Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Delta Blues: The Life and Times of The Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music

By Ted Gioia. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, October 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-393-06258-8, $27.95; also available on’s Kindle, $9.95. 448 pages.

Review by Timothy J. O’Brien, University of Houston

Music lovers and researchers have long been fascinated with the mystery and imagery of the blues. The story of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson’s going to the crossroads and selling his soul to the devil in exchange for a superior talent to play the blues is the primary blues myth. Decades after his death, the public fascination with Johnson translated into Grammy awards, sales of over a million copies of the boxed set of his music, movies, and numerous books. Robert Johnson and his legend became the most profitable commodity in blues music. All the attention is focused on a performer who only lived twenty-seven years and recorded less than thirty songs. Despite the enormous posthumous popularity of Johnson, very little is known about his life.An understanding of the Mississippi Delta region and its musicians is necessary to contextualize Johnson’s role in blues history. Although Gioia’s book does not add any details to Johnson’s biography, it excels in sketching a broader picture of the musicians’ lives and the music of the region. Gioia begins by setting out the origins and history of the music. In an early chapter he explains the success and significance of W.C. Handy and blues women Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, and others. Discussions of the environment of the blues such as plantations and Parchman prison further set the stage for the musicians’ lives. After filling out the cultural context and the formulation of the music, Gioia organizes his study by biographies of both popular and lesser-known blues figures.

Although the book does not have a thesis, the title argues that the subject musicians were responsible for revolutionizing American music. The author allows that the absence of definitive data in many facets of the Delta blues necessarily permits numerous interpretations of the material that is available.

Early on there are warning signs that Gioia will engage in hyperbole. For example, he sets out unsupported assertions that the Delta blues hold “second place to none” and “possess the deepest roots of all” (5). The book does not contrast or compare Delta blues with blues from any other region, so the reader is left to take those declarations on faith. However, for the most part, Gioia refrains from objectifying and romanticizing his topic.

The sources are mostly secondary, but Gioia did conduct some archival research at the Library of Congress. The relative scarcity of original research is supplemented by in-depth interviews with the leading researchers in the field. Gioia’s knowledge of the topic, and his smooth and engaging prose, are also strengths. In addition to digging deep into the existing scholarship, he listens hard to the music, searching for answers and meanings in the lyrics. He steers clear of jargon, complex academic theories, and technical music terms, which makes the volume accessible to a general audience. At times he reverts to a conversational or thinking-out-loud writing style that invites the reader to join him in looking for answers as he sifts through the evidence.

Gioia devotes a whole chapter to examining and reviewing Johnson’s life and the myths that surround it. He runs into the same barricades earlier researchers encountered. With so little known about Johnson, what can a writer add? Gioia settles for reviewing and analyzing the research and theories of Mack McCormick, David Evans, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Elijah Wald, and others. Gioia notes McCormick’s claim that he found Robert Johnson’s supposed killer but was unable to get McCormick to disclose the name. The chapter includes a concise look at Johnson’s influences and examines his songs and their themes. After weighing and discussing the theories and myth surrounding Johnson’s life, Gioia takes the position that the deal at the crossroads “may have never happened” (168). He ultimately comes to the conclusion that researchers are unlikely to ever solve the mysteries of Johnson’s life.

The limitations of the Delta-centric view of the blues show up in the chapter on the blues revival. Gioia notes Samuel Charters’s book The Country Blues “as a signal event in the history of the music” (351). However, he fails to note Charters’s 1959 rediscovery and recording of Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins, a Texas bluesman, and its importance in kicking off the blues revival. Instead, Gioia skips ahead to the rediscovery of the Delta blues men Ishmon Bracey and John Hurt in 1963.

It is commonly recognized that the blues impacted American music, and that the Mississippi masters whom Gioia examines were important blues artists. He never does quite flesh out the title statement that these masters revolutionized American music. He needs to connect the dots. Although he begins to develop this argument in the chapter on Muddy Waters, more evidence and examples would have strengthened his study. For example, merely listing famous musicians like Bob Dylan, Bo Diddley, Bonnie Raitt, and Carlos Santana who credited John Lee Hooker’s music is not enough. Gioia should explain how that Mississippi master influenced their art. That quibble aside, this is a solid contribution to the literature. It synthesizes a century of the blues and expands and updates Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues, the gold standard for Delta blues scholarship.

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