Up the Mississippi: A Journey of the Blues is an attractive and smartly written introduction to the history of the blues, and while it's not comprehensive or authoritative, it doesn't pretend to be. "The story of the blues as it evolved over the past century is far too complex to be contained in a single book," Editor Eunice Boardman writes in the introduction. "Rather, this collection of chapters is offered as a survey that will encourage the reader to explore the blues and its history more fully."
The package, geared to an adult audience, includes a book with more than 100 pages of articles and a 21-track CD illustrating many of the styles and artists mentioned in the text. The book includes chapters written by noted blues musicians Michael "Hawkeye" Herman and Anthony Gomes, as well as scholars, including Bettendorf's Karen McFarland. The CD is an amazing sampler, a generous platter that includes an excellent introduction to blues basics by Herman and 20 tracks by blues greats from Robert Johnson to Billy Branch.
The CD is especially useful because the book spends very little time actually talking about the sound of the blues. Herman plays "Good Morning Blues," and then explains how the song follows the blues formula. It's followed by a version of the song by Lead Belly, showing how it plays in different hands, and with different voice. It's a particularly interesting comparison because - as Herman notes - with the blues' rigid formula, exceptional songs stand out because of their performance rather than their composition.
For a book that's ostensibly about music, A Journey of the Blues is more of a social and geographic history than anything else. It spends most of its pages tracing the music's migration up the Mississippi River, or how the blues developed and evolved in places such as Louisiana, Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago. Lea Gilmore contributes an informative chapter on women in the blues.
Most interesting to me were contributions from McFarland and John Walker. These essays are compelling in part because they break out of the book's place-bound framework, but even more because they put the blues in an interesting (and larger) context. McFarland explores the expansive idea of a "blues culture" that seeped into the work of white Southern artists such as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. And Walker provides an excellent piece offering three elements that distinguish the blues from other types of folk music.
What sets these chapters apart is that they take a wider view of the blues and culture. While A Journey of the Blues is supposed to be for blues beginners, many chapters assume a certain level of blues knowledge. McFarland, Walker, and (on the CD) Herman do a great job providing the basics.
There are frustrating elements of the book, though.
John Sinclair, in the first paragraph of his essay "The Music of the Deep South," states, "Everything fresh and inventive in American popular culture has always had its roots in the Deep South." That's a provocative statement, and the trouble is that Sinclair makes the assertion as a given, never even attempting to back it up.
That's the most egregious example - and the only one that jumps out as begging for an extended discussion - but overall the volume suffers from sporadic sourcing. Only a few authors say where they get their information, and it hurts the volume's credibility.
A Journey of the Blues could have also used a firmer hand in editing to weed out repetition. While each self-contained chapter largely sticks to its distinct topic, a lot of information is given multiple times. (Nearly every author roots the blues in slavery, often with very similar phrasing.)
Overall, though, the Mississippi Valley Blues Society deserves heartfelt praise for this thoughtful volume. It would have been easy to produce a haphazard collection of random blues writing, but instead the Society has carefully selected topics and writers, and presented their work in a handsome volume. A Journey of the Blues is a great primer, and I'm guessing it will be a lasting resource.
Up the Mississippi: A Journey of the Blues is available for $15 from the Mississippi Valley Blues Society. To order a copy, call the society at (563)322-5837.