RollingStone: From the Delta to the Black Keys: The Story of the Blues

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Before he moved to Tennessee and pioneered country music, a young Jimmie Rodgers walked into a Jackson, Mississippi, record shop for an audition. Talent scout H.C. Speir, who found acts for roots-music labels like OKeh and Paramount in the Twenties and Thirties, sent the future great packing, telling him not to come back until he had some better songs.

It’s a good thing Speir was more impressed by the blues pioneers who walked through his door — a world-changing pantheon that included Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, Muddy Waters and more. Speir was a white businessman who sold records to black fans, and his story is one of the stronger threads linking many of the guitar-playing field workers from the Mississippi River Delta who changed the way we hear music.

Meticulously researched and reported by music historian Ted Gioia, Delta Blues demythologizes the blues and its makers without squeezing the blood out of the subject. Much has been written about Johnson’s meeting with the devil at the crossroads — but Gioia digs deep, finding the roots of the myth in West African and Caribbean fables. He also suggests Johnson may have been an early master marketer of his own music, spreading the tale himself. Author of the exhaustive 1997 History of Jazz, Gioia writes about the blues in active, colorful prose, describing Delta music as “a throbbing texture of sound” in which guitar “chords are not so much strummed as torn from the instrument.”

After tracing the blues’ migration to — and electrification in — Chicago, Gioia brings the tale into the present with a sharp analysis of how the blues have reverberated through the ages, emerging in British Invasion rock, San Francisco psychedelia and current revivalists from the Black Keys to the North Mississippi Allstars. After all, as Gioia writes, “Many of the same ingredients that contributed to the first flowering of the Delta blues — the social, demographic and cultural fingerprint, so to speak — are still present today. And no one will deny that folks still have more than enough to be blue about.”

 

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