Friday, June 11, 2010

Essential Reading......and Coming Attractions

A big "Thank You" to everybody who stopped by to check out our Essential Recordings post last week. Joe and I will be looking at other essential releases in the future, including one of my all-time favorites next week. This week, I want to look at a book that no blues fan should be without. It's a classic of Blues Literature......Robert Palmer's Deep Blues.

The Robert Palmer who wrote Deep Blues was not the 80's pop/rock singer. This Robert Palmer was a music journalist from the early 70's to his untimely death in 1997. His articles appeared regularly in magazines like Rolling Stone and he wrote for The New York Times for nearly two decades, serving as their chief pop music critic for over ten years.

While Palmer focused on many different types of music with his writing, he seemed to have a special interest for the blues.  How could he have written this outstanding book and not love the music?  Weighing in at a seemingly miniscule 277 pages, Deep Blues manages to comprehensively examine the history of the blues from its African roots in what was then called Senegambia to its rural beginnings in the Mississippi Delta to its migration and electrification in Chicago.

Palmer focuses on the blues from the beginning of recordings in the 1920's all the way through around 1980 (the book was originally published in 1981).  There are mini-biographies of numerous luminaries ranging from Charley Patton to Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters to Sunnyland Slim to Robert Lockwood Jr. and Sonny Boy Williamson's King Biscuit days.  These bios are brief but contain tons of info about the artists whom Palmer interviewed.  Obviously, they felt at ease with Palmer when talking.  Other pioneers like John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, B. B. King, Jimmy Reed, and Otis Rush are also examined. 

In addition, there's a comprehensive discography and bibliography, including a section on essential Delta blues recordings with comments from Palmer.  Sadly, a lot of the discs and books may be either out of print or hard to find currently, but it provide an excellent guideline for fans interested in expanding their knowledge or their collections.

Despite the slimness of the volume, Palmer doesn't leave much out.  I have read this book five times since I bought it in the mid 90's, and I find new information every time I read it.  If you are a blues fan, whether a beginner or vet, you simply must have this book.  It's absolutely indispensible.  

After Deep Blues' publication, Palmer continued to write about music and eventually branched out into production in both music and on the screen.  In the early 90's, he was involved with the documentary based on his book, serving as the on-screen host and narrator.  He also wrote Rock and Roll: An Unruly History, and served as consultant for the PBS mini-series based on the book.  He produced several albums for Fat Possum Records, notably the early discs by R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and the Jelly Roll Kings.  The clip below is one of my favorite scenes from Deep Blues, featuring Palmer with Burnside and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics

Now that summer is cranking up, it's time for the blues festivals to hit high gear.  Of course, the main one this month happens in Chicago with the annual Chicago Blues Festival at Grant Park on June 11 - 13.  This year's fest celebrates the 100th birthday of one Chester A. Burnett a.k.a. Howlin' Wolf, with many of his former band members and associates performing and appearing on numerous discussion panels.  Some of those associates who will be there include Eddie Shaw, Hubert Sumlin, Henry Gray, Sam Lay, James Cotton, Abb Locke, and Matt "Guitar" Murphy.  Other performers include Jimmy Dawkins, Tail Dragger, Grady Champion, Otis Taylor, Sugar Blue, Zora Young, Johnny Rawls, Sonny Rhodes, Honeyboy Edwards, Bobby ParkerJimmy "Duck" Holmes, Bobby Rush, and the Chicago Blues: A Living History Band (Billy Boy Arnold, Lurrie Bell, John Primer, Billy Branch, and friends).  Best of all, admission is FREE.  As a blues fan, I only have a few goals that I haven't achieved of those is attending the Chicago Blues Festival.  Won't happen this year, but maybe some day.

It's exciting to have Matt "Guitar" Murphy back and performing.  He suffered a stroke several years ago and it's been a long, hard recovery for him.  While Murphy has released several albums of his own (the best being Way Down South) and he's best known for his turn as a member of the Blues Brothers band, he will forever be revered by blues fans in the know for his incredible stint in the 50's as guitarist for Memphis Slim.  Witness this clip, taken from one of the American Folk Blues Festival DVDs of a few years ago.  Murphy is featured on his own, "Matt's Guitar Boogie," with Willie Dixon on bass, Memphis Slim on piano, and Billy Stepney on drums.  Murphy will be playing with James Cotton at the Chicago Blues Fest.

Another upcoming festival, a little closer to home for me, is the 38th Annual Bentonia Blues Festival on June 19th.  Located in tiny Bentonia, MS (about 30 - 40 minutes NW of Jackson, MS), this year's festival headliner is Bobby Rush.  Also appearing will be BMA winner Eden Brent, Bentonia native son, Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, and numerous local blues and gospel acts.  This one is free admission also, so come on over and take in some local culture. 



nicolas roggli said...

Thanks for the article, I'll rush to buy Palmer's book :-)

Graham said...

You'll be glad you did. :) Thanks for stopping by.