Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Language of The Blues

Here is a review of the above-titled book by Debra DeSalvo (Billboard Books 2006) that I have submitted for publication (Jazz and Blues Report out of Cleveland). Sorry It is kinda longish. I have also posted this at

This is self-described as an anecdotal dictionary of the blues, but it suffers some serious flaws and while there is some useful information, it is far from authoritative or comprehensive and while it has some usefulness, it can be improved in so many ways. There are some 150 words and phrases which Ms. DeSalvo, former Blues Revue editor, focuses on, in a volume that emphasizes the African roots of the blues, but at times does not focus on other meanings the terms have. One review in Blues & Rhythm notes the focus on sex and hoodoo, but oddly enough very little on traveling which is a significant theme of the blues.

Much is made of the fact she interviewed a number of blues performers and included the material with various entries. However much if not most of the interview material is irrelevant to understanding the language of the blues, or the entry. For example she briefly discusses crossroads focusing on the African conception which leads to a discussion of the Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroad myth and notes that some believe it. Then she included a discussion of Robert Lockwood, Johnson’s stepson which bears very little relationship to the discussion of the term. This would have been better included in a sidebar about Johnson and Lockwood. It would have also been instructive to include lyrics of several songs for specific terms to show contrasting meanings. As an example, Elmore James’ Standing at the Crossroads, clearly does not have the connotation that some impute to Johnson.

Also some of her sources are not exactly scholarly. In an entry on the Delta, she discussed Charlie Patton working for Will Dockery. She provides as her reference correspondence with Stephen Lavere. There are lengthy published biographies on Patton by John Fahey, and Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow that should have been cited. There is no excuse to not citing these sources while citing private correspondence. Then there is this statement "In '34 Blues', Patton nails the desperation and anxiety of unemployment, but something good came out of leaving the plantation this time-Patton went to New York and recorded twenty-nine songs for the American Record Company. When these recordings were reissued in the mid-1960s, they sparked great interest in this Delta cropper who came to be known as the father of the blues." On the same page there is Patton's picture which noted he recorded for Paramount and became that label's biggest selling artist. It was the reissue of Patton’s recordings by Yazoo, which presented mostly the Paramount recordings that led to this recognition of Patton's music.

Discussing Canned Heat which some strained to drink the alcohol from, DeSalvo notes that Canned Heat adopted their name from the Tommy Johnson recording and that the members of Canned Heat used their fame to help their blues heroes citing their collaboration in John Lee Hooker's The Healer. Hmm, I would think that it was the classic double album, Hooker and Heat, recorded when Alan Wilson, the Blind Owl, was still alive that not only was the recording that led to Hooker's crossover but it stands up with the best recordings Hooker ever made. It was an album the ghost band that is Canned Heat is today would be incapable of producing. Sorry for perhaps going off topic, but so many entries here go off topic. (Again sidebars would have been useful). However the fact she is so imprecise with this, makes me suspect the accuracy of some other entries.

She does include some suggested recordings, but more lyric quotes for the entries
would have been very helpful. Also there should have been more cross entries, such as in her discussion of policy numbers, cross references back to that entry should have been provided for some of the policy combinations. And there are numerous terms that are not discussed here. This is a really rough first effort and this work needs some serious reworking if it is going to be a useful tool, which probably also means she should find herself a collaborator and take into account the serious criticisms if she wants to put together a work that will stand up as scholarly and a reference.

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