on 17 July 1998
I write this from the perspective of someone who lives as far away from the Mississippi delta as you can get - I was born, brought up and live in India. I listened to The Beatles and everything that went after, for years, and thought the blues was boring guitar exhibitionism!
I happened across Robert Palmer's book at the local American Center library and to invoke a hoary old cliche - my life was not the same again. It was briliiant, powerful and very revealing.
Today, as I listen to the Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson, or the early Muddy Waters, I have Mr. Palmer to thank for showing me the Majesty of the Blues.
on 22 September 1996
From the steamy cotton fields of Mississippi, to the mean
streets of Chicago and beyond, the history of the blues
mirrors that of African American society in the 20th century.
Respected music writer, historian, and record producer
Robert Palmer traces the history of the music that begat
every other form of American popular music in rich detail,
blending first-hand accounts, interviews, and historical
narrative into a seamless, eminently readable and enjoyable
historical work of great importance. This book should be
required reading for highschool history students, fans of
popular music, and anyone who enjoys engrossing and
entertaining non-fiction writing.
on 8 February 1999
There's no other way to put it, this is simply the best book out there on the blues both as a music form and as force in shaping American culture. At once simple and concise, yet broad and in depth enough to tell a very complete story, this one work should satisfy everyone from the novice to the experienced blues fan.
Meticulously researched, Palmer uses Muddy Waters as a jumping off point to explore the history and evolution of the blues as music as well as the society and culture from which it sprang. He peppers his work with amazing anecdotes, from the story of Robert Johnson, the Band meeting a dying Sonny Boy Williamson, an aging Howlin' Wolf giving a phenominal concert that add color to his story and helps make his frequent forays into musicology more tolerable to the non-musician. Best of all is the sense of time and place the book evokes, from plantations and dark swamps in rural Mississippi, to the noisy, crowed streets of South Chicago at the peak of the Great Migration, to small clubs and long forgotten juke-joints.
I read this book for the first time 10 years or so ago and have probably reread it 5 times since. I keep coming up with new things to admire about the book every time. That so much richness can be packed into such a short readable work is amazing. This book triumphs over everything else written on the subject and only leaves you wanting to explore further.
on 7 July 1999
I read this wonderful book here in Canberra, Australia's national capital, far far away from the Delta. It was hard to put it down. But I did so just long enough to revisit favourite blues tracks by The Masked Marvel [aka Charley Patton] and Henry [Texas]Thomas...so evocative was Palmer's text that their voices crossed the decades and brought me to tears. Palmer surmounts the tyranny of time and distance and brings the Delta and its music to life for me on the other side of the world. My Road Atlas of the USA is open in front of me...Clarksdale here I come.
Phil Teece Canberra Australia
This is the bee knees of blues histories. Published way back in the 80s and inevitably a little out of date, it still holds its own against all comers. Very well researched, and written with real passion and enthusiasm, it is the ideal starting point for your musical trip of a life time.
The focus is on Mississippi Delta blues, and the story is told around the life and times of Muddy Waters. We start at the start, of course, and I strongly recommend you have your downloads at hand so that you can listen to the founding fathers as Palmer introduces them. Prepare yourself! The almost feral performances of, say, Charley Patton and Son House will either appal or enchant.
Almost everyone is here. Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Johnny Shines, two Sonny Boy Williamsons, Robert Lockwood ... all those magical names I heard as a young boy, long before I heard some of the music!
Palmer writes wonderfully concise biographical sketches of these men ... little is known about many and he doesn't speculate beyond what is reasonable to assume. These individual stories are combined with equally concise and insightful reports of the prevailing social and economic conditions that were so important in shaping this extraordinary music.
It isn't too much of a hagiography; reading between the lines you can see that some of these men might not have been easy to live with. Charley Patton, allegedly, used to beat his women with his guitar ... was that a steel bodied National? Good grief.
Palmer is rather reverential about some ... Muddy Waters, for instance. But he sends you back to Muddy's earlier work, recorded before he allowed himself to become subsumed in the relentless macho posturing of Mannish Boy in the later years. I may be a little biased. I prefer the introverted angst of the unsurpassed Elmore James.
On a personal note, I was disappointed to note that despite hailing from Avalon, one of my guitar greats, Mississippi John Hurt, fails to make the cut and isn't even mentioned. Most of the early blues men Palmer describes were essentially song and dance men, who could play anything a particular audience required. As the 'blues' became a commercial proposition many of them eschewed other parts of their repertoire to cash in. John Hurt, for many reasons, ended up retaining much of his varied material ... religious, dance, and so on ... but he certainly still played blues in his uniquely melodic style. I think he was worth a footnote anyway.
Remember, Palmer's focus is on the Delta. There were other blues centres. So, just to take one example, Texas blues is mentioned only in passing. Thus you may miss out on the world's first pop star, the simply wonderful Blind Lemon Jefferson, and that master of the monotonic bass, the mighty Mance Lipscomb ... to name but two.
But an excellent read. I can't wait to go on to Stephen Calt's I'd Rather Be The Devil, which is a lot tougher in its judgements. Should be the ideal counterweight then ...
Plus, a librarian's note: if you buy this edition you get a lovely little American Penguin version, well made and bound, and although B format (19.8 x 12.9 cms), still compact and slim enough to carry in your pocket and look cool as you read it on the train; or, better still, leave it lying in your guitar case when busking (if you can find a spot in Belfast, that is), as I do, and instantly become an encylopaedic blues maestro, able to break off playing at any time and enlighten your avid listeners to the history - social, cultural, economic - of whatever piece you're (in my case) lurching through, never leaving first position on the fretboard and hitting more bum notes than ever Charley Patton hit even when he was paralytic drunk.
on 4 February 1999
I read this book about 15 years ago, sometime after it first came out, and have probably re-read it three or four times since then. I haven't read it in about 10 years, but continually recommend it to friends who want to know something about the blues. A great read.
on 27 March 1998
As a student of music history for 30 years, I can say I have never read a more enlightening book, with wonderful insight and a true sense of style in every sense of the word. For the reader who wrote to Palmer c/o Rolling Stone and did not receive an answer, you should know that Robert Palmer died in 1997 at the age of 53 awaiting a liver transplant. He never got an organ. When the reader wrote to him, he was already terribly ill, hospitalized down south, and most likely could not respond. I work at the hospital in NY where he died, and I can tell you, if he could have responded, he was the kind of man who would have. We'll all miss him. Makes the plight of organ donation in this country all the more real. Consider all those who could be helped if we all took organ donation more seriously.