We often take music for granted for it is all around us. At the push of a radio button. To be bought with the click of a keyboard stroke. To imagine the beginnings of popular music in America as humble–hatched in shacks across the Deep South–seems a trip too far.
Yet Robert Palmer’s voyage of musical non-fiction Deep Blues asks us to take this trip, across the Atlantic as slave ships docked on American shores, through the plantations as drums were banned for their political power, and to the late 19th century in small towns across the Mississippi Delta where the first notes of modern blues, and by extension, r+b, rock, soul, and even hip hop can be heard
Unlike many works of musical non-fiction (which, like Hopkins and Sugerman’s No One Here Gets Out Alive serves to propagate a cult of personality), Palmer’s work mixes a blend of historical background, narrative, musical analysis, and personal experience.
If the book has a main character, it is Muddy Waters, who Palmer often ties lines back to. But the true story begins in the tribes of West Africa, where Palmer analyzes the rhythmic and instrumental characteristics of the people who were brought to America has slaves for two centuries. With this background and a brief description of music on the plantation and the diverse musical scene in the south near the close of the nineteenth century, Palmer begins to construct both the characteristics and the lineage of American Blues.
Beginning on the Dockery Farm, Palmer begins the lineage with Charley Patton, the son of a Bible-thumping sharecropper. Here, we see the characteristics of the Blues as “the Devil’s music” and a diversion from the hard work needed to survive. With names like Patton, Henry Sloan, Willie Brown, and Tommy Johnson, Palmer builds the motifs of call and response, polyrhythms, and note-bending that pervades much of his analysis.
With Tommy Johnson comes the notorious story of the bluesman who sold his soul to the Devil. However, this tale is more famously associated with another guitarist–Robert Johnson. Johnson recorded repetoire is slim, but his influence is far and wide. Moreover with songs like “Hellhound on my Trail,” “Crossroads,” and “Me and the Devil,” it seems that Johnson cultivated this myth as a key to his own popularity. Palmer argues that with Johnson, Blues almost had its moment to break into the popular consciousness. But as Johnson was to flirtatious with other men’s wives (as the legend goes) he was poisoned just before he was about to hit the big time, setting back the rise of Blues for another decade.
From here, Palmer moves all over the south as the sons of the Delta Blues move to cities all over the country. Memphis, St. Louis, Helena. However, as with the great migration of African Americans, Chicago becomes a major focal point. Here we see the development of artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and Elmore James. Moreover, Palmer moves into a diversification of styles and instrumentation, too great and diverse to name.
Indeed, if there is one struggle in reading this extensive history of the blues it is the vast knowledge of the author. Literally listing hundreds of musicians, songs, styles, the careful reader often has to go back to make previous connection. However, in reading the book, I decided to keep my iPad handy and often looked up songs when listed, a very small sample of which I’ve included in this post. I found this an excellent way to read the book as it became helpful in deciphering Palmer’s dense musical analysis.
Anyone who has any interest in Rock and Roll music will begin to see the connections early on, far before Palmer gets to Elvis recording “That’s All Right” as his breakout hit, long before Muddy Waters tours in Europe to influence the Rolling Stones. Many of the early blues standards are songs that modern rock bands have covered and made their own, so anyone who has ever listened to the Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Animals, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, The Band, and many other bands will see these songs pop up in this broad telling.
There are times when this book can be extensive and listy, and I just discovered that a documentary was also made. Sometimes, it is best to read it in small chunks, as the names can run together. But it is a must read for any serious lover of any music related to blues, r+b, and rock and roll. Palmer’s love for the music shines through from his interviews with Muddy Waters to his personal tellings of shows he’s seen with Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Rush. He treats the music with reverence, building the road from this once backwater style to the might influential force it is today.