“The Blues”: few phrases within the lexicon of musical terminology are as loaded with intrigue, mystery, myth, legend, iconic imagery and folklore. While much of this is no doubt rooted more deeply in marketing than reality, that particular current in the history of popular music still remains enormously influential, and the formative influence on all manner of subsequent music making. In all corners of the world today, singers can be heard delivering lines like, “Blues fell like rain”, or “I believe I’ll dust my broom” – singing the music of the impoverished Black underclass of the Mississippi Delta from around the time of the First World War. That extraordinary fact in itself is a story worth telling.
American musicologist and social historian Robert Palmer hit the road during the 1970s to research a book on the music he loved: The Blues. He travelled the length of the United States, visiting the farms and plantations where the Blues was born, interviewing those who were there (or their immediate successors), travelled the migration routes on which African Americans fled Northwards, and explored Chicago’s Black community from where it was first electrified, then popularised and then globalised.
The book, although 'academic' in its depth of research, is pleasantly easy reading. It brilliantly weaves the sound of the music onto the backdrop of the social history that produced it, bringing fascinating insights into the political, religious, economic and geographical landscape which not only shaped the sound but also the experiences and lyrics of the bluesmen. Palmer’s foray’s into music-theory are also written so straightforwardly that they are generally comprehensible to the non-technical reader like myself. Most fascinatingly are his descriptions of the similarities between the micro-tonal shadings of master vocalists like Muddy Waters (much imitated, seldom equalled), and some West African languages. Likewise his comparisons of African drum rhythms with the polyrhythmic explorations of early Delta Bluesmen like Charley Patton are absorbing reading.
For anyone who loves the Blues – this is essential reading.