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Books on the Blues

Blues seemed to be the most qualified subject: In the last decade or so, this musical form has started to enter the mainstream and more people are aware of it than ever before (by one count, blues has appeared in 60 different television commercials). Yet few realize that a decent size literature has accrued over the last century and that many of the books are quite collectible and intensely sought after ...
Published on 14 Dec. 2009

Paul Garon

When asked to write about Beasley Books and one of our specialties, I tried to think of a perspective that would be both interesting and unusual, maybe even novel and distinctive, something almost, dare I say, new. Blues seemed to be the most qualified subject: In the last decade or so, this musical form has started to enter the mainstream and more people are aware of it than ever before (by one count, blues has appeared in 60 different television commercials). Yet few realize that a decent size literature has accrued over the last century and that many of the books are quite collectible and intensely sought after. These books sell in the collectors market for $30 - $750 (if we include 19th century material on pre-blues African American song.)

Before we get down to authors, subjects, bindings and jackets, let me offer a little personal history. One day in 1960, I walked into a record shop and heard a wonderful sound, something I'd never heard before. It was a Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry LP (guitar, harmonica, vocal), and I was hooked. It didn't take long to round up every McGhee/Terry LP I could get my hands on, and it didn't take much longer to discover that they were only the tip of the iceberg: Lightnin' Hopkins, Bessie Smith, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, all these and more were waiting to be discovered. Before long, blues records on early 78 rpm records became my all-consuming passion. I was 18.

Being a bookish sort, I went in search of books on these people. There were two I could find: Samuel Charters' The Country Blues (Rinehart, 1959) and Paul Oliver's Blues Fell This Morning (Cassell/Horizon, 1960/1961). I was already accumulating books by Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso and other writers of the Beat era, and gathering books on blues seemed only natural. I didn't quite know what "collecting" was, although I was already starting to do it. Shades of the "one puff will get you hooked" school!

The obsession continued. Soon I was contributing to English blues magazines, and in 1970, I helped start Living Blues, the United States' first blues magazine. A year later my first book was published, The Devil's Son-in-Law. The Story of Peetie Wheatstraw and his Songs. In 1975, Blues and the Poetic Spirit was published, and in 1992, my wife, Beth, and I wrote Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues. Last year, City Lights published a new edition of Blues and the Poetic Spirit. So that's me and the blues.

In 1979, Beth and I began accumulating stock for Beasley Books (we were both publisher's representatives at the time), and around 1981, we issued our first catalog: Modern First Editions. We had started accumulating radical novels, too, but I had kept away from jazz and blues since I didn't want Beasley to compete with my own collecting. It took me ten years to realize what a mistake that was. Here was a subject that I loved and about which I was knowledgeable, and I was avoiding it! So in the early 1990s, we added jazz and blues to our specialty list. I was finally buying and selling books that I had been handling for 30 years. Right now we have about 65 blues items in amongst the 600+ jazz items we have in stock. This includes a few pieces of sheet music, song books, and publicity photos.

As these figures suggest, blues books aren't particularly plentiful. That's the bad news about this burgeoning specialty; many of the books are hard to find. But that's what makes bookselling interesting and that's what makes books expensive: high demand and low supply. It's our job to find those books. Since the modern blues book era can be dated from Charters and Oliver, c. 1960, then its clear that people who've been interested in blues since that time have had 37 years to accumulate blues libraries of considerable interest. If they started at 18, like I did, they'd be 55 now. A little actuarial investigation suggests that some of those libraries will be coming on the market soon.

Blues books can be found elsewhere, too. Many fans own one or two or even 10 without owning whole libraries, and many jazz collectors have a few blues books in their collections, just as they have a few blues 78s mixed in with all the jazz. Indeed, many jazz fans were first exposed to blues when they sought out a record because of its highly prized Louis Armstrong solo and discovered that the singer [perhaps Bessie Smith] wasn't Bad, either!

But the best news is that its a growing market, and more books are being published on blues every year. Rarities will stay rare, of course, but new scarcities are being created out of books that were once quite plentiful. Alan Greenberg's Love in Vain (a play inspired by the life of Robert Johnson), Helen Oakley Dance's Stormy Monday: The T-Bone Walker Story, and Peter Guralnick's Searching for Robert Johnson were all published in the 1980s, and 1st printings are now uncommon.

Before we go any farther, let's agree on what we mean when we talk about the blues. For our purposes, the blues is an African American musical form, whether it's sung from a stage by a Bessie Smith, from a back porch by a Charlie Patton, or in a club by Muddy Waters. Studying the performers listed in Dixon and Godrich's Blues and Gospel Records 1902-1942 and in Leadbitter and Slaven's Blues Records: 1941-1966 makes clear who's who: jazz performers don't appear unless they are accompanying a blues singer, dance bands don't appear just because they record St. Louis Blues, and rock stars don't appear. You may have a different definition, but this is the one followed in this article.

