So, I’m flipping through Publisher’s Weekly, and I see that there’s a new book coming out: Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music by Ted Gioia. And I’m immediately irritated by the PW review.
Now I want to be clear. I haven’t read Gioia’s book and it seems to me from the title and subtitle of the book that he’s being very careful and specific about his subject. And authors have no control over what reviewers say about their books. So my beef is not at all with Gioia.
But look at this, from the review:
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.
This is the story, as we are constantly told, that the blues came out of “its cradle in the Mississippi Delta” came spurting through the bodies of a long line of men who can each trace their knowledge back to a teacher who should, in turn, be given props, from Waters to Johnson to House to Patton to Sloan to… someone back there in the mysterious past who learned from someone further back in a mysteriouser pastier past, that someone being, of course, another man.
I think we might benefit from bringing Nolan Porterfield in for a second. Shall we do a little time traveling of our own? Let’s go two and a half years back.
Yesterday I got to hear Nolan Porterfield talk about the history of recording devices. He was talking about how someone was all excited about their new mode of inquiry. They were going to set out to discover why all old songs were three minutes long or less.
No great reason, just that that’s how much recording time you had.
So, then, he turns to this question–”Why does all our American music have its roots in the South?”
Is it because of the unique mixture of religion and culture, with a dash of “too hot to do anything else?”
Or is it because the South was just far enough away from New York City and Washington DC to seem exotic but close enough that you could easily get there by train?
I’ll give you three guesses which Nolan Porterfield is leaning towards.
In other words, it’s imperative that we not tell the story the evidence points towards without understanding why we have the evidence we do. Old songs are three and a half minutes long because that’s how much music fits on a record side. We have a bunch of awesome music from the South not because the South was necessarily unique in its production of music, but because that’s where the folks with the recording devices went.
That’s part of it.
I mean, we know Alan Lomax recorded in prisons not because prisoners are somehow more musical than the rest of the population, but because prisoners were more available to him–because they were happy to have something novel or because the warden said they would.
And yet, there were pockets of unusualness, too–fife and drums in the hill country, strange fiddle concoctions up in the Appalachians.
It’s just this. Charlie Patton is often credited with being the father of the Delta blues. Patton, born in 1891, was said to have learned the art form from a Henry Sloan, a Mississippian born around 1870, and he and Patton would have been living in the same area around the turn of the century. And so, yes, it makes sense and tells a certain kind of compelling story–that there’s this guy, Sloan, who knows this weird form of music that he dug out of some even more remote exotic corner of the Delta, that, when young black men heard it, they wanted to learn it and play it, and that, eventually, it spilled out all over the nation and then the world and became rock and roll.
All these poor, itinerant musicians doing this strange individual thing that we now know as the Blues.
The story starts to lose the weight of truth even if you just learn that Muddy Water(s) had a band he played with there outside of Clarksville, that Robert Johnson traveled not just all over the Delta, but all over the country.
But it really starts to feel like a myth when you tilt your head just up the road, between Clarksville and Memphis, to where Bessie Smith died. And you might wonder, just who is this Bessie Smith and how does she fit in? Bessie Smith, born in Chattanooga at the turn of the century, not much later than Charlie Patton, who was singing in clubs by 1913, and who learned the business of the blues from Ma Rainey, who was herself born in Georgia in 1886, and who learned the art form we call the blues from a girl in St. Louis in 1902. It’s not as if St. Louis is a world away from the Delta, of course, but these women–Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey and so on–were extremely popular, widely traveled, and widely heard.
America, I ask you this: what influence did these women, so popular and so widely recorded and sold, have on those men?
I, myself, don’t know.
And yet, I see Bessie Smith in the Delta at the end of her life, there at the same time as Johnson and Morganfield and all these guys and I feel like I haven’t been told that story.
And I feel cheated.