The Blues: A Very Short Introduction (book review)

The Blues: A Very Short Introduction – Elijah Wald (Oxford University Press) book review –

This is one in a series of over 200 books covering a variety of topics, from Schizophrenia and Buddhism, to the Laws of Thermodynamics and just about everything in between; all short on page length (usually around 100 pages), and actual physical size (meant to easily fit into a purse or back pocket). Elijah Wald, author of several great books on the roots of American music, does an excellent job in “The Blues,” with a short amount of space, summing up what one musician called “nothing but a good man feeling bad.”

He divides the book into Pre-war and Modern Blues sections, and also uses the last half of the book to talk about blues’ effect on other styles, including jazz and country.  One of the things that Wald has done in his other books is challenge long-held myths and beliefs.  In the Blues, he asserts that the blues queens (Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, etc) were far more popular in terms of the size of their audience then the men, whom we consider as the true pioneers of blues (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, etc).

He also cautions about pigeonholing the artists mentioned in his book as simply “blues musicians,” when in fact most of them were capable of playing many styles.  This was in the age before the disc jockey, so every musician had to be able to please a wide variety of people.  Finally, he draws an intriguing parallel between classic blues, which borrowed heavily from other songs, to modern day rap music, which, he ascertains, does much of the same today.  Of course, it would’ve been nice to have an accompanying CD to be able to reference while reading.  However, with youtube, all these artists are right at our fingertips.

While it is impossible to cover everything in the limited space provided, Wald does manage to both give an overview of the blues, as well as provide a fresh take on some of its history, making it a good read, no matter how much you think you know on the subject. –Tony Peters