Monday, January 02, 2017

John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson: The Blues Harmonica of Chicago's Bronzeville

John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson: The Blues Harmonica of Chicago's Bronzeville
Mitsutoshi Inaba
London: Rowman & Littlefield
2016: 234pp + 12 pp illustrations

It is hard to overestimate the importance of John Lee Williamson. better known as Sonny Boy Williamson I. The "I" refers to the fact another outstanding harmonica player, Rice Miller, also called himself Sonny Boy Williamson. the first Sonny Boy not only helped establish the harmonica as a main lead instrument in the blues, but also was a fine singer and whose music helped shape what we know as the classic Chicago Blues. Mitsutoshi Inaba, a Professor of African-American studies at Austin Peay State University previously wrote a biography of Willie Dixon. This is the first English language book on this important Blues Hall of Fame artist. Wolfgang Lorenz wrote "Bluebird Blues" that was published in Germany in 1986.

After acknowledgements and an introduction about the scope of the work, and he provides the details of Sonny Boy 1's life and music in 144 pages of text with chapters on "Learning the Blues: Jackson , Tennessee: 1914-1937"; "Reaching New Heights: St. Louis and Aurora, Illinois: 1937-1938"; "Windy City Blues: Chicago: 1939-1941"; "The Sound of Bronzeville: 1942-1948"; "The Final Days; 1948"; and Epilogue: Sonny Boy's Legacy: 1948-Present." Additionally there is a discography of 20 pages that includes Sonny Boy's recorded accompaniments as well as his own recordings and twelve pages of photographs and illustrations.

While most of Sonny Boy's contemporaries are gone, the author did interview Billy Boy Arnold and made use of recent interviews with Sonny Boy's relatives. He also interviewed harmonica player Joe Filisko on Williamson's harmonica playing.Additionally he made use of published interviews and articles (mostly from Living Blues and Blues Unlimited), as well as Yank Rachell's autobiography, census and other public records in bringing forth the narrative here.

He takes from his ancestry, playing the music in Jackson, Tennessee and St. Louis while traveling to Illinois to make his recordings before finally settling in there. There is considerable detail and analysis of the recording sessions including a few examples of musical notation as well as a written description of Sonny Boy's harp technique (with Joe Filisko being extremely helpful in his insights) along with consideration of some of the lyrics and how they related to Sonny Boy's own experiences. His music is traced from the more country blues oriented style of his earliest sides (many characterized as having a medium-slow blues formula) to the post-war Chicago band sound he helped pioneer including some that had a jump band tempo.

Included in the discussion is Sonny Boy going south to confront Rice Miller, his presence in the Chicago clubs in the forties, the circumstances of his murder and a consideration of his legacy in the blues. The discography includes delineating some of the styles of Sonny Boy's originals as well as a discussion of songs he adapted and their antecedent. It is interesting that in this chart, Sonny Boy's "Stop Breaking Down" is described as loosely related to Robert Johnson's recording and in a footnote, he notes that the refrain is similar but otherwise the lyrics are different.

Inaba has produced a welcome addition to the Literature on Blues Performers which merits addition to one's blues library.

I purchased this. Here is Sonny Boy 1 doing his take on "Stop Breaking Down."


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