THE HISTORY OF THE BLUES: THE ROOTS, THE MUSIC, THE PEOPLE, by Francis Davis (DaCapo).
There have been many histories of the blues, but this one is unusual. Calling it “the” blues history takes some gall, when musicologists such as Samuel Charters, Paul Oliver and Peter Guralnick have been ploughing the field since the 1960s. When this book first appeared in 1995, well marketed due to a television tie-in, few had heard of Davis – a regular contributor to The Atlantic – so it was treated with some scepticism.
Although he covers expected territory such as connections with Africa, field hollers, work songs and Scottish ballads, the way he weaves it around his own personal journey of discovery annoyed the purists. They also sniffed at the mix of sociology and anecdote and the inclusion of white performers such as Stevie Ray Vaughan. The involvement of whites in what is perceived as a black genre is a sore point, even if it is whites – ironically – who are wanting to keep it black (an odd reversal in racial politics). Living Blues has been the leading blues magazine for years, but no white musicians are covered – even though it is the white audience keeping those blues alive.
As Davis so bluntly points out, usually there are more blacks on stage than in a blues audience: “Some of us people of pallor just fall in love with the music, and I have no inkling of what, if anything, is going on in the souls of those white folks who show up at summer blues festivals shirtless, spill beer on themselves, trade high-fives with their girlfriends after every number, and shake their asses like poster children for rhythmic deficiency anemia.” He talks of the 1960s blues revival never really concluding, of the impact – and complexities – of the Blues Brothers phenomenon.
But these issues are asides to an engrossing, thoughtful one-volume history. Davis covers a lot of ground, dwelling leisurely on key figures such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, as well as providing short profiles of others, be they infamous or obscure. He gives enough information about them to make the book useful, and enough stories to make it readable. His style is easy, conversational – and this is what makes the book different to those that like to study the music with a microscope, under sealed conditions.
In the eight years since it was first published, this book could do with some serious updating: of his “great black hopes”, Robert Cray has now indeed become more of a soulster, and Ted Hawkins died shortly after he was rescued from obscurity. While many of the greats have moved on – John Lee Hooker, for example – a newly tapped goldmine has been the unknown musicians discovered by Fat Possum. Many of them had never left Mississippi, so their authenticity hasn’t been threatened by outside influences. Maybe this ancient lost tribe didn’t fit Davis’s thesis: that the blues are now colourless. Even John F Kennedy Jnr was spotted in Mississippi before he died, searching for the crossroads.