scalar ambiguity, the grit-in-the-throat silt accumulated at the intersection of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers."

And with that, Ted Gioia demonstrates why this and other books devoted to the Mississippi Delta blues matter not only to those who already understand and appreciate the music. The best and worst of today's music crawled out of the primordial ooze of the Mississippi Delta, morphing into what we hear today. The spread and reach of the music of the Delta also tells about and accompanies sociological and cultural shifts of the 20th Century; the migration of African-American sharecroppers to northern, industrialized cities, the civil rights movement, the reign of the hippies and the "Summer of Love" among them. 

The structure of Delta Blues is interesting and effective.  Rather than simple chronology or strict adherence to only music made within the confines of the Mississippi Delta region, Gioia drops anchor in the Delta and follows each story line or practitioner on their journey through and from the Delta before returning to it to pick up the next. 

The early portion of the book spends some time speculating and recounting the research done to discover the origin of the Delta blues. It turns out the origins are less Big Bang theory and more Christopher Columbus, 1492.  We all know Columbus didn't get to America first, but his 'discovery' is a plot on the timeline from which many later historically significant events can be plotted.  After presenting research and analysis about the African roots of the Delta tradition and other possible and likely early factors, Gioia reminds us that if there was a Big Bang moment it likely happened before Edison's invention of the phonograph. He briefly revisits the history of Edison's vital invention and then often considers the effect recorded music had on the Delta tradition. The earliest known recordings, or rather the earliest recordings to have survived and been preserved, are introduced. 

Further complicating the story of the origin of the Delta blues — as well as much of what we think we know about the music and its creators — is that legend and myth are tightly woven with research and fact.  Superstition, lies, deceit, racism, death, technological limitations, and misfortune have caused important pieces of this story to be lost, forever. In instances where facts seem to disagree or where they don't exist, Gioia takes an evenhanded approach and presents differing scenarios. In these instances, he often becomes less like a teaching authority and joins with readers, bemoaning the fact some things will have to remain a mystery.

The early chapters focus on two early influential practitioners. Charley Patton and Son House are names known by dedicated blues fans, but these men and their pivotal work are obscure to casual blues fans and unknown beyond that.  These two men influenced Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, who in turn had profound impacts on listeners and musicians across generations and oceans.

His research digs deep and turns up names beyond the usual suspects of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, or Howlin' Wolf. Those men deserve their iconic status, but there were many great performers who came before and after, and Gioia is eager to tell their stories.  Ishmon Bracey and Robert Wilkins take their place among the more famous Delta bluesmen.  Gioia's research indicates both were talented bluesmen who came to a crossroads very different than the superstitious crossroads most often associated with the blues.  Both men struggled to reconcile the blues life with their faith in God. Both men would put their guitar down and follow the call of the Lord.  Both would play roles in helping researchers track down the whereabouts of some of their former blues contemporaries during the '60s, when Delta blues were being discovered by the wider, white audience.

Delta Blues even has something for those who think they've already learned all there is to know about those more celebrated names like Waters, Johnson, Wolf, B.B. King, and John Lee Hooker.  We learn that Howlin ' Wolf was insecure about his lack of education and enrolled in adult education courses throughout his life.  We learn about B.B. King getting one of his first guitars from fellow bluesman and cousin Bukka White. Gioia reveals interesting, little-known facts about these great artists and presents them in a context that even when there are no 'new' facts to reveal, they feel more well-rounded. 

In addition to revealing the stories of these artists, Gioia pays tribute to the researchers who have come before him.  He sources and acknowledges his research generously, and points readers in the direction of other reputable sources of information.  He also provides some listening recommendations to help readers put voices and sounds to the names they may be learning of for the first time through this book.

Gioia's enthusiasm for and knowledge of this subject matter is evident throughout.  That combined with his skill with language — Kindle readers will occasionally be thankful for the ready access to a dictionary — make this a compelling, highly recommended read.

About Josh Hathaway

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