Dark Was the Night - Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey To The Stars 

Dark Was the Night
– Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey To The Stars
 

By Gary Golio, illustrated by EB Lewis 

Nancy Paulson Books, 2020. 32 pages 

Review by Greg Johnson 

Dark Was The Night is the latest offering from Gary Golio, an award winning children’s book author who has penned several biographical titles, many involving musicians. Among his works are included the stories of Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Carlos Santana, Bob Dylan and John Coltrane. 

Dark Was The Night is the story of early bluesman Blind Willie Johnson and how despite the devastation suffered early in his life with the loss of his parents and his sight, music turned his life around. He recorded during his lifetime, but by the time of his death he was fairly unknown. Yet, in 1977, when NASA sent the Voyager into space, it included a disc presenting numerous pieces of information to display life on the planet Earth in the event that any life-form came into contact in its mission. Several songs were included on the disc; one of which was Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night.” 

This book is beautifully illustrated by EB Lewis, whose works have adorned more than 70 books and has been recognized with a multitude of awards. Her artwork, along with Golio’s easy reading storyline compliments one another in this very well presented story of a musician worthy of more recognition and a human story perfect for reciting to children and adults alike. 

 

The Promise of the Blues - Anthony Proveaux

Book Review by Greg Johnson:

The Promise of the Blues - Anthony ProveauxThe Promise of the Blues
Anthony Proveaux
Pro-Arts Production 2020.
181 pages

“The Promise of the Blues” is a work of historical fiction that offers more than you’d expect from such a genre of writing. It does revolve around the central character of Cyris Jordan, a writer for the Chicago Defender, but aside from his encounters with famed musicians and music industry personnel of the early twentieth century, it can also be read as a work of historical document. The research that author Anthony Proveaux, himself a professional musician from the Eugene, Oregon area, is astounding, with great detail going into the landscape of the Delta, racial attitudes, and the music that shaped it all.

The story bounces on occasion, between Cyrus’ earliest time spent in the Delta and the encounters he has of hearing the sound of call & response field hollers to the sounds of musicians on train platforms playing the new sounds of the blues, to his return in 1930 and the changes that the Delta has gone through, while also giving accounts to the famous trip made to Grafton, Wisconsin by Charley Patton, Son House, Willie Brown and Louise Johnson to create some of the most recognized music of the time.

Cyrus makes friends with Charley Patton and Willie Brown early on, and is reunited with them during his return. He also comes into contact with Son House, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, as well as a friendship made with famed record producer/talent scout J. Mayo Williams. Working for the renowned newspaper The Chicago Defender, the first paper aimed at an African-American readership, also plays a role in his story. His life is greatly influenced by the blues and it is a life-long goal to document what it has meant to him.

The Promise of the Blues is a nice journey into the blues in its earliest years and offers quite a bit of historical fact intermingled with the fictional accounts between the main character and those he meets. Well considered in its presentation and easy to read without losing attention to the detail behind the story. You get to know the man behind Cyris Jordan and experience the personalities (whether factual or fictional) of Charley Patton, Son House and Willie Brown.

Time Is Tight - My Life Note By Note - Booker T. Jones (Little, Brown 2019)

Time Is Tight - My Life Note By Note - Booker T. Jones

by Booker T. Jones
Little, Brown 2019

Book Review by Greg Johnson

Booker T. Jones made his mark in the music annals with his creative energy behind The MGs and working as the house band and songwriter at Stax throughout the 1960s. With multiple chart topping hits including numbers such as “Green Onions,” “Hang ‘Em High,” “ Time Is Tight” and “Hip Hug Her,” he defined the Memphis Sound. But he is much more than that, with a career that has found him writing material and working alongside some of the biggest acts in the world, mostly after he left Memphis.

This first-hand biography by Jones himself takes you on the ride of his life that included failed marriages, financial strife, learning and mastering multiple instruments, being cheated from royalties, racism and the blessings of his love of family. You witness one of his first performances playing behind the great Mahalia Jackson at a house party. His friendship with Al Jackson, William Bell, Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire, Bill Withers, and his part in helping Willie Nelson put together one of his biggest recordings of his career, Stardust.

