So much “historical” music journalism is a rehashing and souped-up repackaging of previously acknowledged information. But writer Ted Gioia, pianist/recording artist and author of “The History of Jazz,” has released a work of original research that is both passionate and informed.
Gioia succeeds in giving life and fullness to not just the realization of these artists’ music, but also the struggle and the social construct. Illuminating chapter-length discussions on Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Geeshie Wily, Kid Bailey and others deconstruct the archetypes and leave only the women, men, and their music. A wonderful addition to the stories is reprints of original photography that spans 16 pages.
The author’s investigation – filled with more primary sources than the New York Times’ archives – avoids saccharine retelling of such well-known stories as Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads; although, of course, the story is covered. But the book does not summarize the lives of these original artists into snapshots, or boil them down into quaint stories that undermine their talent and hard work – because, of course, that is what such legends do to giants like Johnson: minimize their earthly efforts in favor of a supernatural explanation.
Instead, Gioia ventures off the beaten blues path to the farms, work prisons, and plantations. He follows his subjects from their first emergence to their deaths – but weaves their individual stories together with one another, and with the social and economic changes that birthed, mothered, set free, and ultimately, lulled this uniquely American art form into a pop culture side note.