More Than a Feeling: A Blues Reading List

A hundred years on from its birth, the music continues to speak to the heart — an art form that also serves as social commentary, communal history, and cathartic release.

By Chris Wheatley

“Before Elvis there was nothing,” John Lennon famously once said about his own musical awakening — but, as Presley himself frequently acknowledged, there would have been no Elvis without the blues.  It’s no exaggeration to state that the blues underpins almost all modern music. Beyoncé, Kanye, Ed Sheeran: None of these artists would exist without it, and the musical ancestors of all three can be precisely traced back to the Deep South of the United States during the antebellum period.

But what exactly is the blues? We know it when we hear it, thanks to certain definable musical elements like chord progressions, yet arguments still exist as to the ancestry, lineage, and “true” nature of the genre. It’s an art form wrapped in myth and mythology, from the otherworldly provenance of Robert Johnson’s sublime gifts to Afro-Christian notions of evil and the poignant folklore found in the songs of Mississippi John Hurt. Yet this is part of the blues’ enduring appeal: Untangling the webs and uncovering truths, in a search for a genuine understanding of the history and origins of the blues, is almost a requirement for being a fan. Alongside hip-hop, reggae, and grime, this is music indelibly linked to the conditions from which it arose, an art form that also serves as social commentary, communal history, and cathartic release.

Blues songs speak of the joy and suffering of being alive. They also remind us of one of the darkest periods in human history, of the terrible depths to which we are capable of sinking should we abandon the notion that all people are equal in value. This is a message that, in all likelihood, will never cease to be relevant. A hundred years on from its birth, the blues continue to speak to the heart. The articles below collectively do a fine job of capturing the essence, meaning, history, and importance of this most singular sound.

Searching for Robert Johnson (Frank Digiacomo, Vanity Fair, October 2008)

Perhaps more than any other bluesman, Robert Leroy Johnson epitomizes the lasting allure and deep mythology of the genre. The legendary artist recorded just 29 tracks before dying at age 27, performing mostly in bars and on street corners across Mississippi in the 1930s. His physical presence feels as spectral as his music. Just two extant photos of the man exist, and very little firsthand information. Much of Johnson’s enduring fame centers on the perennial blues myth that the musician owed his guitar skills to the devil, to whom he traded his soul at a crossroads outside of Clarksdale. In fact, this particular tale predates Johnson, and has been attributed to many other bluesmen over the years, yet it sticks to Johnson like no other.

A thorough deconstruction of the man and his music can be found in Elijah Wald’s excellent book, Escaping the Delta, published by Harper Collins in 2004.

Digiacomo’s feature explores the continuing fascination and mystery surrounding this singular artist, though it does so obliquely: The incredible and convoluted story begins one day in 2005, when Steven “Zeke” Schein, a guitar expert and Delta blues obsessive, stumbles upon what he believes to be a never-before-seen photograph of Johnson. The ensuing tale illustrates in compelling prose the intriguing intangibility of the musician’s life and work.

With the eBay photo still on his computer monitor, Schein dug up his copy of the Johnson boxed set and took another look. Not only was he more confident than ever that he had found a photo of Robert Johnson, he had a hunch who the other man in the photo was, too: Johnny Shines, a respected Delta blues artist in his own right, and one of the handful of musicians who, in the early 1930s and again in the months before Johnson’s death, had traveled with him from town to town to look for gigs or stand on busy street corners and engage in a competitive practice known as “cuttin’ heads,” whereby one blues musician tries to draw away the crowd (and their money) gathered around another musician by standing on a nearby corner and outplaying him.

Jackie Kay on Bessie Smith: ‘My Libidinous, Raunchy, Fearless Blueswoman’ (Jackie Kay, The Guardian, February 2021)

Jacqueline “Jackie” Kay is a remarkable figure. A writer who holds both an MBE and CBE for services to literature, her many other achievements include winning the prestigious Somerset Maugham Award, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and becoming poet laureate of Scotland. All this despite the considerable challenges of her personal background.

In this moving piece, Kay talks fondly and with passion about the inspiration she found, as a gay Black girl growing up in 1970s Glasgow, in the life and music of blues singer Bessie Smith. Kay transports us back to her formative years, welcoming the reader inside the mind of her younger self to encounter the feelings, strengths, and flights of fantasy that sprang from her internal relationship with the legendary singer. Later, in 1997, Kay would publish her own critically acclaimed biography of the artist: Bessie Smith: A Poet’s Biography of a Blues Legend.

On the front cover she was smiling. Every feature of her face lit up by a huge grin bursting with personality. Her eyes full of hilarity. Her wide mouth full of laughing teeth. On the back she was sad. Her mouth shut. Eyes closed. Eyebrows furrowed. The album cover was like a strange two-sided coin. The two faces of Bessie Smith. I knew from that first album that I had made a friend for life. I would never forget her.

J. R.’s Jook and the Authenticity Mirage (Greg Brownderville, Southwest Review, 2017)

Musician and writer Greg Brownderville takes a literal step back into the mythical blues landscape in this evocative piece about friendship, music, and an almost-forgotten way of life, when a chance encounter leads him to a blues-jam party hosted by a character who lingers large in the author’s memory.