If you didn’t know Booker T Jones before, you’re going to be amazed at how much musical history this man has been a part of. The book flows nicely, almost like Booker is reading it directly to you. Once you start, you won’t want to put it down and desperately wish for it to continue when you’ve reached the end.

337 pages

Mississippi On The Blues Trail By Bob Gervais

Mississippi On The Blues Trail  By Bob GervaisBook Review by Greg Johnson

“Mississippi, On The Blues Trail” is a new book of images taken by local photographer Bob Gervais, documenting the blues culture of the Mississippi Delta. With over 100 pages of stellar black & white photographs depicting various juke joints, clubs & Delta culture, it is a first-hand exploration of life on the blues highway. Featuring such locales of renown such as Wade Walton’s Barbershop, Poor Monkeys, Blue Front Cafe and Club Ebony as you traverse Highway 49 & 61 from stops in Greenville, Clarksdale, Bentonia, Rolling Fork, Jackson, Indianola and many more that brings you the flavor of the region.

Books are $30 & printed to order. Contact the author at bgervaisphoto@gmail.com.

Weeds Like Us

Weeds Like UsReview by Greg Johnson

They often say that you have to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues. Well, if that is the case then Janiva Magness has paid those dues tenfold over the course of her tumultuous life. Raised in a dysfunctional family (to put it mildly), she faced suicidal ideations and attempts, actual suicides of both parents, incest, rape, heavy drug and alcohol addiction, teen pregnancy, shuffling from one foster home to another, and stints in mental rehab institutions. All before she was even eighteen years old. It became such a pattern in her life, she assumed that it was meant to be, facing each downfall she encountered with a return to the depths of despair.

But she had an outlet for her misery — a desire to sing. Often as a young child she would sing to her pets, but never felt that she was good enough to play before actual audiences. Music consumed her, especially the blues after witnessing the great Otis Rush. Weeds Like Us takes us on Janiva’s path as her life unfolds and eventually turns around, bringing her Grammy nominations and the thrill of being named The Blues Foundation’s BB King Entertainer of the Year, with the award presented to her by personal heroes Bonnie Raitt and BB King himself.

Weeds Like Us: A Memoir by Janiva Magness. Published by Fathead Records. June 2019. Paperback 267 pages.

Up Jumped The Devil

Review by Randy MurphyUp Jumped The Devil

Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, the authors of Up Jumped The Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, are not shy about asserting their purpose for writing this biography. They admit that they’re “[hoping] to free Johnson from being the sign and myth that blues fans created and return him to his human particulars.” It’s this myth-busting desire that fuels their detailed investigation of Johnson’s short life. In the end though, Conforth and Wardlow do not so much demythologize Johnson as demystify him, and perhaps this is for the best — sometimes we need our cultural myths left intact.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the blues knows the Johnson fable: The infamous rendezvous at that famed Mississippi crossroads where, in exchange for his soul, The Devil turns Johnson into a formidable musician with extraordinary guitar skills. Conforth and Wardlow accurately locate the metaphor of the “crossroads,” along with the idea of the Faustian bargain, solidly within the traditions of voodoo and trace its historical heritage back to its African roots. It’s fascinating reading and sheds considerable light upon how these sacred myths take hold and spread. And although Conforth is a retired professor of folklore and American history at the University of Michigan, he largely avoids the kind of academic jargon that’s often deadly in biographies.

Yet, this biography is overflowing with impeccable research, and I imagine Conforth and Wardlow are correct when they suggest that what is now unknown about Johnson’s life will more than likely stay that way. Through first-person accounts from those who knew Johnson, and their own carefully-crafted analysis, the authors supply their audience with precise details of Johnson’s often harrowing world of share-cropping and itinerant wandering. For instance, their accounts of Johnson’s recording sessions in Texas are superb examples of biographical narrative; so too is their portrayal of Johnson’s brutal death, at twenty-seven, and the speculation surrounding its details.

Johnson is an enigmatic character given his mythic stature in the development of the blues, and this biography does much to lift the haze through which we had viewed his life. It traces Johnson’s early urban-oriented childhood in Memphis through his forced relocation to a share-cropper’s cabin in rural Mississippi to his life as a rambling musician and finally to his death from poisoning in 1938. It deftly examines the effects his experiences, specifically the death of his wife and unborn son, had upon his life and music.

