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  • Blues Greats
  • William R. Ferris (bio)

For over a century the blues has served as the musical anchor of American music. Muddy Waters aptly titled one of his songs “The Blues Had a Baby, and They Named it Rock and Roll.” Without the blues, we could not imagine gospel, rock’n’ roll, rock, and rap music. Blues also shaped writers like Ralph Ellison and Alice Walker, artists like Romare Bearden and Aaron Douglas, composers like Nathaniel Dett and William Grant Still, and choreographers like Alvin Ailey and Cholly Atkins. The blues, in fact, have given us a way of understanding life through its distinctive prism. Ralph Ellison describes the music as “an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness. To finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”

Richard Wright felt blues were “the spirituals of the city . . . blues are as natural for the Black people as eating and sleeping, and they come as a rule out of their daily experience.”

Alice Walker affirms her deep love for the blues and B.B. King. “I love B.B. because he loves women. They can be mean, they can be bitchy, they can be carrying on, but you can tell he really loves them. He’s full of love. I would like to be the literary B.B. King. There’s something about him that has remained true and has remained genuine.”

Literary critic Robert O’Meally views Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a blues novel. While sitting in his study reading the novel, O’Meally observed, “the bluesiness of Huck’s tale sounded through the book’s pages. . . . Huck knows how to solo; and like a true bluesman, he learns to swing . . . my love for this book—wrong notes and all—is linked, tied as tight as the strings of old Robert Johnson’s blues guitar.”

Today, blues touches the most intimate parts of our lives and makes us the richer for its presence. When I began to study blues in the late sixties, I found few books on the subject. With the exception of W. C. Handy’s A Treasury of the Blues (1949) and Father of the Blues (1941), the pioneering studies of blues were published in the sixties in England by Paul Oliver, Mike Leadbitter, and Neil Slaven, and in the United States by William “Big Bill” Broonzy, Samuel Charters, Charles Keil, Harry Oster, and Frederick Ramsey, Jr. In 1970, my book Blues From the Delta appeared in a series of blues studies edited by Paul Oliver and Tony Russell that were published in England by Studio Vista. [End Page 111]

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Elias “Bo Diddley” McDaniel’s unrelenting, powerful rhythms drove dancers mad. Bo Diddley at the Long Beach Blues Festival, 1997, courtesy of Masahiro Sumori under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Since that time, the number of books published on blues in this country has grown dramatically. Blues scholar David Evans has edited over seventy-three volumes—many of which deal with blues—in his American Made Music Series at the University Press of Mississippi. Today, a rich array of books treat topics as varied as fife and drum music, work songs, blues surveys, blues and jazz, regional blues styles, blues interviews, blues artists, reference volumes, black radio, blues as literature, and blues and rock and soul.

Sound recordings have witnessed a similar explosion in numbers since the sixties. At that time, recordings issued by the Library of Congress and by labels like Arhoolie, Atlantic, Belzona, Delmark, Folkways, Origin Jazz Label, Takoma, Testament, and Yazoo provided the only access to traditional blues recordings. Today major anthologies of field recordings by David Evans, Alan and John Lomax, George Mitchell, and Art Rosenbaum are available.

In the sixties, virtually no motion picture film was available on blues. Since [End Page 112] that time, numerous films on the music have been produced. These films range from documentaries by Alan Lomax and Les Blank to commercial productions like Crossroads and Martin Scorcese’s...


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