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Reviewed by:
  • Early Blues: The First Stars of Blues Guitar by Jas Obrecht
  • Roberta Freund Schwartz
Early Blues: The First Stars of Blues Guitar. By Jas Obrecht. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2015.

Since the late 1970s, Jas Obrecht has supplied sharp and insightful commentary on guitarists and popular music to a variety of publications, particularly Guitar Player, where he served as staff editor for two decades. However, his most insightful and prolific writing has been on the blues, and he is one of the most respected writers on the genre. His two previous monographs, Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music (1990) and Rollin’ and Tumblin’: The Postwar Blues Guitarists (2000), focus largely on the giants of the urban blues, such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and B. B. King, though include profiles of earlier, important figures from the previous era, such as Robert Johnson.

In Early Blues: The First Stars of the Blues Guitar, Obrecht turns his attention to nine often overlooked predecessors of the more familiar post-war generation. Much of this material has been available in some form as liner notes, biographical essays, journal articles, and blog posts for nearly a decade. In Early Blues, Obrecht not only makes them more readily accessible, but their presentation in a single collection also highlights the critical paradigm shift in the genre during the 1920s, as guitarists became the dominant figures in the blues.

Obrecht begins, appropriately, with Sylvester Weaver, the first blues guitarist on record. While the careers of most of the other figures overlap, they are presented in the order in which their influence was most keenly felt: Papa Charlie Jackson, the first commercially successful male blues artist; Blind Lemon Jefferson, whose national popularity launched the market for the country blues; Blind Blake, “the king of the ragtime guitar”; Blind Willie McTell, whose recordings highlight nearly every genre of roots music; the gospel blues singer Blind Willie [End Page 91] Johnson, whose slide guitar skills are without peer; Lonnie Johnson, the most influential guitarist of the 1920s, who made both blues and jazz recordings; Mississippi John Hurt, whose fingerpicking style and folk repertoire influenced legions of blues revivalists in the 1960s; and Tampa Red, “the Guitar Wizard,” the most prolific artist of the 78 rpm era and a crucial figure in the development of the post-war blues style.

Early Blues is, like Obrecht’s work in general, painstakingly researched. Nearly every previously published essay contains new information and he draws on the combined knowledge of an international body of experts to present the most accurate accounts to date of the lives and careers of each artist. Were that all, Early Blues would be an important contribution to blues scholarship. However, Obrecht weaves this information into compelling narratives that include details about the recording and compositional process, advertisements and press excerpts that demonstrate how each artist was marketed and received, and their challenges in navigating an industry that did not always work in their favor. Some of the most compelling details are the testimonies of blues and blues-influenced guitarists, culled from interviews with figures such as B. B. King, John Lee Hooker, Ry Cooder, Stephen Grossman, and Jorma Karkonen. These artists provide not only comments on style but also their personal reactions to these early guitar heroes and how they have influenced blues, country, jazz, folk, and rock music throughout the twentieth-century.

While aimed at readers familiar with the blues, Obrecht’s introductory chapter provides helpful background information for the non-expert. Early Blues is eminently readable and has much to offer any reader interested in the history of American popular music, African American history, and the early recording industry.

Roberta Freund Schwartz
University of Kansas


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pp. 91-92
Launched on MUSE
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