And then they nursed it, rehearsed it . . .

Monday Book Review

April 27, 1992|By Lawrence Freeny

BLUESLAND: PORTRAITS OF TWELVE MAJOR AMERICAN BLUES MASTERS. Edited by Pete Welding and Toby Byron. Dutton. 253 pages. $26.95.

THIS BOOK portrays 12 great blues singers and instrumentalists. It is also a musical atlas whose intersecting and diverging lines derivatively link blues with the subsequent eras of jazz and rock 'n' roll.

Blues singing has black origins, stemming from popular hymns and from chants sung by slave laborers. Some of the early itinerant blues singers -- who tell of loves gained and lost, work and struggle, suffering and newfound freedom -- seldom strayed from their native South, while others migrated to New Orleans, Memphis and Chicago. An exemplar was Muddy Waters, born in Rolling Fork, Miss., who became popular in Chicago clubs in the mid-1940s and then, with the amplified guitar, made classic recordings after World War II.

Those fans of rock music who may admit scant knowledge of blues artists will perhaps be surprised to learn that the Rolling Stones chose their name from one of Muddy Waters' early recordings. In the view of co-editor Pete Welding, Waters and his bandsmen defined "the fundamental earthy, vital, powerful sound of the postwar blues . . . and [their] bedrock music" continues as a powerful influence on today's music.

And the immense, long-running success of B. B. King, including popular and blues hits, has inspired such performers as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.

The contributing essayists have credentials as historians, critics and analysts of these distinctively American forms of music. Some take readers on journeys into the Deep South, visiting places like Greenwood, Miss., where a museum memorializes the great Robert Johnson, and Wortham, Texas, site of a simple slab that marks the grave of Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Contributors include Murray Kempton, a Baltimore native and Johns Hopkins University graduate, a former columnist for the New York Post. Kempton, long known for deft, precise writing, here defines Big Joe Turner, the famed blues shouter, as having had "the holler of a mountain jack." The co-author of this essay is a son, Arthur Kempton.

Another writer is Robert Palmer, a founder and organizer of the Memphis blues festivals in the 1960s and now chief pop music critic for the New York Times. He tells of his meetings in New Orleans with Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd), known as Fess, who performed first as a blues guitarist and later as a barrelhouse blues pianist. Mr. Palmer's own book, "Deep Blues," is a detailed study of black music, starting with its African roots.

The essay on Blind Lemon Jefferson, one of the early itinerant singers, provides several excerpts from his songs including this from "Matchbox Blues":

"I'm sitting here wonderin' will a matchbox hold my clothes. I'm sittin' here wonderin' will a matchbox hold my clothes. I ain't got so many matches, but I got so far to go."

Jefferson made recordings in Dallas and Chicago, accompanying himself on guitar, that brought success and acclaim in the late 1920s, even in Europe.

Soon record companies were producing "race records," targeting cities with large black populations. But a small firm, Black Swan, owned by W.C. Handy (composer of "St. Louis Blues") and his partner, Harry Pace, used this advertising zinger: "The only genuinely colored record. Others are only passing."

The report on Handy's entrepreneurial spirit appears in Chris Albertson's essay on Bessie Smith and is titled "'Taint Nobody's Business If I Do." That also is the title of a song that became one of Billie Holiday's big hits.

Smith, known for her powerful, unamplified voice -- it contrasted sharply with Holiday's modulated, subtle jazz style -- died after a car crash in 1937. She was about 43. Holiday died in 1959 at age 44.

Smith's grave in Philadelphia bore no marker until 1970, when a headstone was installed. The cost was shared equally by the late rock singer Janis Joplin and a Philadelphia nursing home operator.

"Bluesland" offers readers a bonanza of information on the lives and careers of each of the 12 American blues masters. We learn of their roots, their ascendancy, their decline, and we gain informed perspective on their importance in the world of the blues.

The book contains a fine collection of photos, not just of the performers but of the rural, segregated South that once was home to many of these artists and a powerful influence on their lives.

Lawrence Freeny is a Baltimore writer.

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