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100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own

by Edward Komara & Greg Johnson

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, MD (January, 2014)

311 Pages (Print Edition) or 811KB (Amazon Kindle Edition) 

100 Blues Books book cover art

By Eric Steiner

I am very skeptical of any “best of” or “top 10” lists when it comes to blues music. No matter how well-intentioned these list-makers may be, I generally think of additional artists that I would have suggested based on my own personal experience. That said, I looked at 100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own through a critical lens for books that were on my bookshelf or books about bluesmen and blueswomen that occupy space on my CD shelves. I am pleasantly surprised that former University of Mississippi Blues Archivist Edward Komara and his successor Greg Johnson included a number of them in this book. Released in January of 2014, 100 Books is an informative and engaging look at old and new blues literature for blues aficionados from Rowman and Littlefield Publishers in Lanham, Maryland.

The authors describe their selection criteria which includes books that have been honored by the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame as nominees or inductees as well as books referenced in compilations by blues scholars Paul Garon and Robert Ford. In addition, Edward and Greg have developed a rubric that takes into account the substance, style and availability of each title. In keeping with certain academic “tribal rituals” in university settings, they also review each work as a stand-alone contribution to the blues’ knowledge base and each book’s influence on the field of blues history measured in citations by other music scholars and blues writers. I found this approach to be comprehensive and easy to understand; the authors’ selection criteria is presented up-front and shows how each book landed in 100 Books.

100 Books presents each book in a template: a short teaser headline, a bibliographic citation, a short review, and a recommended blues recording that reflects the book’s content.

While the authors cite Sandra Tooze’s 1997 biography of Muddy Waters published by Toronto’s ECW Press, Mojo Man, they felt Robert Gordon’s book, Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, was the better of the two.  I thought that each book provided interesting insights into the Chicago blues giant born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi.  As I turned each page of 100 Books, I reminded myself of the daunting task of whittling down generations of blues scholarship in the English language to just 100 titles.

I thought a few more of my favorite books would land on 100 Books, but that’s no slight against Komara and Johnson. It’s a matter of personal preference. I still enjoy Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey, a 2001 coffee-table style travelogue from the Rolling Stones’ bassist, and despite its occasional tilt toward academic research, I like Dr. David Grazian’s Blue Chicago:  The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs.  Another book on my “best of” list is Today’s Chicago Blues by local author Karen Hanson. While this guidebook was not intended to explore the history and nuances of Chicago blues, I thought it captured a creative snapshot of the 2007 Chicago blues scene.

Fortunately for fans of Chicago blues, approximately one-fifth of the titles in 100 Books is about or by artists who have contributed significantly to Chicago blues, including autobiographies from Buddy Guy, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and “Big Bill” Broonzy, plus biographies of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Little Brother Montgomery.

I am pleased that David Whiteis’ Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories landed in 100 Books.  Whiteis’ followup, Southern Soul Blues, was likely released during the production of 100 Books so it could not have been included; still it received the 2014 Best Research in Recorded Blues, Hip-Hop, Rhythm & Blues Award by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. Whiteis is no stranger to recognition: in 2001, he received the Keeping the Blues Alive Award in the journalism category in 2001 from the Blues Foundation.

For me, three Chicago blues books in 100 Books have stood the test of time: Chicago Breakdown, Spinning Blues into Gold and Chicago Blues as Seen from the Inside.

Mike Rowe’s landmark Chicago Breakdown was first published in the UK in 1973 and in the USA two years later as Chicago Blues: The City & the Music. Rowe not only presents a history of Chicago blues in cultural and musical contexts, he also uses U.S. Census data to paint a demographic picture of the “Great Migrations” of African-Americans from the South to the City of the Big Shoulders in the early (1910-1930) and mid (1940-1970) decades of the 20th century.  I found the British edition at the long-shuttered Kroch’s and Brentano’s on South Wabash Street in Chicago as a teenager; this book has been with me ever since. 

Author Nadine Cohodas has written a number of books about politics and race relations.  Her entry in 100 Books, Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2000 and inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2002 as a classic of blues literature. Cohodas painstakingly recreates the early days of the label in good days and bad (including transcripts of a volatile exchange between Leonard Chess and Aleck Miller, “Sonny Boy Williamson II”).  Spinning Blues into Gold offers an intimate glimpse into post-war, electric Chicago blues era that included recordings by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Nighthawk and Elmore James.  Like David Whiteis, Cohodas received an award for Excellence in Research from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections for her Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington in 2007.

Chicago Blues as Seen from the Inside: The Photographs of Raeburn Flerlage is one of the few blues photography books in Top 100. Flerlage documented live Chicago blues from 1959 until the 1970s and Seen from the Inside takes us back to famed (but now demolished) Chicago venues like the Regal Theatre in Bronzeville and the Trianon Ballroom at Cottage Grove and South 62nd Street, as well as legendary nightclubs like Sylvio’s and Pepper’s.

100 Books is a comprehensive survey of blues books reflecting the diversity of this unique African-American art form in blues communities across the nation. In addition to the Chicago-centric works skimmed in this review, there are a number of excellent resources on Piedmont, Texas, Mississippi Delta, West Coast Jump and Hill Country blues. I hope that Chicago Blues readers will appreciate how the authors recognize the many contributions of Chicago’s bluesmen and blueswomen in print; perhaps more importantly, 100 Books will motivate blues fans to go out and experience live Chicago blues and to support the living legacy handed down to us by Chicago blues pioneers like Tampa Red, Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor.  100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own is available in print and digitally as an e-book and will likely land on my “best-of” lists of blues books. I’ve filed it right between my copies of Mike Rowe’s Chicago Breakdown and David Whiteis’ Southern Soul Blues on my blues bookshelf – a rightful place for such an informative and important work of blues scholarship.

Eric Steiner is the Editor of the Washington Blues Society Bluesletter and the immediate past president of the Washington Blues Society.  He served on the Blues Foundation Board of Directors from 2010 to 2013, and he is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Blues Guide.



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