Let's look now at some of the books. I've mentioned that the period of modern commentary started in 1960, but the first books of historical interest to a blues fan are the earliest works on African American song. The first of these was Slave Songs of the United States (1867), by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison. The 113 songs are accompanied by a 38-page introduction, and while many of the songs are spirituals, some seculars are included. For blues collectors, this is the foundation stone ($500-750). The earliest books to include blues verses seem to be Will H. Thomas' Some Current Folk-Songs of the Negro (1912), and Thomas Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes (1922), recently reprinted in an expanded edition. Shortly thereafter, a number of scholarly works on African American song appeared from university presses: Howard W. Odum and Guy B. Johnson wrote two of them, The Negro and His Songs (1925) and Negro Workaday Songs (1926), while Dorothy Scarborough wrote On the Trail of Negro Folksongs (1925) and Newman Ivey White compiled American Negro Folk-Songs (1928).

This same period saw the publication of W. C. Handy's Blues: An Anthology (1926), a very scarce work in a 1st printing and more so in a dust jacket. Several other song collections came out at the time and they are both of legendary rarity: The Paramount Book of the Blues, issued in 1927 to promote Paramount recording artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey, and How to Play and Sing the Blues Like the Phonograph Artists (1926), by Porter Grainger and Bob Ricketts. The former was reprinted in facsimile, however, and a mint copy of The Paramount Book of the Blues is probably a reprint.

The publication of such song books continued into the 1930s, with Lawrence Gellert's two compilations of Black protest songs, Negro Songs of Protest (1936) and Me and My Captain (1939). 1936 also saw the publication of John and Alan Lomax's Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly, a difficult to find book, even without a dust jacket.

As with any collectible book, dust jackets are important and can add considerable value. Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly fetches $125-150 without a dust jacket, but more than twice that in a decent dj. Likewise for W. C. Handy's 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues. Handy signed a lot of copies, including many later printings, and finding a nice, signed first printing, in a pleasing dust jacket, isn't easy. The list price for such a book could be $500. As with any book, "signed by the author" is a bonus and increases the book's value. But few blues books were written by blues singers, Handy's being one exception, and Big Bill Broonzy's autobiographical Big Bill Blues (1955) being another. Big Bill actually signed a few copies and this adds an easy $150 - $250 to any copy that turns up, whether it's the Belgian original, the UK first, or the US first. What is significant here is that blues singer autographs are notoriously rare. Many recording artists were unable to read and write, but occasionally blues artists' signatures appear on contracts or publicity photos and these show up on the collectors' market at prices from $35 - $1500.

The publication of the aforementioned books brings us to the modern era when blues publishing increased profoundly. Wading through these materials is not always easy, but fortunately the most useful publication is still in print, The Blues: A Bibliographic Guide (1989, Garland, 636pp.), by Mary L. Hart, Brenda M. Eagles, and Lisa N. Howorth. It's 4717 entries are broken down into eight sections: Background of the Blues, Music of the Blues, Poetry of the Blues, Blues and Society, Blues and Literature, Biographies, Blues Instruction, Blues in Film, and Blues Research. Also helpful are Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. and Marsha J. Reisser's Black Music in the United States: An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Reference and Research Materials (1983) [by no means all about blues but useful for its annotations] and The Literature of Jazz (1980, 2nd ed.) by Donald Kennington and Danny L. Read.

With these tools in hand, let's look at some of the high spots. The most prolific and dependable of the blues historians is the UK's Paul Oliver. We've already mentioned his pioneering Blues Fell This Morning, but his other books are all sought after, in UK or in US editions. For many years, his Conversation with the Blues was the book for which we had the most requests [our current catalog carries a UK first in a so-so dj for $125] but it has just been reissued for $49.95 and that may affect the market. Indeed, many seekers of blues books are not so-much collectors, seeking fine first editions in fine condition, but simply ardent fans desiring to read everything; for these customers, the in-print status of the book can affect the market drastically. On the other hand, when a book is reprinted, often it is reprinted in paperback only. Since there are non-collecting readers who nonetheless want hardcover editions, the market for vintage copies remains.

Like Conversation with the Blues, Blow My Blues Away (1971), by George Mitchell, and Blues (1975) by Robert Neff and Anthony Connor, consist largely of first-person commentary by the blues singers themselves, and both books are quite sought after. Mitchell's work is particularly scarce, and the hardcover of the Neff & Connor is also difficult to find.

Another popular category of blues book is the history or survey. One of the most collectible of these is Amiri Baraka's Blues People (1963), written under the name LeRoi Jones, the first modern blues book by an African American. As Baraka is a poet and black militant, this book is pursued by collectors of several categories: poetry, black studies, and black music. Paul Oliver's The Story of the Blues (1969) is a handsomely illustrated quarto, still considered a standard history; a similar work by another UK author is Giles Oakley's The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues (BBC, 1976, and Taplinger, 1977). Dixon and Godrich's Recording the Blues is a short narrative version of their massive discography, Blues and Gospel Records: 1897-1943, a virtual guided tour of record company field trips made throughout the South. Jeff Titon's Early Downhome Blues (1977) is an academic study of the early years of the blues, particularly hard to find in the original first edition with the flexible record laid in.

