Journeyman's Road: Modern Blues Lives From Faulkner's Mississippi To Post-9/11 New York

Jim Santella By

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Journeyman's Road: Modern Blues Lives From Faulkner's Mississippi To Post-9/11 New York
Adam Gussow
Hardcover; 188 pages
ISBN: 978-1-57233-569-1
The University Of Tennessee Press

An Associate Professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, Adam Gussow writes well and knows how to communicate. His articles, papers and books are coherent, concise, and comprehensive. For this discussion of contemporary blues, and an appraisal of what makes them appeal to the average citizen, Gussow adopts a winningly conversational tone.

As a college student, Gussow took to the blues as a street musician in Harlem. He documented that part of his life in Mister Satan's Apprentice: A Blues Memoir (Pantheon/Vintage, 1998). He and Mr. Satan found success working for tips on the streets for many years; Gussow on harmonica and Mr. Satan serving a one-man-band partnership as singer, guitarist, percussionist and more. Thus, Gussow learned about the blues first-hand. By the time he sat down to write his doctoral dissertation on Southern Violence and Blues Literature, he knew how most things worked in the blues business.

Gussow, 49, has been there, done that—and enjoys telling about it. The core of this book consists of 21 of the 26 columns that he wrote for Blues Access magazine between 1995 and 2001. Eight of the book's essays first appeared in Thirsty Ear, a Santa Fe, New Mexico roots/alternative music monthly magazine. The final few chapters are culled from his dissertation, going into detail about the literature of William Faulkner and its connection to genuine blues.

Along the way, Gussow tells about working on the streets. Imagine what it must be like in the cold winter time or on a hot and humid summer afternoon. The blues that he and Mr. Satan created turned more than a few heads, and between 1991 and 1996 they recorded three albums. You can hear his blues harmonica in action at YouTube, where he also demonstrates the same conversational style that makes his book such an enjoyable read.

Gussow writes about several contemporary blues artists who are getting notice today, with separate sections devoted to singer Frankie Paris, singer/guitarist Orville Davis and young harmonica ace Jason Ricci. His 12-week syllabus for reading blues literature offers some great ideas, from Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston to Bebe Moore Campbell and Walter Mosley. He classifies blues literature into four distinct periods: jazz age blues, swing era blues, blues revival and postmodern blues.

As a communicator and a teacher, Gussow offers plenty of advice for the harmonica player who wants to give the blues more than a passing notice. As contemporary works, his essays dig into the areas that practicing musicians and active listeners will find interesting. While many books about jazz and blues work their way gradually through a detailed history, this one is all about today. The author tells what it was like working his way up from street musician to recording artist. He offers sound advice for the aspiring harmonica player. He sheds light on today's blues scene, and he offers more ideas about what to read in his extensive bibliography. While his dissertation material concerning William Faulkner seems a bit stiff, it also serves a purpose: blues literature is a wide open field that deserves investigation.

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