I’m always a little reticent approaching the “encyclopedia” style book — but especially those about music. They are usually either too weighty and academic — a chore to approach — or they’re the Reader’s Digest version — too thin to really sink your teeth into. That sweet spot is hard to find, but my recent experience with the excellent The Encyclopedia of Reggae left me feeling rather encouraged when I found Tony Russell’s The Blues: from Robert Johnson to Robert Cray at my local used bookstore.
To the unfamiliar, the blues, like any genre (think reggae or jazz, particularly) can be hard to navigate and novices often complain it “all sounds the same.” But like those aforementioned genres, there are many varied strains of music that constitute “the blues.” Mississippi Delta, Chicago, acoustic, electric, jump, barrelhouse and swing, blues music is much more than a singular color.
The book opens with a historical guide to the major “ages” of the blues, from its' "birth" at the turn of the century, through the '70s and '80s, to the blues of today and, overall, provides nice perspective. There are portraits of twenty-five “blues legends” — from Leadbelly to Buddy Guy — that focus mostly on the music rather than biographical detail. Each entry includes a “Key Recording” box as well. The next 100+ pages — “Blues Artists A-Z” — includes brief sketches of many more artists, both familiar and unknown (at least to me.) This section definitely goes deep.
The book concludes with my favorites section, “Milestone Recordings” and then recommendations for blues books and blues festivals. Fair to say a lot of ground is covered, if only briefly. This is not, nor meant to be, the history of the blues, but rather a “users guide,” and, as such, I did find some things I wanted to explore further.
However, the main problem with the book (and it’s kind of a big one) is that it was published in 1997 and many of the recommendations for music and books are long out of print.The book’s strength, therefore, is undone when the music is unavailable or only available as a pricey import. And so, unfortunately, my search for Fattening Frogs for Snakes: The Essential Recording of the Blues Ladies continues….
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