OA: Rock Cesario Column February 27, 200
I have always had a thirst for knowledge, especially when it comes to music.
So after watching the movie “Cadillac Records,” writing about it and then being chastised by a reader for not being factual enough, I decided to do some research into the blues.
I ordered a CD from each of the main characters in the movie — Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, and Little Walter — plus a CD of the original versions of the songs in “Cadillac Records.”
Apparently, customer Scott Fasken sensed what I was going to do, and while I was waiting for those CDs to come in, he stopped by the store and gave me a copy of Ted Gioia’s 2008 book, “Delta Blues.”
I have been reading the book slowly as to absorb it well. I am only through the third chapter, but I have learned so much I did not know about the blues and its origins. It has already made me a bigger fan of the genre.
In fact, just about every other time I play the “Definitive Howlin’ Wolf” CD in the store, someone purchases it. And they are not all old like me.
This is some of what I have learned from “Delta Blues” so far.
According to Gioia, Harvard archeologist Charles Peabody arrived in Mississippi in 1901 to excavate mounds built by the Choctaw Indians. Peabody employed between nine and 15 black workers.
Gioia writes: “But as Peabody directed the efforts of his black laborers, he soon found himself drawn less to what they found in the ground than what they did while they were engaged in their toils. The men sang, repetitively and at length, and the mesmerizing power of their music continued to haunt Peabody’s imagination long after he returned to Cambridge.”
In 1903, W.C. Handy, the disputed father of the blues, made a very important discovery, according to Gioia.
“While waiting in Tutwiler for a delayed train and half asleep, Handy said, ‘A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of his guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars.’
“Handy did not yet recognize the local Delta tradition of tone-altering and bending with bottlenecks, knives and other instruments that would come to be known as ‘slide’ or ‘bottleneck’ guitar. But he was instantly spellbound by the sound he heard.”
Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson was arguably the first big recording artist from the Deep South. Jefferson recorded exclusively for Paramount Records and did so well that other labels scoured the area for the next great recording artist from the Deep South.
Jefferson died in 1929 after only a four-year recording career, and his death could have been the end of the rural blues if Paramount had not discovered the next great Southern blues musician in Charlie Patton.
I ordered a copy of “The Best of Charlie Patton” on Yazoo Records because I had never heard him before.
The first time I played it in the store, a young lady who was buying vinyl asked about it. She said she would be back to get a copy.
The power of the blues is incredible. Stay tuned for more on this great book.