The History of the Blues

Written as a companion to the PBS series THE HISTORY OF THE BLUES, Francis Davis’ book departs from the television program’s straightforward history and presents the author’s own take on the blues. He investigates the earliest reported performances of black singers in the South and threads his way through minstrel shows, coon shouters, jug bands, and vaudeville and winds up with the latest (largely white) generation of blues singers. His speculations on the development of the blues are generally provocative. He notes, for example, the extremely selective photographic record of the best-known early bluesmen—rare promotional shots meant to project the image of downtrodden sons of slaves and sharecroppers. Such an image was essential to the interests of the white folklorists and record labels who sought out black talent and was probably not far wrong; Davis contrasts these hard- bitten men with the flamboyant women blues singers who preceded them. Poverty was the last thing these earlier recording artists wished to project. Davis argues that, contrary to the myth of a pure folk expression, blues was actually pop music, produced for a sizable black record-buying market and later, for a large white market.

A noted jazz critic, Davis refutes the common assumption that the blues gave birth to jazz. He argues convincingly that the roots of jazz are indeed tangled with the blues, but are nevertheless recognizably distinct. He does not question the importance of the blues to the development of rock and roll. He is unfashionably kind to Elvis Presley but chooses instead to dwell on the contributions of Chuck Berry; the question then becomes not how much Elvis was influenced by black music, but how did Chuck Berry become so appealing to a largely white audience?