This is a fast-paced history of the blues, with special attention to the not-very-sharp boundaries between the blues and other genres. The book lives up to its billing — “a very short introduction.” But that’s no knock against it. I think it does exactly the...
This is a fast-paced history of the blues, with special attention to the not-very-sharp boundaries between the blues and other genres.
The book lives up to its billing — “a very short introduction.” But that’s no knock against it. I think it does exactly the job it’s meant to do — read it, and find out what paths you want to go down in greater depth with other resources. And Wald provides some great guidance in his “Further reading” suggestions at the end of the book.
All that said, there’s a lot of material here — roughly chronological accounts of three primary low branches on the tree (Piedmont, Texas, and Delta) and a good bit of discussion of how the blues relates, both historically and musically, with folk, gospel, country, jazz, R&B, rock, and even hip-hop music genres, as well as relatively brief mentions of its relationship to west African music and instruments.
Although Wald’s focus is on providing an introduction and a history, he also gives us a strong commentary on blues as a genre. He starts with some definitions — ones based on the feel of the music, the 12 bar-three line musical and lyrical pattern, and the interests of marketing. No definition is exact — blues can be happy not “blue” in feeling (think jump blues, for example), it can violate the 12 bar pattern (think John Lee Hooker), and marketing is marketing.
Wald never says it in so many words, but it’s pretty clear he thinks that marketing is the driving force in musical genre definition in general. And for the blues, especially, given its identification for so many years with “race music,” that’s especially poignant. Was Hank Williams a blues artist? Why not? Was Elvis? For that matter, is Buddy Guy a rock musician?
And there’s the pop influence. If blues reaches a popular audience, suddenly it seems to be R&B. Granted “rhythm and blues” encompasses “blues” but the marketing folks pulled some sort of twist there. And there are similar boundary-jumpings between blues and rock — Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Johnny Winter, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
These distinctions can’t be nailed down in strict musical terms. The marketers who sell the music have their say, and maybe they do speak the loudest.
One criterion I always fall back on in thinking about how valuable a book on music has been is whether or not I turn from the book and buy new music. After all, music is better listened to (or played) than read about. The first I bought after reading this was older recordings by Muddy Waters. I should have done that a long time ago, but Wald got me to scratch the itch.
Like I said, a good “very short introduction.” Once you’ve read this, you can go on, if you want, to fuller general histories, like Robert Palmer’s classic Deep Blues, or down more focused paths, including Wald’s own book on Robert Johnson, or many other sources in the “Further reading” list. I think Wald is a good guide, and, if you’re like me, you need one.