Other surveys are regional and/or stylistic. Perhaps the best known is Robert Palmer's Deep Blues, a passionate and engaging study that acted as many readers' introduction to the blues. The author died late in 1997. It's reasonably common, but nice copies often fetch $35+. Harry Oster's Living Country Blues (1969), a hefty work on several Louisiana blues artists, is a challenging book to locate. It's excellence combined with it's scarcity makes it an especially desirable item. More cursory but still sought after is Bengt Olson's Memphis Blues (1970), and like its companion works in the blues series edited by Paul Oliver in 1970-1971, the cloth copies are much more difficult to locate than the paperback ones. Only the first four books in this 12-book series were published in the US, so the final eight tend to be more difficult to find. My own The Devil's Son-in-Law is one of the latter. Mike Rowe's Chicago Breakdown (Eddison, 1973, Drake, 1975) is the standard work on the post-war Chicago tradition; it, too, is uncommon in the original, although reprints [retitled Chicago Blues] are easy to find.

While the revised and expanded edition of William Ferris' Blues from the Delta (1978) isn't too uncommon, the original, issued in Oliver's blues series in 1970, is very hard to find, even in paperback. The only other stylistic study I'll mention here is David Evans' Big Road Blues. The 1982 University of California Press hardcover is already hard to find, as is his earlier Tommy Johnson, another entry in the Paul Oliver blues series. Seekers of the latter may be surprised to find that most of the information in the latter is incorporated (and occasionally corrected) in the former, but the real collector will want them both.

Numerous works on blues are biographical. Many are about a group of singers, as in Peter Guralnick's Feel Like Going Home (1971), Samuel Charters' The Bluesmen (1967), and Sheldon Harris' Blues Who Who (1975), all difficult to find in hardcover. Single-subject biographies exist, but there are fewer of them: a scarce example is guitarist John Fahey's Charley Patton (1970, in the Paul Oliver blues series).

Since the domain of recorded blues is so vast, discographies play a significant role in any collection. Aside from those mentioned elsewhere, two sought after discographies are Max Vreede's Discography of Paramount 12000/13000 (1971) and Brian Rust's The Victor Master Books, Volume 2 (1925-1936) (1970; there was no Volume 1). As both contain more than just blues material, they are not in Hart, et al., but both are important (and uncommon).

Let's look at a few more examples chosen from various categories just to get a feel for the breadth of perspectives that exist. There are compilations of lyrics like The Blues Line (1969), virtually an art book; there are thematic studies like Paul Oliver's Screening the Blues (1968, published in the US as Aspects of the Blues Tradition), or Albert Murray's The Hero and the Blues (1973, University of Missouri Press), or Louis Chappell's John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study (1933, published in Germany); there are blues novels like Augustus Arnold's Nefario (1974) or Albert Murray's Train Whistle Guitar (1974). There are even children's books like Carmen Moore's Somebody's Angel Child: The Story of Bessie Smith (1969).

Believe it or not, this just scratches the surface. This season, Publishers Weekly announced five new books on blues, and more are coming all the time. If that's not enough for you, there are many related fields to draw your attention: Gospel music (Negro Slave Songs in the United States, by Miles Mark Fisher, 1953); jazz (Hugues Panassié Discusses 144 Hot Jazz Bluebird and Victor Records); or black music in general (vMusic and Some Highly Musical People [with] Sketches of the Lives of Remarkable Musicians of the Colored Race, by John M. Trotter, 1878).

On a personal note, let me close by explaining our choice of business name. In 1927, blues singer Walter Beasley recorded Toad Frog Blues:

A tadpole in the river
hatching underneath of a log (repeat)
He got too old to be a tadpole,
he turned into a natural frog.

If a toad-frog had wings,
he'd be flying all around (repeat)
He would not have his bottom bumpin'
thumpin' on the ground

Everytime I see a toad-frog,
Lord, it makes me cry. (repeat)
It makes me think about my baby,
way she rolls her goo-goo eyes.

Our flying frog logo was inspired by the lyrics, and we named the business after Walter Beasley. So in a way, we did start with the blues.

Discographically, the companion volumes to Hart, et al. are Robert M. W. Dixon and John Godrich's Blues and Gospel Records: 1902-1942 (1963), now in its 4th edition (1997, Oxford), and Mike Leadbitter and Neil Slaven's Blues Records: 1941 - 1966 (1968), now in a new edition, also (2 vols., 1987, 1994). These are not particularly useful to the bookseller, but all the editions are sought by serious collectors.

This article first appeared in OP World 5:3, March, 1998, and is Copyright © 1998 Paul Garon. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author. The article is presented here by permission of Paul Garon. Thank you very much.

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