NINE BLUES BOOKS YOU'LL LEARN A LOT FROM
(& NOT JUST ABOUT BLUES MUSIC)
the annotated BOOK recommendation list for blues newbies
by mr. big
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Chicago Blues - the definitive book on the subject, by Mike Rowe. Includes a slew of information that details how and why Chicago became the world's blues capitol, as well as an extended footnote index and maps and photos which illustrate the topic elegantly. This book is used as the text for Blues University 101 along with the next selection. Between the two, you will get an excellent understanding of the roots of modern Chicago blues.

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Deep Blues - this book by the late Rolling Stone and New York Times writer, Robert Palmer, was also turned into an excellent documentary film. There's plenty of first-person accounts by Delta blues men and women, as well as a fairly logical, if not chronological, exploration of the blues as a cultural and musical phenomenon. There's a good deal about myths and legends in here, and it also debunks a few common misconceptions. It's a very fun book to read, and Palmer's off-the-cuff style should be familiar to Rolling Stone readers who remember his reviews or interviews with various oddballs of rock.

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Searching for Robert Johnson - is a great story, written by one of blues research's most famous scribes, Peter Guralnick, which fleshes out the obscure blues legend by documenting the struggle of one of his biographers to find a photo of the elusive guitarist. It is a short book, and reads like a mystery novella, full of surprises and conflicting stories, red herrings and bum leads, as well as accurately capturing the true excitement of successful research efforts with a compelling narrative and, of course, the famous photo.

Blues Who's Who - this is a biographical archive of tons and tons of blues singers and musicians, compiled by Sheldon Harris in a true labor of love. Although many younger artists are missing from the book, it is an essential resource and makes a great coffee-table book, to browse on rainy days, with lists of performances, both live and recorded on film or TV, for thousands of blues performers. It serves to settle bets, too, kinda like the Major League Baseball Record Book does for baseball fans. 8-)

Urban Blues - this book is a bit more scholarly, since it was originally an academic study by Charles Keil, of the University of Chicago, however, it contains a more thorough investigation of the cultural elements of blues music than any of the other books here, including a comparison of blues musicians to country preachers that is brilliant in its simplicity and depth. There's also some examination of the transformations blues has made since it arrived in urban centers, with a breakdown of various vocal styles and regional styles that nicely delineates and describes the music by delivery and intended audience, which contrasts nicely with the usual "blues is a feeling" type of analysis, which seems monolithic by comparison. A very thorough study, which includes quotes from radio personalities and performers, as well as scholarly types.

Listener's Guide to the Blues - although apparently temporarily out of print, this is another fine one from Peter Guralnick, a companion to blues shopping that fits nicely in a pocket and breaks things down in both a regional and a chronological fashion, and includes some biographical information.

Robert Johnson - this book by the legendary blues researcher, Samuel Charters, is a short work by most standards, which pre-dates the Guralnick book and most of the insightful historical research on Johnson. Thus, it emphasizes the musical legacy he left behind as the method of examining the man, and for many, that's all that's important. More importantly, it has lyrics and transcriptions of all the songs, making a strong case for Johnson's brilliance as a composer.

Living Country Blues - Harry Oster's book treats blues music as a lyrical form, an extremely important work which describes a variety of folk themes common in country acoustic blues, some of which carry forward to today in modern variations, others which have disappeared, like much of the rural folk culture, with the advent of the interstate highways and mass media. The most striking thing about this book is the sheer beauty of the passages excerpted in whole or part in these pages - it illustrates the high literary quality of the folk tradition in black America, which sources from the griot tradition in Africa, and in its vast collection of stories, justifies a valid comparison to Eurocentric "great works" of lyrical poetry, such as Homer's Oddyssey. Apparently temporarily out of print, but check your local library.

The Legacy of the Blues - an essential book and recording project by Samuel Charters, this series explores the blues through biographical chapters on 12 great bluesmen, with accompanying recordings, some of which are still in print and available for purchase. The interviews touch on the personal, emotional aspects of being a blues performer, and they are intimate portraits of masters who are presented in the chapter titles as examples of various blues archetypes, e.g., "Comin' to the City - Sunnyland Slim". An insightful and delicate work, whose recordings are some of the most simple and beautiful productions of acoustic blues on record.