For many blues aficionados, nothing matters more than “authenticity,” whatever that nebulous term is taken to mean. This article discusses that, for sure, but the love and passion at the heart of this essay is to be discerned in thoughts about friendship, community, and the true warts-and-all history of a music that will forever be entangled with the socioeconomic conditions from which it arose.

Pudding slung her arm around me and shouted, “J. R.! If this boy can blues, remember: I’m the one invited him. If he can’t blues, it’s all your fault for handing him this guitar.” J. R. howled a boisterous laugh. But then he said with a serious, almost-preacherly voice, “Listen. We tickled to have this young man here tonight. I believe we done found us a new friend in blues.”

Keeping the Blues Alive (Touré, Smithsonian, September 2016)

The current state of the blues landscape continues to provoke arguments, introspection, and fears. Some would even contest that “real” blues is a thing of the past, its present-day protagonists serving up a distilled version of an art form forever frozen in time. Such conditions make this piece by renowned music critic Touré a fascinating read, as he documents a visit to the 32nd International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee.

For an in-depth look at one of the most feted of current bluesmen, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, see Carlo Rotella’s Washington Post profile of the man and his craft.

While Memphis in recent years has become home to a celebrated rap movement, Touré discovers a city in which the blues are very much alive and kicking. Fans will find much to celebrate and find themselves able to take a hatful of hope from this beautifully written piece, which covers blues from all angles, from the deeply personal to the highly pragmatic. To hear modern advocates speak with such passion, knowledge, and reverence is as inspirational as it is moving.

“The blues is an antipsychotic to keep my people from losing their minds,” she begins. “It started with the moans and groans of agony, the slave roots of it all.” Then she sings, “There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names! There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names!” She shoots us a coldblooded look.

What the Mississippi Delta Teaches Me About Home—and Hope (Wright Thompson, National Geographic, June 2020)

Wright Thompson grew up in Clarksdale, a town in Mississippi that strongly asserts its claim as “the birthplace of the blues.” It certainly has a wealth of history to back this up: Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, and a host of other musicians were born there, and the town remains an enticing draw for modern blues fans.

I suspect that this article, in which Wright Thompson and his young family take a short trip through the Mississippi Delta, will resonate with many. COVID has changed some more than others, but for all of us, the world will never be quite the same. Here, Thompson explores how blues music — full of life, longing, hope, and pain — resonates across the decades. The blues frequently evoke suffering and heartbreak, but it should be remembered that it is, at its core, a purging, and in many ways a purifying force.

I’ve been thinking recently about how these specific blues could be the soundtrack for a country trying to emerge from quarantine in one piece. A friend I trust told me that sentiment sounds like a kumbaya, and I know what he means. There is real pain and irreducible violence in the music. It records a very particular history.

When Young Elvis Met the Legendary B.B. King (Daniel de Visé, Lit Hub, November 2021)

Two “kings” meet here in this illuminating piece — an excerpt of de Visé’s book King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King — which does a fine job of capturing the magic and majesty of two stars from different sides of the blues line. Presley’s music and heritage is every bit as caught up in the blues as B.B.’s. To modern eyes and ears, the legacy of Elvis can seem problematic. For some it is a clear-cut case: Elvis stole Black music. The reality is far more nuanced. Presley was very much aware of his overwhelming debt to the blues, an art form he loved and admired above all others, and this piece offers a telling glimpse into the complicated and bigoted world of the music industry in ’50s/’60s America.

B.B. himself is one of the few “classic” bluesmen to have extended his professional work into the modern age. He began his career at the tail end of the ’40s, and played his final live show in 2014. A living link to the past and revered by countless musicians from the ’60s onwards, King remains one of the greatest exponents of electric blues. There is another vital link here: Producer Sam Phillips, the man who “discovered” Elvis, also produced many of King’s early recordings.

Peter Guralnick’s Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, a wonderful history of Phillips, explores this theme in detail.

You’ll find a striking line in this article in the form of a quote from Phillips: “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Whether Phillips truly said this is up for debate. Many have argued that if Phillips did say such a thing, it would have been in the spirit of frustration, and bemoaning such racism. This is a man who championed Black musicians long before — and long after — the coming of Elvis. Regardless, the sentiment lays bare the appalling racism that was endemic to the business at that time.

“But Elvis was different. He was friendly. I remember Elvis distinctly,” B.B. recalled, “because he was handsome and quiet and polite to a fault”—not unlike B.B. himself. “Spoke with this thick molasses Southern accent and always called me ‘sir.’ I liked that. In the early days, I heard him strictly as a country singer,” which is how most people regarded Elvis in the early years. Elvis made his first television appearance on a program titled Louisiana Hayride. “I liked his voice, though I had no idea he was getting ready to conquer the world.”

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Chris Wheatley is a writer and journalist based in Oxford, UK. He has too many guitars, too many records, and not enough cats.

Editor: Peter Rubin
Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands