BOOK REVIEW / It's the way that you play it: 'Nothing But the Blues' - ed Lawrence Cohn: Abbeville Press, 29.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS is a serious book. It looks serious, to begin with; the front-cover picture is of Lonnie Johnson rather than John Lee Hooker, B B King or Robert Cray (or Eric Clapton) and the blues fan, seeing the list of heavyweight contributors, will know that this is not a cheap exploitation of a current fad. It also takes itself

very seriously.

Samuel Charters labours to establish the connection between West African griots and blues, but admits that 'the influences are faint and tenuous'. Interestingly, he speculates that there must have been a primary creator, as important in the invention of the blues generally as Muddy Waters was to amplified Chicago blues, or Clifton Chenier to Zydeco. But his assertion that the eight-bar blues form was 'quickly and completely superseded by the 12- measure verse form' is eccentric: timeless eight-bar blues still seeing action include 'Worried Life' and 'Key to the Highway', and new ones are written yet. In fact, since so much blues early and late does not use the 12-bar format, there may well be a case for the view that it has been over-emphasised: a piece is blues because a bluesman plays it, not because an academic checks its construction.

Academics do see things differently. When I read that John Lee Hooker 'often dwelt upon themes of death, loneliness, and despair' in his early records, I listened again to a CD of 22 of them. Score: death = 0, despair = 1 (-ish) and loneliness perhaps 3 or 4. The rest were all songs of enjoyment, humour and assertiveness. But David Evans goes on to make an important point about the 'primitive' Hooker: he pushed the blues as far forward as back. This chapter is also excellent on artists to investigate further (for instance the pianist Hersal Thomas, who managed the remarkable feat of both being influential and dying at the age of 15) and on the development of amplified but 'down-home' blues and its relationship to the rise of black radio and independent record labels.

Mark A Humphrey's two chapters arrive just as the seriousness is getting oppressive. Not that he's frivolous, but he does put the whole idea rather better. 'Delta audiences familiar with Patton and similar performers knew that this style conveyed much of the artist's world view - it expressed what he perceived to be the truth.' Humphrey's 'Holy Blues' essay fascinatingly places the two (not necessarily opposed) aspects of African-American culture in a new perspective. His chapter on city blues challenges the received perception that the urban developed out of the rural, positing a separate and simultaneous growth. Other aspects of this chapter are an unexpected link between Leroy Carr and Charles Brown, and an insightful comparison of Brown's career with that of Muddy Waters. A cavil, though: in a book like this, one or two of one's favourites are inevitably overlooked. But for Rice Miller to be cited as a possible influence on the harmonica genius Little Walter, with no mention in the same context of the great (and much more likely) John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson, is a mistake. In the whole book, in fact, there is less about Williamson than about one of his myriad imitators, Forest City Joe.

It's not until we get to page 215 that we read 'a significant percentage of blues is actually good-time, Saturday-night dance music rather than blues as Art'. Bruce Bastin's piece on the East Coast Piedmont styles is unique in another way. He starts in the prevailing academic style, but becomes positively moving when he gets into personal reminiscence; his pen-sketch of the underrated Buddy Moss gave my eyes a sting. This whole chapter has a sense of loss: the session that Bastin and Pete Lowry were unable to pull off with Moss, the 'ruined' session by Blind Willie McTell and Piano Red, Brownie McGhee pawning Blind Boy Fuller's guitar and finding it gone forever when he went back to redeem it. But there's a sense of excitement, too, about research done and still to do.

There is a fine essay on the women singers by Richard K Spottswood, a rather plodding survey by John H Cowley of non-commercial recordings, an entertaining chapter on rhythm & blues by Barry Pearson, and a rather light one on the current scene by Mary Katherine Aldin. Charles Wolfe's chapter on country singers seems out of place. The book has too many typographical mistakes, and Blind Boy Fuller, Varetta Dillard and Claude Jeter are among those whose names are spelt wrongly; but the photographs and the design are wonderful.

And Jim O'Neal's analysis of the Sixties' blues revival bristles with quotes and anecdotes, of which my favourite concerns the Beatles in America: when they said they wanted to see Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, a reporter asked 'Where's that?'

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