- Ramblin’ on My Mind: New Perspectives on the Blues by David Evans
Willie Dixon, a famed blues songwriter known for his Chicago blues classics including “Hoochie Coochie Man” for Muddy Waters, “Spoonful” for Howlin’ Wolf, and “My Babe” for Little Walter, once said: “All American music came from the blues.” Dixon’s statement contains a bit of exaggeration, but there still is no doubt that the blues occupies a significant part of the history of American music and culture. David Evans, the editor of Ramblin’ on My Mind: New Perspective on the Blues, mentions in the introduction: “Previous writers had almost universally viewed it [the blues] as either simply a type of folk music, or more or less anonymous and unchanging, or a ‘root’ form of jazz, worthy of a chapter or two at the beginning of any study of that genre” (p. 1). Evans continues: “What was lacking, except among musicians themselves and their immediate audiences, was a sense of blues as a distinct type of music with its own personalities, stylistic variety, and history of musical development” (p. 1).
Although Evans uses the past tense for the above statement, the same idea persists today, [End Page 104] in general or even worse. While today’s blues music is more popular and widespread than any time in its history, Evans writes that we hardly hear of the blues in academic disciplines, even though the music is prevalent internationally in blues magazines and international club, concert, and festival circuits. For instance, in classrooms on music of the Americas, how much time do instructors spend on the blues? Do they talk about anything other than a 12-bar/aab form with a boogie-woogie bass pattern, or some major artists? Furthermore, in many academic conferences on American music and ethnomusicology—even in national meetings with hundreds of presentations—how often do we see papers on the blues? In my recent experience, there was just one presentation, and it was made by a Japanese scholar—that one was mine. In addition, for this book review, I took a look at ten volumes of journals on American music that I randomly grabbed from my bookshelf, to see how many articles on the blues were included; I found only one.
Ramblin’ on My Mind is an anthology of ten excellent studies on the blues that fills an important gap in scholarship. The book proves that blues music offers scholars a wealth of issues to explore and that blues scholarship is a dynamic area for research. The collection of essays offers insight into the blues in an interdisciplinary approach that explores previously older historical aspects of blues music, reinterprets familiar material, conducts broader surveys, and examines blues performances. Each study leads to a new appreciation of this musical tradition and shows new possibilities for exploration in various fields—music theory and history, legal practice and history, anthropology, folklore, fieldwork, literary study, and even kinesthetic study. The book consists of essays that include a thorough study of the influence of the West African tonal system and its amalgamation with the European counterpart in Skip James’s recordings (Gerhard Kubik), pre-blues compositions in Southern vaudeville around the turn of the twentieth century (Lynn Abbott and Dough Seroff), W. C. Handy and his “friend, attorney and benefactor” Abbe Niles’s legal work (Elliot S. Hurwitt), blues stylistic regions in relation to the physical characteristics of guitar players—especially their left-hand thumb picking (Andrew M. Cohen), the socio-cultural meaning of the nicknames of blues performers in pre- and post-World War II eras (David Evans), a detailed reinterpretation of Son House’s “Dry Spell Blues” (Luigi Monge), and Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind” (James Bennighof), respectively, Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “St. Louis Blues” (Katherine Cartwright), blues and gospel songs in the decade following World War II (Bob Groom), and the East Texas roots of zydeco (John Minton).
The book’s chapters provide a wide analysis of important and interesting elements of blues history and culture. For...