Ted Gioia

Ted Gioia
Delta Blues

W.W. Norton & Company

By T Charles
May 2009

W.C. Handy first heard the blues, played by an unknown guitarist using a knife to play “slide” or “bottleneck” guitar, circa 1903 in a train station. Of the thousands of books, tapings, writers and researchers who have ever covered the blues, there is no clear consensus on exactly when or where the blues began. Some trace its roots back to Africa; most others insist it originated in the Mississippi Delta in the mid-to-late 1800s. What is certain is that no one knows exactly where or when it began. We must rely on hearsay, and the not-always-reliable human memory.

One of Gioia’s early sources indicated that the owners and workers on a slave ship setting sail from Africa in 1793 encouraged slaves to bring their (mostly crude) instruments with them on the journey. They did this not because they were nice guys, but because they were attempting to reduce the high mortality rate by encouraging exercise and recreation among their captives. Once they arrived on the trading block, and their “services” were purchased by plantation owners, this encouragement was often lacking - replaced by 12 or more hours a day of working in the fields.

In the mid-20th century, Samuel Charters, a prolific writer, paid a visit to Nigeria, where many of the slave ships originated. He was attempting to discover the definitive roots of the blues. Unfortunately, they would not be found because they didn’t exist in Africa. Charters concluded that the blues as we know it originated in the American South.

Though the true roots of the blues were not to be found, various African instruments preceded the guitar, the prevailing blues instrument. They included the bolon, which looked like a hunter’s bow connected to a calabash drum; the kora, a stringed instrument that resembles a harp; the ngoni, an ancestor of the banjo, as well as others. Surely, some of the musicianship required to play these instruments carried forward to the guitar in the genes of the players’ descendents.

Once slaves arrived, few, if any of these instruments survived the trip to the plantation, where the musically inclined had to rely on their own creativity to build an instrument. They came through by fashioning musical instruments from a cigar box, a stick, and the wire used to wrap a broom or to bale cotton, creating a “didley- bow.”

They used their bodies as instruments, slapping their thighs, clapping their hands, and whistling. They played bones, panpipes fashioned from reeds, gourds, jugs, cans, pie tins, shingles, or pieces of wood. When available, they played banjos and violins at plantation events.

Gioia’s history and research follows the migration of blues performers from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago and other northern destinations. He traces the blues as we know it from the early part of the 20th century, bridging W.C. Handy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and others. He describes the many challenges to those who would seek clear, unchallengeable facts about the origins of the blues.

He then begins several fascinating mini-biographies of Charlie Patton (the first star of the Delta blues), Son House, Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James, Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, BB King, Mississippi John Hurt, and many, many others.

He describes the settings such as Dockery’s plantation, Parchman prison, and the key players associated with these places. The book also adds to its “cred” by including dozens of pictures of the artists.

Gioia’s research was not without dead ends and misdirection. He points out that there were many performers named Robert Johnson. At one point, one in ten men in Mississippi was named Robert Johnson! In addition, Johnson himself went by many names, including Robert Sax, Robert Saxton, R.L., Robert Moore, Robert James, Robert Barstow, and Robert Dusty. Also, many blues artists played and recorded under many names. Sometimes names were changed to avoid contract disputes, sometimes to evade a jealous husband. John Lee Hooker also went by “Texas Slim,” “Birmingham Sam,” “The Boogey Man,” “Little Pork Chops,” “Delta John,” John Lee Booker, John Lee Cooker, and other names, recording on more than two dozen record labels. .

To gain mainstream acceptance in the U.S., our blues musicians had to first win over European audiences. Never heard by most Americans, blues artists were warmly welcomed in England and other European locales in the 1950s. This boomerang, flung from America, swung across Europe, then re-arrived in the states with the British invasion. Artists like Cream, the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, and others made the blues popular with the baby boomer generation. Once Americans heard the English versions, we wanted to hear the originals. I saw BB King open for the Stones in 1969 at Boston Garden. This was the first live blues performance I ever saw, and I haven’t stopped seeking them out since.

There are so many interesting stories in this book that it held my interest for several days, until I finished. Stories about a harmonica player who played two harps simultaneously—one with his mouth, another with his nose; stories about many historic collaborations and recording sessions, a story about Howlin’ Wolf pushing a plow; a story about BB King the DJ. A welcome bonus is the list of 100 recommended blues performances, which had me compare the list with my own collection. You will probably do the same.


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