The History of the Blues by Francis Davis Secker & Warburg $306 WHAT sets the blues apart from other types of music? When and where were they first played? What is the relationship between the blues and jazz? These and others are questions which Francis Davis attempts to answer in this excellent work. Davis traces the development of one of America's most enduring musical forms from its birth on the plantations of the Mississippi Delta around the turn of the century to its migration to Chicago and the north along with southern blacks in the 1940s and 1950s, the 'rediscovery' of many lost southern performers by northern whites, the blues boom of the 1960s, and ever since its tenacious refusal to die as a musical form. Along the way we are introduced to some of the greats, such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith who dominated the 1920s, and the earliest solo men with guitars such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton and the mysterious Robert Johnson. Then we meet Lonnie Johnson, Leadbelly, Howlin' Wolf and, of course, the blues granddaddy of them all, Muddy Waters. Countless other artists (not forgetting B.B. King and John Lee Hooker) feature as well, and for each Davis gives a thumbnail sketch of what made the artists tick and where their music fits into the big picture. This is no coffee table picture book, however, (while many pictures of blues performers are included, they are in black and white and completely functional), nor is it merely a tribute to the blues greats. In many ways The History of the Blues is as much about sociology, history and the development of American culture as it is about music. Davis intelligently explains how social conditions created and influenced the evolution of the blues. He starts with the lot of the negro in the turn-of-the-century Deep South, and then takes the reader through monumental events such as the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression, World Wars I and II and the great migration of southern blacks to the north in the 1940s and 1950s (leading to the South Side clubs of Chicago which gave first airing to the urban blues of, among others, McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters). But Davis skilfully stays within sight of his main topic and any tangents he explores are kept short. He has done his homework well, and through his easy-to-read, sometimes humorous and thoroughly personable style it is clear he is a man whose passion for his subject knows no bounds. He has obviously spent more hours than any sane man would just listening to the music, and judging from the many literary references, he probably spent much of his time reading about it while doing so. If anything, his research goes a little too deep. Particularly in the early part of the book, which deals with musical performers so far into the past that they are all but forgotten, you wish he would hurry up and get on to more recent grandmasters of the blues. Ultimately, however, Davis shows that to understand where the blues are today, it is necessary to know where they have been. Predictably and necessarily, the blues' influence on and relationship with other types of music, such as jazz, soul and rock 'n' roll, is touched upon. Davis also has some wry opinions on how blues music has meant different things down the years to its white and black audiences. Liberal whites saw the noble underdog, lamenting his betrayal at the hands of the white man; black audiences often saw merely an entertainer, which is how most of the blues performers viewed themselves, giving their audiences anything they requested. This is perhaps evidenced today by the fact that the modern audience for the blues is overwhelmingly white, while young blacks have a new 'blues' in the form of rap - a genre for which Davis clearly holds disdain. With the exception of Robert Cray, whom Davis describes as one of the 'Great Black Hopes' for the future of the blues, modern artists are given short shrift as Davis appears to feel few are in the same league as the figures from the past. Simultaneously complex and a joy to read, this is an engaging and well-written book which will be interesting to anyone with the slightest interest in what shaped the blues. To a true fan it is indispensable.