Tag Archives: Robert Johnson

Playlist: Deep Blues Part 1 – Mississippi Delta to Chicago


As a companion to my review of Robert Palmer’s book Deep Blues, I present part one of  two playlists.  Check out the second part via this link.  This playlist features music from the very earliest Delta and Country Blues artists with just a peak at the connection to Chicago.  The playlist is in pseudo chronological order tempered by what order they were covered in the book or perceived stylistic connections.

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Deep Blues by Robert Palmer


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

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O Brother, Where Art Thou?


What a great film.  The Cohen Brothers at their best in my opinion.  It’s a wonderfully clever retelling of Homer’s Iliad in the style of a 3 Stooges movie set in an alternate universe during a time period much like Depression/Dust Bowl era America.  But as this is not a film blog, I digress and transition into talking about one of the films main tools used in transporting the viewer into the past.  That being music of course.

Now there is the obvious – the soundtrack is pretty damn good.  A fact that is indisputably evident by its critical and commercial success; it’s a little polished for my taste but I really dig the spirit of the project.  The film’s music was written/produced/selected by T-Bone Burnett, who is best known for producing a bunch of pretty successful records by artists most would recognize, but is also a folk revival focused singer/songwriter who has released a few solo records.  T-Bone did a great job transporting us into the past while still keeping the sound fresh.  He did this by re-recording quite a few folk classics by current artists; for example you’ve got an artist like Chris Thomas King doing “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” which was originally written and recorded by Delta Blues Legend Skip James.  There is a few songs that are included in their original versions on the soundtrack, most notably Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain” from 1939.

Personally, the most impressive and enjoyable aspects of the film is how they interweave the folklore and history that surrounds the music into the movie.  Here are a few examples.

In the film real life singer/guitarist Chris Thomas King plays a character by the name of Tommy Johnson who is on the run from the law and had just sold his soul to the devil on at the crossroads.  Sound familiar?..  Yes, its just the devilishly clever Cohens working in that old blues fable about the quintessential Delta Blues guitarist Robert Johnson into their film.

During a political event in the film there is a musical act identified as The Brightsiders, singing “Keep On The Sunny Side”.  The group is made up of 2 women and 1 man and is later joined by 3 girls for the song “In The Highways”.  Both tunes are songs by the Carter Family for which the film is so obviously making tribute.

Lastly, I’d like to point out the interesting amalgamation which makes up the character know in the film as Pappy O’daniel.  In the film he is the host of a radio show entitled “Pappy O’daniel’s Flour Hour” which is a reference to a more recent radio program called King Biscuit Flower Hour.  KBFH is based on the original old timey blues radio program called King Biscuit Time which started in 1941 and continues today on WFFA in Helena, Arkansas.  In the film the character is the Governor of Mississippi, and turns out to be loosely based two different real life radio personality/politicians:  Texas Governor Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’daniel and former Louisiana Governer Jimmie Davis.

Besides the soundtrack, for those that are interested there are a bunch of cash-in projects that came out shortly after the movie and soundtrack became such a hit.  Among those is a live concert featuring the same artists called Down From The Mountain.  Also there are a few compilations featuring selections from female Bluegrass musicians called O Sister! and a few budget imports CD compilations that compile the songs in their original incarnations.

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Can’t Be Satisfied – The Life and Times of Muddy Waters


Published in 2002 and written by author Robert Gordon, Can’t Be Satified is a biography of Muddy Waters.  The book is a loose chronological telling of Muddy’s life which is broken up into 15 chapters, each featuring a set number of years.  Gordon does a great job piecing together the history of a man for which there wasn’t many living subjects or decent records.  The author does his best with what remained which included old news paper & magazine articles, recordings, video, and interviews with any and every living relative, friend or business colleague.  The book is mostly given in story form but breaks from this quite a bit to include references to other related notes, or excerpts from actual interviews or sources.

Through out the book Gordon takes time to flesh out many of the supporting cast including his influences and Delta Blues founders like Son House, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Sonny Boy Williamson.  You get a little closer look at the many musicians that made up Muddy’s band members and fellow Chess Records artists including Willie Dixon, Son Simms, Otis Spann, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Howlin’ Wolf… just to name a few.  Gordon takes a lot of time exploring Muddy’s career as a recording artist and performer but also takes time to flesh out his family life.  He documents what he could of his relationship with all his wives and what childern that he claimed from those marriages and from other affairs.

At first glance the book is fairly thick and unless you page through the end you will be surprised to find out the last quarter is actually just notes, acknowledgements and an index.  Included are a detailed bibliography, chapter by chapter notes, guide to Muddy’s recordings, and a few other interesing tidbits.

Here are some interesting facts about Muddy Waters:

  • His real name is Mckinley Morganfield which he changed to Muddy Water later in life and then finally to Muddy Waters after a record company misprinted his name on one of his early recordings.
  • It was not a secret that Muddy was a womanizer.  Through Muddy’s life he married 3 times and had many children with his wives and other women (I could not find an exact number).  One of his children is Blues musician Big Bill Morganfield.
  • Obviously Muddy’s Chicago shows were highly sexually charged, so much so that its said that Muddy would frequently expose himself to the audience after being goaded into it by the ladies in audience.
  • One New Years Eve, Muddy obviously getting a little out of control partying it up accidentally shot his friend and employee Bo (Andrew Bolton) in the leg.
  • Shortly after the death of Leonard Chess in 1969, while on tour in 1970, Muddy got into a bad car accident in which left 3 people dead including tour mate John Warren.   Muddy suffered 3 broken ribs, a broken pelvis, sprained back and a shattered hip; he was bed ridden for months.

Check out more about Muddy Waters at the following links.

Muddy Waters Allmusic.com page

Muddy Waters Wikipedia page


There is also a companion video to this book called Muddy Waters – Can’t Be Satisfied released in 2003 on DVD.  It’s not great but it does the trick if you want to see footage of Muddy or if you just want a quick overview of his life.  There was also supposed to be a companion CD released which would compile the authors favorite tracks across Muddy’s whole career but I don’t think he was ever able to work out all the licensing.  If you are interesting in hearing Muddy’s best, check out my related post about Muddy’s music featuring a embedded playlist with all of Muddy’s best stuff (career spanning) here.

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