Blues history is fraught with lurid tales of ballers and brawlers, so much that the fans of the genre usually take in as much lore as music. Consider how few neophyte blues aficionados would know of '30s-era Robert Johnson if it wasn't for the sold-his-soul-at-the-crossroads legend (lots of Johnson boxed sets turned up used at the CD exchange stores not long after its release in 1990, listeners not finding the music as captivating as the history of the musician). Still, a reader can appreciate the blues without even hearing the music, thanks to books like Rollin' and Tumblin' where stories of dangerous juke-joint gigs and music careers halted by prison terms portray the blues as a pressure valve in two ways. If playing the music wasn't always a cathartic response to a life of hard knocks, Jas Obrecht's book certainly proves that the blues and booze were a common nightly escape from the claustrophobia of small-town, poverty-stricken life in the South.
The collection reveals the socioeconomic conditions that shaped the style. Had black Southerners not been financially destitute, the blues would not be primarily represented by the guitar, nor would it have spread as quickly northward. For decades, blues practitioners could generally afford only guitars and harmonicas, which were both easier to learn than the piano and more mobile. As a result, the music quickly spread from state to state, eventually swimming upstream to Chicago where it mated with the amplifier. Rollin' and Tumblin' focuses on how the blues moved from acoustic to electric, from the Delta to the city, and from regional to international appreciation.
Obrecht and the other writers let the artists speak for themselves, either in lengthy responses to questions or in dialogue with other bluesmen (three such chapters have John Lee Hooker conversing with B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and Johnny Winter talking with Muddy Waters). While some interviewers ask the expected did-you-know-Robert Johnson questions, Obrecht veers in the opposite direction, getting Buddy Guy's views on spanking kids and the existence of hell, asked between questions on guitar tunings and recording sessions.
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The bluesmen's quirky reminiscences flesh out the players on decades' worth of scratchy recordings. Homesick James swears Robert Johnson sang "dust my room," not "dust my broom." Muddy Waters tells how he, Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter would make extra money by sneaking into amateur contests years after they were established stars. Lightnin' Hopkins refers to himself as "a country boy moved to town" who refused distant gigs that paid $2,000 a week in order to make $17 a night near home.
In all, Rollin' and Tumblin' is an oral history as engaging as that found in Alan Lomax's seminal The Land Where the Blues Began, and an equally vivid continuation of the tradition's past six decades.