Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Notes: Deep Blues by Robert Palmer

“The Blues”: few phrases within the lexicon of musical terminology are as loaded with intrigue, mystery, myth, legend, iconic imagery and folklore. While much of this is no doubt rooted more deeply in marketing than reality, that particular current in the history of popular music still remains enormously influential, and the formative influence on all manner of subsequent music making. In all corners of the world today, singers can be heard delivering lines like, “Blues fell like rain”, or “I believe I’ll dust my broom” – singing the music of the impoverished Black underclass of the Mississippi Delta from around the time of the First World War. That extraordinary fact in itself is a story worth telling.

American musicologist and social historian Robert Palmer hit the road during the 1970s to research a book on the music he loved: The Blues. He travelled the length of the United States, visiting the farms and plantations where the Blues was born, interviewing those who were there (or their immediate successors), travelled the migration routes on which African Americans fled Northwards, and explored Chicago’s Black community from where it was first electrified, then popularised and then globalised.

The book, although 'academic' in its depth of research, is pleasantly easy reading. It brilliantly weaves the sound of the music onto the backdrop of the social history that produced it, bringing fascinating insights into the political, religious, economic and geographical landscape which not only shaped the sound but also the experiences and lyrics of the bluesmen. Palmer’s foray’s into music-theory are also written so straightforwardly that they are generally comprehensible to the non-technical reader like myself. Most fascinatingly are his descriptions of the similarities between the micro-tonal shadings of master vocalists like Muddy Waters (much imitated, seldom equalled), and some West African languages. Likewise his comparisons of African drum rhythms with the polyrhythmic explorations of early Delta Bluesmen like Charley Patton are absorbing reading.

Levee camps, floods, cotton, railroads, migration, depression, racism, the black-church, the cross-currents of different musical traditions, prison, bootlegged alcohol, juke-joints, share-cropping all form part of the detailed and fascinating picture of Delta life that Palmer describes at the start of the book. Palmer set out to trace thee roots of The Blues, and talked to collaborators of seminal figures such as Son House, Robert Johnson, visiting the estates where they grew-up and learned their music. The earliest figures he points to as players of what might be called Blues, are Charley Patton and his teacher the mysterious Henry Sloan.

Unlike many other books which seem to treat The Blues as a undifferentiated monolithic body of work, Palmer’s book is written like a family tree of the genre, demonstrating the different currents and influences that run through different types of Blues. One of the rare weaknesses of the book is Palmer’s overwhelming preference for guitar over piano blues, perhaps not doing justice to that aspect of the Blues. Nevertheless, he neatly describes the various patterns, and who influenced who, and who took Blues in new directions in its critical years between 1920 and 1960. The index reads like a who’s who of recorded American Blues! His real love is clearly the early Delta Blues of Patton, and Johnson, preserved, developed and marketed by followers such as Elmore James and Muddy Waters – what Muddy called “Deep Blues”. Muddy Waters’ many contributions to this book are worth this price in and of themselves.

For anyone who loves the Blues – this is essential reading.

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