In Search of the Blues

by Marybeth Hamilton

When most people think of Delta blues music, they think of hard-luck, nomadic geniuses such as Robert Johnson and Son House, men who embodied the suffering and popular taste of downtrodden Southern black folk in the early 20th century. But that view is largely a myth, argues Marybeth Hamilton in her excellent book In Search of the Blues, perpetuated by white collectors and musicologists. While so-called “race records” from artists like Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith were much more popular, the legacy of the Delta blues comes largely from musicologists like John Lomax, his son Alan, and a group of New York collectors called the Blues Mafia. Seeking long out-of-print records and championing obscure artists was all part of these white men’s conflicted search for “primitive” and “uncorrupted” voices. In the process they ensured the legacy of the enduring Delta bluesmen, many of whom were largely unknown in their own times. 4 stars