Two Blues Books
Book Reviews by Willard Manus

All hail University of Michigan Press and University of Minnesota Press for helping to keep the blues flame burning. With the publication of, respectively, BLUES, HOW DO YOU DO? and EARLY BLUES, blues fans will be able to deepen their understanding of the music they love–and perhaps even come to enjoy it a little more.

BLUES, HOW DO YOU DO? by Christian O’Connell is subtitled “Paul Oliver and the Transatlantic Story of the Blues.” Oliver has written, over a period of sixty years, some of the most important books on the blues, beginning in 1960 with “Blues Fell This Morning.” Many consider the British-born Oliver–an architectural academic by trade–to be the father of blues scholarship.

O’Connell, who is a British academic himself–he lectures on American history at the University of Gloucestershire–describes Oliver’s first encounter with African-American music in the summer of 1942 when he was working at a Suffolk harvest camp and met a bunch of black GIs. “The encounter with the troops sparked an interest in record collecting that would provide the backbone to a prolific career as a blues scholar and historian.”

In the following years Oliver set up a blues and jazz society, began writing for such publications as “Jazz Journal” and “Jazz Monthly.” He also visited the USA’s blues hotbeds, put together blues exhibitions, and “promoted the appreciation of the blues as a distinctive music in its own right.” Oliver, who also designed albums and posters, eventually wrote ten books on the blues, many of which contained his interviews with such stalwarts as Brother John Sellars, Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmy Rushing, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.

O’Connell has many critical things to say about Oliver. “The British author clearly evidences a fascination for working-class black culture, particularly in the fifties, when his descriptions of black life and of blues singers take on shades of romanticism, exoticism, and, at times, remnants of primitivism or 1920's ‘negrophilia,’” he writes. A large part of his book deals with these charges, which are discussed in a densely written, abstruse way that will be fully understood perhaps only by other academics. That said, O’Connell still tips his hat to Paul Oliver, insisting that his work “remains among the most important and influential in his field.” (

EARLY BLUES: THE FIRST STARS OF BLUES GUITAR by Jas Obrecht, former editor of “Guitar Player Magazine,” is a lot easier and more enjoyable to read, consisting as it does of nine biographical sketches of such pioneer bluesmen as Sylvester Weaver, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tampa Red and Lonnie Johnson. Affectionately written, handsomely illustrated, these sketches bring to life the “most prominent singer-guitarists who made influential and enduring recordings during the Roaring Twenties.”

Obrecht’s research is equally impressive. He has dug deep into record company archives, newspaper and magazine files, personal recollections and scholarly findings in the writing of EARLY BLUES. He has also listened to the 78 rpm records made by his subjects, described their musical techniques, quoted from some of the earthy songs they sang, such as “Roaming Rambler Blues” by Lonnie Johnson:

“I got a gal in Texas, I got gals in Tennessee,
I’ve got gals in Texas, I’ve got gals in Tennessee,
There’s a hundred doors fastened, waiting for this
rambler’s key”