Blues Biographies

Don’t call it a comeback. I needed a little transition time these past few months. Grad school wasn’t real life. A whole lot of changes and adjustments have occurred. I’m in a very happy place. Haven’t wanted to read much though. Sometimes I get caught up in the foolishness of television. And every now and then I pick up a cookbook or some non-fiction.

I have a renewed interest in music biographies. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed Cadillac Records so much that I decided to learn more about Muddy Waters. I even checked out his “Best of…” collection to help me become even more familiar with the artist. I mean, if you read a music biography, you gotta get the music to go with it, right? Muddy Waters biography made me wonder about Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. And since we’re on the topic of blues bios, maybe you’ll consider adding a blues bio to your list:


Escaping the Delta by Elijah Wald – Robert Johnson’s story presents a fascinating paradox: Why did this genius of the Delta blues excite so little interest when his records were first released in the 1930s? And how did this brilliant but obscure musician come to be hailed long after his death as the most important artist in early blues and a founding father of rock ‘n’ roll? Elijah Wald provides the first thorough examination of Johnson’s work and makes it the centerpiece for a fresh look at the entire history of the blues. He traces the music’s rural folk roots but focuses on its evolution as a hot, hip African-American pop style, placing the great blues stars in their proper place as innovative popular artists during one of the most exciting periods in American music. He then goes on to explore how the image of the blues was reshaped by a world of generally white fans, with very different standards and dreams. The result is a view of the blues from the inside, based not only on recordings but also on the recollections of the musicians themselves, the African-American press, and original research. Wald presents previously unpublished studies of what people on Delta plantations were actually listening to during the blues era, showing the larger world in which Johnson’s music was conceived. What emerges is a new respect and appreciation for the creators of what many consider to be America’s deepest and most influential music. Wald also discusses how later fans formed a new view of the blues as haunting Delta folklore. While trying to separate fantasy from reality, he accepts that neither the simple history nor the romantic legend is the whole story. Each has its own fascinating history,and it is these twin histories that inform this book.

Moanin’ at Midnight by James Segrest – This fluid, fascinating and thoroughly researched biography is a long overdue tribute to one of the two giants of post-WWII Chicago-style electric blues music. Music writers Segrest and Hoffman do a superb job of capturing the many facets of Wolf’s long career, making it a worthy companion to Robert Gordon’s recent book on the other Chicago blues giant, Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters. But while Waters was controlled and sexy, Segrest and Hoffman show, in contrast, how Wolf was ferocious, angry and unpredictable, a large man with a powerful, raspy voice and a keen intelligence. Born Chester Burnett in Mississippi in 1910, Wolf, as the authors show, endured “crushing poverty” and almost constant physical abuse, the source of much of the anger in his music. The authors nicely detail the important musicians who influenced Wolf, from Charlie Patton, the acknowledged master of country blues who taught Wolf to play the guitar, to Reggie Boyd, the brilliant but obscure guitar teacher who encouraged Wolf’s desire to expand his already enormous musical vision. Best of all, the authors wonderfully describe Wolf’s inimitable style on the many recordings he made in Chicago for Chess Records, such as “Smokestack Lightnin,” Wolf’s masterpiece: “Over a hypnotic guitar figure and a driving rhythm that subtly accelerates like a locomotive, Wolf sang a field holler vocal, interspersed with falsetto howls like a dread lupine beast just down the road at midnight.”

One music biography will lead you to another. Trust me. And sooner or later the folks at the bookstores and library will know you by name.

I’ll be back. In the meantime…happy reading y’all.

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