Rebecca Davis Winters

Rebecca Davis Winters
Blind Owl Blues – The Mysterious Life and Death of Blues Legend, Alan Wilson

self published

By David Wilson
February 2012

I find it a lot easier to like this book then I do to praise it.

That may sound contradictory, but I shall do my best to explain. If there are two participants in the complex set of dynamics that brought an awareness of the rich musical foundations of southern rural blues to the forefront and the place of blues in current popular music, none contributed more than did John Fahey and Alan Wilson.

These two, so much alike and so different, knew and understood the structure and musical intent as well as the musical ramifications of the blues form on both the intuitive and the practical level to an extent well beyond anyone else I have yet to come across, both as scholars and performers.

John Fahey left a fairly extensive body of work behind, enough to keep fans fascinated for a long time to come. Alan’s work is more limited, but in many ways more fundamental.

He literally re-taught the rediscovered Skip James to play his own music, created a comprehensive tablature of the recordings of Charlie Patton, wrote many a scholarly analysis of the blues form published in the influential media of his day, and produced astounding compositions as the driving musical force in the band, Canned Heat, which he co-founded. Alan has become, even if not well-remembered by many within the contemporary blues-scene, one of the legends, to some an obsession, for his genius and his innovation. Nor can I fail to mention his contributions to the art of the harmonica, one more arena for his genius.

Rebecca is clearly one of those obsessed by the legacy Al left behind and with great sensitivity she has created a rich and involving narration of Al’s progress from an adolescent nerdish loner, to a commercially successful, peer-acknowledged, yet self-isolated, socially challenged and severely depressed personality. With connections to many of the principals in her story, I find myself nodding, smiling, sometimes wincing as she relates the experiences as remembered by them.

Blues scholars David Evans, and his one-time associate, Marina Bokelman, account for a good deal of the material and few people were as close to Al for as long a time as were they.

Clearly, Rebecca sought out many of the people who interacted with Alan and has been judicious in her selection of what is relevant and what is superfluous.

My quibbles with the book are pedantic. Often Rebecca seems not to be sure of exactly what she wants to bring forth and the result is a tendency to be redundant as she tries several ways to bring forth her point. Structurally the work would profit greatly from a basic re-editing, for the work as published suffers from a bit of editorial sloppiness. At one point, a long paragraph repeats within a page or two of its first appearance and this is common occurrence for a number of pieces of information as well.

For me, the content was fascinating enough to plow on through without distraction. I know many readers who would be put off to the point of giving it up. I can only say that I expect to keep this on my bookshelf for years to come and to predict that I will refer to it on many occasions.

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