The Art of the Blues: A Visual Treasury of Black Music's Golden Age
(The University of Chicago Press)
Is there any genre of music more associated with despair, heartache and racial tensions than 20th century blues? The British blues boom of the ‘60s may have emphasised the drama and the bombast of the music’s original form, but much of the context was stripped away in favour of sexual drama. Blues music has that ethereal, haunting quality to its foot-tapping stance. Tunes that defined an era of racial segregation remain a resonant encapsulation of those times.
It’s a joy then to find that Bill Dahl’s The Art of the Blues celebrates the visual swagger of the blues simply for the sheer joy of those visuals. Dahl’s exhaustive book, resplendent in a handsome crimson cover that’s littered with a collage of artwork from the world of blues, is a rich tapestry of how art was used to push the blues as an undisputed king of music in its 20th century heyday. A masterstroke in the book’s pacing is not only how Dahl splits the book into chapters, but how each chapter is placed.
We begin with sections covering sheet music, record advertisements and label catalogue, all boasting a diverse splendour of commercial art, and eventually progress with chapters about posters for movies based on blues music and album covers. Bookending these topics in such a manner means that you really do feel the blues evolving when reading The Art of the Blues—not so much as a form of music, but rather, in its popularity, as a form of music that would resonate with listeners for decades to come.
Deliberate or not, The Art of the Blues has an emphasis on the commercial nature of the artwork that accompanied the blues. Dahl elaborates on such topics as newspapers, record catalogues and sheet music all being adorned with a variety of artwork as a visual selling point, but rather than smother the treasure he presents here with text, he allows the art to breathe and speak for itself. The end result is a fascinating account of how record labels promoted the blues using bespoke artwork coupled with eloquent descriptions of the latest single you can get your hands on from these hot new artists. In today’s age of instant gratification via downloading music before it has a chance to arrive in shops, a warm, cosy feeling bubbles within you when experiencing a bygone era when music promotion had a tangible sense of individuality to it.
The artwork itself, from prewar 78 labels to magazine covers, is downright gorgeous to pour over. Page after page presents a finely mapped-out mixture of crisp reprints of artwork from the blues’ spectrum. A hefty package, The Art of the Blues spares no expense in gathering its source materials and loading them into the book ready to be delivered to the reader like a stately blitzkrieg once they tuck into the book.
Dhal should be commended for the overall structure of the book. As mentioned, the sense of the blues evolving really shines through from chapter to chapter, but beyond that, Dahl takes great care and precise thought into how all the chapters, and the artwork within them, are spread out. When reading The Art of the Blues, it’s impossible not to feel the enormity of the blues as a force to be reckoned with, always strong in popularity and exposure yet always a genre of music with its feet firmly on the ground. No pretence for the sake of pretence, and The Art of the Blues illuminates that down-to-earth feel of the genre with firm confidence.
A great deal of celebration of blues music is often derived from recognition of its brightest stars—Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf, Leadbelly—all of which make an appearance in this book. The result can often be too much focus on the overexposed whilst other blues greats are often left behind in the history books. This makes The Art of the Blues a history book to be savoured even more so. Dahl spends no great time focusing on the visual representations of a handful of the blue’s biggest names—everything that the blues had to offer visually is presented here. The stars may have been the driving power of the artwork, but here, it’s the artwork that drives the power of the book. The stars are merely along for the ride.
It’s undeniable that The Art of the Blues lives up to its modest title. This book is a joy to read for blues enthusiasts, historians of popular culture, or music lovers in general. With very little text-based content throughout the book, the journey is carried by the art of the blues itself, making the book resonate all the more fully. The Art of the Blues is a seemingly endless in its handsomeness and would be most welcome as not only a perfect accompaniment to your favourite blues LPs, but also as a sublime pictorial history of the blues itself.
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