Oddly though, in the end Conforth and Wardlow’s detailed analysis of Johnson’s life doesn’t lessen the power of its mythic qualities, and this is why I’d argue that this biography demystifies rather than demythologizes Johnson. Conforth and Wardlow expose and resolve many of the mysteries that haunted Johnson’s life and our view of it, and rightly so. But that myth of a lone man bargaining with Satan on a dark night at a forsaken crossroads and then emerging as a musician of otherworldly talent still seizes our imagination, and that too is rightly so.

Up Jumped The Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, Authors. Chicago Review Press, 326 pages. $30.00

Bitten By The Blues

The history of Chicago-based Alligator Records is not just the story of the most successful blues label of all time, it is also the story of modern blues itself. Alligator was the brainchild of Bruce Iglauer — the person whom Alligator revolves around — in his quest to bring to light blues artists who were little know outside of Chicago at that time. He did that indeed, and took his label from not only Chicago, but opened the world’s eyes to many more performers from corners far and wide.

Iglauer grew up lonely, but found comfort in the music he heard around him. When he heard the blues, he became enchanted, and moved to Chicago, eventually asking Delmark Records’ Bob Koester for a job at his famous Jazz Record Mart. Iglauer became even more obsessed after hearing the trio led by guitarist Hound Dog Taylor, finally taking on the challenge of recording and releasing an album by the unknown, outside of Chicago anyway, band. It was the first release by the fledgling Alligator label and proved to be a huge success.

That first release opened the door to bringing other local Chicago artists — Big Walter Horton, Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, and Koko Taylor — over the next few years. He eventually took on musicians from elsewhere and brought to the forefront people like long time players Professor Longhair, Lonnie Mack, Albert Collins, Roy Buchanan, Johnny Winter, Charlie Musselwhite along with newer artists like Little Charlie & The Nightcats, Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women, Michael Burks, Coco Montoya, and Selwyn Birchwood. The list is exhaustive. Not all projects were successful, but Iglauer sticks by his own rules for recording with the label — rules with which everyone may not agree. But he knows how to bring out the best in a blues player and it has shown many times over and again.

The Alligator story is not just about Iglauer and the musicians. It also details the hardships of promoting and distributing the music itself; something that is getting more difficult as the years go by. But fifty years into the label’s timeframe has broughta new life into the blues and hopefully something that will continue for many years. Bitten By The Blues is definitely a must read for any fan of the genre.

By Bruce Iglauer & Patrick A. Roberts. The University Of Chicago Press. 337 pages.

Reviewed by Greg Johnson

Doug MacLeod

Doug MacLeodThe first volume of the Who Is Blues series presented by blues writer and biographer Vincent Abbate takes on the life of story-telling troubadour Doug MacLeod. Written in a compact fashion and easily read within a sitting or two, there is still a lot of information conveyed about the multiple Blues Music Award winning performer and the hardships and joys that he has experienced throughout his life.

MacLeod’s  life is relayed from his earliest beginnings to his latest release “Break The Chain” and its accolades for taking on such issues as his abuse as a child that led to his own anger and decision to cease that history before being brought about onto his own son. His story travels from St. Louis to the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, from the coffee houses, playing in a band in Los Angeles, and finally to his choice of becoming, for the most part, a solo musician.

Throughout his story you are introduced to the musicians who made a difference to him — the backwoods Virginia bluesman Ernest Banks who taught him to be himself and showed him the tricks of the trade in exchange for a six-pack during his visits and George “Harmonica” Smith who became a bandmate and a mentor. Plus many other notable artists he encountered and was accepted by as a white guitarist playing within a black community of musicians; including the likes of Pee Wee Crayton, Robert Lockwood Jr, and Lloyd Glenn.

For those who may have enjoyed MacLeod’s monthly column in Blues Revue magazine telling stories of his past, there are a few such here, too. Short tales about Chuck Berry, BB King, and Albert King are among those, guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

This compact biography of Doug MacLeod may leave a lot out of his life’s story, but for the compact size it really does give a nice impression of one of today’s very best blues artists.

By Vincent Abbate. Whoisblues.com. 143 pages.