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Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009

Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (Norton), by Ted Gioia

Book Review

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This is the definitive text on Delta blues, impeccably researched and written. Ted Gioia shines an equal light on folklorists and artists, historians and critics, until they all cast a single, recognizable shadow upon the development of an idiom that has been dimmed through far too many texts that obscure actual origin and evolution.

Much of the material has been covered in other books, but without Gioia's grasp of history. His superior scholarship becomes obvious in the Robert Johnson chapter. Rather than worry about the devil at the crossroads, Gioia is concerned with what kind of music the fallen angel would make, which was entirely commercial, learned more from recordings than from peers. Folklorists often missed the point.

It just shows that we have to be careful with categories when it comes to early American music. Delta blues may stand as the first pop sound on the road to rock 'n' roll. It had no direct West African ancestry. Its roots were in the grooves of records that sold like the devil's business at the time.

Chapters on Bukka White, Son House and John Lee Hooker are tempered gems. The only time the author starts to head for the wishing well instead of just turning on the tap is when he refuses to admit that the Delta blues is more than likely gone no matter what its enduring influence has been. One cannot blame Gioia for being a poet in the end as he has been such an authoritative historian, leaving readers at the crossroads after a well-informed ride.