Images of the Blues
Submitted on behalf of Janet Sommer
by Lee Tanner and Lee Hildebrand
Foreword by David Ritz
ISBN 1-56799-693-0, 144 pages
I can't sleep at night, I can't eat a bite, 'cause the man I love don't treat me right."
"I got nothin' but bad news, I got the crazy blues."
"Crazy Blues," written by Perry Bradford, and recorded by Mamie Smith on August 10, 1920, for Okeh Records, was the catalyst for a recording frenzy the likes of which had not been seen before that time. The 1920's could easily be called the decade of the Blues Queens, providing as it did the influential singers Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, to name a few. From this decade came the sounds that would influence singers in blues and jazz (not to mention rock, soul, and R&B) for the rest of the twentieth century. In "Images of the Blues," author Lee Hildebrand devotes a single paragraph to these blueswomen in the first chapter, "The Blues Century." About half of that paragraph is devoted to "Ma" Rainey and the Empress, Bessie Smith. The only mention of Mamie Smith is in the 2nd half of that paragraph, under "other important blueswomen of the 1920's." Not that she's in bad company, the list includes Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, Victoria Spivey, and Lucille Hegamin. It bears mentioning that in this lavishly illustrated history of approximately 150 photos, about 23 of them include women. My point here is about reality, not equality. The influence of these early blueswomen are still at work today, surely they deserve at least one chapter in this historical survey of the blues.
In the eleven fairly comprehensive chapters covering the master bluesmen and their disciples, the author has supported his text with the words of other blues historians, as well as quotes from the musicians themselves. In a nice touch, in the chapter on Howlin' Wolf, we have a searing photo of him with an agonized look on his face, while on the page facing it, there is a quote from Mark Humphrey saying "Howlin' Wolf had a voice like shattered glass being dragged over hot asphalt." On the same page, a few words from the Man himself. "They call my kind of music folk songs. But them no folk songs. Them old blues." The concept works throughout the book. The other chapters covering individual players (and those they influenced), include T-bone Walker, Joe Turner, Charles Brown, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Albert King. If readers are disappointed that their favorites aren't listed here, they shouldn't be. Chances are they show up somewhere in this zig-zag history that sometimes appears as a twisted family tree. As author David Ritz says in the foreword, "...the form is varied and wondrously complex; as a category, the blues defy neat categorization. The spillover from the California trio blues of Charles Brown to the cuntry blues of Mance Lipscomb to the jazz blues of Billie Holiday to the gospel blues of Dinah Washington to the rhythm and blues of Hank Ballard is one engaging mess. It is all surprisingly different, all surprisingly the same, all rooted in a rich soil whose blooms are perennnial."
The remainder of the book is broken down into two sections. One, on styles, "Jazz and the Blues," "Folk Blues," "The Rhythm and Blues Era," "Rock (and Roll)," and "Soul Blues." The final chapters cover specific instruments and their players. Throughout these final sections are photographs of, and stories about everyone including Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Count Basie, Mick Jagger and Louis Armstrong. In "Jazz and the Blues," T-bone Walker says, "I think if it wasn't for the blues, there wouldn't be no jazz," while Albert Murray, in speaking about the importance of Louis Armstrong says, "He was the Prometheus of the blues idiom... Everywhere Armstrong went in the 1920's, he created a revolution of musical sensibility...His assimilation, elaboration, extensions, and refinement of its elements became in effect the touchstone for all who came after him."
The photographer Lee Tanner knew when he finished his book "Images of Jazz," that he wanted to do a similar volume on the blues. Unfortunately, he just didn't have enough images of his own to do it alone. So, Lee Tanner, the editor and curator, went about finding other photographers to share the bill. Obviously, he found just what he needed. Joseph Rosen, Val Wilmer, Stephen Green, Ebet Roberts and a dozen others contributed photographs to this amazing visual document that shows the faces of the blues in all its pain and glory. Lee's own images of Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams captures the light that both of these men posessed, within and without. Charles Peterson's image of "Leadbelly" is a photographic equivelent of the statues of Greek Gods, or the paintings of the masters. Joe Rosen's portrait of Joe Turner, wearily resting his head in his hand, while singing with eyes closed into a microphone placed directly in front of him, and Stephen Green's photo of Etta James singing on stage, arms uplifted, hands outstretched - all of these images allow us to feel, and hear, the blues. Etta James is quoted here saying, "I wanna show that gospel, country, blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll are all just really one thing. Those are the American music and that is the American culture."
Overall, Lee Tanner and Lee Hildebrand, with the help of a dozen other writers, photographers, and the words of the musicians themselves, have helped Etta James make her point rather nicely.
For more information about "Images of Blues", go here.