Chasing the Blues: a travelers guide to America’s music
Josephine Matyas and Craig Jones (Backbeat Books) ****
A book review by John Kereiff
As a lifelong music lover I look for things that take me deeper into the music I love. Before realizing it, hindsight now tells me that the blues is a primary building block to the various kinds of music I love most.
Chasing the Blues is, as the back cover states, “a travel guide that takes you off the beaten path into the heart of the blues.” It takes you down to where this uniquely American form of music was born, uncovering much of its history and mythology as the authors explore holy ground.
Geography and culture are key to understanding the origins of the blues, which informs virtually every popular form of music today. Matyas and Jones dig deep into Mississippi history to explore the events and conditions that gave rise to this primal yet emotionally complex music; the working conditions of the Deep South, from slavery to sharecropping at the height of cotton’s economic importance to the flood of 1927 that sparked the mass migration to cities like Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit, away from plantation life. They also look at how these musicians interacted in their travels, ‘cross fertilizing’ their music by influencing and imitating each other.
Josephine Matyas is an award winning travel writer and Craig Jones is a life-long musician trained in political economy, and the combination of their talents makes them uniquely qualified to bring Chasing the Blues to life.
When I’m reading a good book, the world around me disappears. Making my way through these pages felt like riding shotgun on their trips into the Delta. The first part of Chasing the Blues details the horrific economic and living conditions that birthed the blues including the rise of sharecropping (in essence the same as slavery) plus racial injustice and violence. Much of this history I was aware of peripherally, but to examine it in more detail gave me the gift of understanding this music I love on a deeper, more satisfying level.
Reading Chasing the Blues is like going to the Delta without jumping in the car and driving there yourself. Making such a blues pilgrimage has long been on my bucket list, but after this book such a trip feels even more imperative. With this book we can live vicariously through the authors as they visit significant historical sights, various museums and markers on the blues trail, and enjoy some barbeque as they chat with the locals… you can almost taste the fried chicken and coleslaw.
When you truly love music, whether in general or a specific genre like the blues, understanding where it came from and how it got to be where it is now intensifies your affection. It’s like a romantic relationship; knowing the back story of your significant other makes you appreciate them all the more. And so it is with this book and the blues. I’ve always appreciated the blues, from the time I started listening to music to my blues epiphany at a road construction stop near Cache Creek, BC in the summer of 1987 (while listening to The Best Of BB King on cassette) to today… I can’t imagine life without it.
Chasing the Blues is blues archaeology, a dig that gives us much to study and absorb, and perhaps inspire further research on this rich subject. It’s a very satisfying read.