There is no question: If you love the blues, or any music, that is, Ted Gioia’s utterly fascinating work, Delta Blues, will leave you with an immense appreciation for an essential era of American musical and cultural history.
It’s a phenomenal subject to tackle. While living in the digital age of music production, where even the least talented vocalists and instrumentalists are made into stars by AutoTune and other studio trickery, it’s deeply humbling and inspiring to dive into the story of how the building blocks of all music heard today were made by poor musicians living in a state where less than one percent of farms had the use of electricity as late as 1937, with only dilapidated guitars, pocketknives, bottlenecks and the ground beneath their feet to create something riveting.
Delta blues, a frills-free form of music, is perhaps America’s most lasting musical legacy, aside from jazz, a musical form that’s just a bit “smarter”—to some, that is. Both born out of rich African musical traditions, blues and jazz are synonymous to some—close cousins that share a history and often visit.
But much like the author’s confession in the foreword—that all of his assumptions and understanding of the blues are quite limited and/or elementary, despite intensive schooling as a jazz pianist—readers may also begin to doubt their own grasp on the genre as Gioia’s story unfolds. The history of the blues is an unfathomably deep story, with plenty of leaks and holes.
It’s in the description of the music that one can truly understand the sheer emotions that are buried deep in the songs: sadness, heartbreak and pain, peppered with a little bit of joy. The guitar’s bent notes and crying slide so much sound like a voice that the growling vocals often resemble the crude chords and otherworldly tones summoned from the instrument. It’s a seamless connection, an intertwining of the human voice, wood and steel to create an expression so personal and deeply affecting that it supposedly drove one guitar-slinger to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for the ability to play.
Being a form of music born out of African musical traditions (most of which probably felt little or no influence from European or Western musical traditions before they came to American soil), it seems that the Delta performers were “being unconventional by being conventional,” by their standards, of course.
The blues, however, was also a hot commodity that sold well in several markets. Much like today’s shifting climate in the music industry, patents, mergers, takeovers, diversification moves and battles for market share transformed the business landscape and opportunities for artists to mold their music into something that would sell. And many blues performers and recording artists achieved great success in marketing their music to the masses.
However, what’s different about today’s world is that many artists are pressured into delivering hits almost immediately. Gone are the days of a label nurturing their artists over time, allowing them to explore their creativity and make records that are more expressive statements—not just a grab-bag of easily marketable hits and radio-ready flotsam and jetsam.
Inter-generational and genre comparisons aside, Gioia’s journey through the history of the Delta blues is a gripping reading experience as he digs through the vast archives of tall tales and telling truths of the muddy music made in Mississippi. Any music enthusiast can appreciate this story.
When mining the multi-layered history of the Delta blues, Gioia makes it easy to draw countless comparisons between vastly different eras of recorded American music. The people and places in Delta Blues are intriguing beyond description. When viewed through the author’s lens, the music is fertile common ground for debate, discussion and dialogue between generations of music lovers.