'The first blues song came long before records and tapes. We shall never hear it,' says Tony Russell in The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray (Aurum/Carlton pounds 16.99). However, he goes on to quote from the 1912 memoirs of black bandleader W C Handy. In 1903, Handy, dozing at a railroad station as he waited for a train, heard a 'lean, loose-jointed Negro ... plunking a guitar'. The thrice-repeated line, 'Goin' where

the Southern cross' the Dog,' accompanied by 'the weirdest music I ever heard', endorses Russell's verdict that 'this is a priceless glimpse: a first-hand account, by an African-American musician rather than a white folklorist, of the blues taking shape in the first decade of the century.' The rest of the century is well documented here, with terrific photographs and bio-discographies. Left: octogenarian blues pianist Pinetop Perkins.