Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Rough Guide to The Blues reviewed by Mark Thompson

The Rough Guide to The Blues
by Nigel Williamson
Rough Guides
384 pages/ $25.99

Rough Guides has a series of books on the market that attempt to educate the reader on a specific musical genre or one particular musician. The author is a native of the United Kingdom who, like many of us, discovered real blues music through the work of British bands like John Mayall, the Animals and Cream.

The guide has three sections. The first is seventy-plus page overview of the history of Blues from the shores of Africa to the deep South of the United States and eventually reaching the big cities in the North, where it plugged in and spread throughout the world. The vaious chapters discuss the influences of traditional folk forms like field hollers and work songs as well as the importance of minstrel shows in spreading the new style to wider audiences. Williamson also touches on the distinct stylistic differences that developed in different regions and cities throughout the country. He also discusses the impact of the record companies and the pioneering spirits that operated them. Finally he takes the Blues overseas to Britain before pondering what lies in store for the future of the music.

The playlist concept also makes it's first appearance in this section. Williamson will select a general category - like gambling, red-hot mamas or Mississippi Delta blues - and then list a ten track playlist of classic tunes for that topic. These lists are intended to provide guidance for downloading tracks on the list, so that the listener can explore different types of Blues music they may not be familiar with. This section is a solid discussion of the roots of the music.

The second section is the heart of this publication. It contains a listing of key musicians and singers, providing biographical information and a career overview for each artist. Williamson also selects several recordings for each performer that he feels showcases their best work. For musicians who recorded extensively, he tends to favor compilations rather than individual recordings. But I found myself in agreement with many of his choices, especially for those artists that I am quite familiar with. The playlist concept continues, with reccommended tracks for the likes of Blind Blake to Slim Harpo

The scope of this section is quite wide, as artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and ZZ Top are covered. Williamson incudes many British bands like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones as well as lesser known acts like the Groundhogs, whose influence was stronger than their recordings.There is also a wide sampling of musicians from Louisiana and New Orleans. Several of these artists definitely stretch the definition of Blues music and/or beg the question of their importance as an innovator.

Devoting space to these groups means other musicians are left out. You won't find sections on Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell, William Clarke, Deborah Coleman or Debbie Davies. There is a listing for Shakey Jake Harris but not for George "Harmonica" Smith, both fine players but Smith influenced a whole generation of harp players on the West coast. You will find Bonnie Raitt sandwiched in between Ma Rainey and Jimmy Reed. Despite all she has done, Bonnie's musical contributions are not on the same level as either of these two legends. The key is that Williamson made his choices based on his view of the blues continuim. While one may not agree with all of his decisions, this section still is wealth of information for anyone interested in learning more about the wide range of blues musicians.

The final section - Bluesology - is nine pages of reference information including books, websites, DVDs, compilation cds and magazines for listeners who want more information. The 2 1/2 pages of books presents a solid listing of biographies of key musicians and several titles devoted to record labels. The DVD list has plenty of fine releases but at two pages, only scratches the surface of what is available on the market.

Williamson has put together a package that attempts to look at the wider world of Blues music. How successful he was will be up to each reader to decide. There is no denying that there will be plenty for most fans to learn from this publication.

No comments: