First of all, this book first published in 1981 was not written by Robert Palmer, the singer that brought you the hit song “Addicted to Love”. The Robert Palmer that wrote this book was a distinguished music journalist from the 1970s to the 1990s. He covered music for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and many other publications alongside his two non-fiction music books: Deep Blues and Rock & Roll: an Unruly History. Palmer died in 1997 leaving behind a large body of work including his work in music production, film, and his own music, of which this book is his crowning achievement. Palmer is a hugely important music journalist as he bridged the gap between rock journalism and ethnomusicology. He had a unique perspective as a talented and successful musician in his own right who was able to hang with the rocks greats while still giving you an insight into the history of the subject he was covering. Beyond that short intro I would direct those that want to find out more about him to this link if it so pleases.
The books caption, “A Musical and Cultural History, From The Mississippi Delta to Chicago’s South Side to the World” actually sums up the books composition quite well. Among the cast of characters that is covered in the book is Muddy Waters, which Palmer relies on heavily on to move along his telling of the Blues history. The term “Deep Blues” is actually something that Muddy used to describe blues of high emotional quality which was highly influenced by the sounds coming from the Mississippi Delta. Palmer picked up on this and his interview with Muddy act as the backbone of this book.
The book is split into 5 sections: a prologue, three main parts and an epilogue. The prologue acts as an overview of the musical form. Part I delves deeply into the genesis of the form and its original practitioners. Palmer also focuses heavily on one of the Blues most interesting and important early figures, Charley Patton. Part II then focuses on the next big player in the history of the blues, Robert Johnson. One of the major draws of this book is the detailed history of Patton and Johnson, who previously and still are to a certain extent, mysteries. Also covered in part two is Muddy Waters, and early Chicago Blues. In Part III things get a little more involved, starting with the history of the highly influential radio program King Biscuit Time at Helena, Arkansas radio station KFFA. That radio program then acts as a connection point for the next handful of the musicians that are covered in this part of the book, as most of them played on the program at some point or played with the programs original stars Aleck “Rice” Miller (aka Sonny Boy Williamson II) and Robert Lockwood Jr. Among those that are covered are the two aforementioned players and Little Walter, Junior Wells, Elmore James, and Jimmy Rogers. This part continues covering the Blues from Memphis and the early recordings made by Sam Phillips at the Sun Records Studio. This includes brief coverage of Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm, B.B. King, Albert King and Howlin’ Wolf. The epilogue then ties up some loose ends with some of the previously covered characters, then spreads out and covers Blues players from some other areas including John Lee Hooker, Son Seals, and Otis Rush. The epilogue also rounds the book out with some discussion of how the Blues influenced music across the world.
In my opinion the book is on the list of must reads when it comes to material on the history of music. It was one of the first to shed some light on such an uncovered genre with its extremely mysterious beginnings. Those parts of the book that deal with the early history the Blues are some of its most compelling material. I should also mention that the book is in no way a definitive look at the genre. It is pretty focused in what it covers which is a gritty / country Mississippi Delta born blues. With that being said there are some very large blind spots including the early blues from the eastern states also known as “Piedmont Blues” or any of the jazz based city blues of the 20’s and 30s’. Also not given much attention is the Blues that came out of Texas or Louisiana. My only real negative critique of the book is that it is a little abstract in its structure. Palmer really jumps around a lot and it was hard to take all that information in when it is presented in such a disorganized manner.
In 1991 Robert Palmer along with Director Robert Mugge released a similarly entitled film, Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage to the Crossroads as a companion to the book. The film mostly covers the Blues musicians that were still performing that kind of Delta influenced music in the late 80s and early 90s, along with little bits and pieces of history from Robert himself. In addition to Palmers two main published books, there is also the recently published collection of his work called Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer if you are interested in sampling more of his works.
I would like to offer two playlists specially selected to act as musical companions to this book and my review of it, linked below.
Deep Blues: Part 1 – Mississippi Delta to Chicago
Deep Blues: Part 2 – Chicago & Beyond