Copyright © Chicago Blues News. All rights reserved.

All About the Blues

By Paul Petraitis
Published 5.6.16

When the blues comes into your life, you do whatever you can to get closer ...whether it is by attending shows, learning an instrument or taking photographs at gigs. What about reading some blues literature? 

Blues All Day Long: The Jimmy Rogers Story
by Wayne Everett Goins
432 pages, University of Illinois (2014)
One name every Chicago blues fan should know is Muddy Waters' longtime partner Jimmy Rogers. This book, by ex-Chicagoan Wayne Goins, is a richly detailed biography based on more than 75 hours of interviews with just about everyone that matters. It offers a virtual "who's who" of Chicago blues people. Although Walkin' By Myself was Rogers’ only Top 20 hit, the tune’s driving guitar and mellow vocals (plus a breathtaking harmonica solo by Big Walter Horton) make it a Chicago blues classic.

In Search of the Blues
by Marybeth Hamilton
309 pages, Basic Books/Perseus Books Group (2007)
And now for something completely different….The author is a delightfully nerdy punk rock music fan who was eventually drawn from the New York Dolls to the blues. When she read the literature, she wondered if there might be another kind of blues story waiting for her to write.

What she found was the largely unheralded story of the very first folks who went out to record, interview and write about what we now recognize as the roots of the Delta blues. Hamilton introduces readers to such singular characters as Howard Odum, a troubled, bespectacled 23-year-old who set out from Oxford, Mississippi, on horseback to record black singers with a gramophone, an early sound recording cylinder device strapped to his saddle. This happened in 1907, more than a decade before the advent of commercially available 78s.

Then there's the poet Dorothy Scarborough, obsessed with the sound of the "unspoiled black voice" who wrote her compelling On The Trail Of Negro Folk Songs in 1925. Hamilton also introduces us to the weird boys club that is the first bunch of record collectors who, by the 1940s, have elevated obscure country blues artists like Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton to cult status.
And don’t forget John Lomax, who was the first field recordist for the Smithsonian Institution. He discovered Lead Belly, paraded him around lefty New York society and tried to keep him from getting citified by going to Harlem. Lomax clearly left a decidedly mixed legacy.

The Land Where The Blues Began
by Alan Lomax
560 pages, New Press NYC (1993)
Alan Lomax, who took over his dad's job for the Smithsonian in 1937, was the first to record Muddy Waters...yeah THAT guy. This book combines interviews and impressions of blues people and blues scenes over 30+ years. There's essays on Muddy Waters, David "Honeyboy" Edwards and lesser-known artists like Sam Chatmon. Some of this book is heavy going but give Lomax a shot by reading just one chapter a day. You definitely will learn something about the blues.

Blues: The British Connection
by Bob Brunning
288 pages, Blandford, London (1986 and 1995)
Do you like Eric Clapton? Or do you much prefer Peter Green or maybe Mick Taylor? Did you know that all three of these great London guitarists were once members of John Mayall's band? When you read Brunning's insider's look at blues in Britain you will learn about their careers as well as how the blues (especially Chicago blues) found a new home in the UK.

Before Brunning, who died in 2011, became Fleetwood Mac's first bass player (yes, before Peter Green convinced John McVie to join the band), he was on the scene in London and throughout the British Isles. As a fan, he watched the Stones play Bo Diddley covers, Jeff Beck join the Yardbirds after Eric Clapton quit, and a 16-year-old Stevie Winwood sing the blues with the Spencer Davis Group. What might be most interesting part of the book for Chicago blues fans is the chapter on "Working With The Visitors."

American blues artists meeting and performing with their Brit backup bands was always a very interesting experience. One time, for example,  Little Walter showed up, after a great rehearsal with a local band, to perform "horribly drunk before the gig and tried to stick Rod Stewart with a knife!" Now that's definitely the blues.

April 1, 2016

Paul Petraitis is a Chicago historian and published professional who has worked at different times since the 1970s for a variety of local organizations, including the Chicago History Museum, the Newberry Library, the Ridge Historical Society and Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. He also is a guitarist who performs regularly around town. He is currently working on a blues book of his own, titled Closer to the Blues.