Greville St Bookstore

delta blues & rick rubin
December 18, 2009, 6:18 am
Filed under: Music

Delta Blues
by Ted Gioia
pb $27.95

Until recently, Ted Gioia’s reputation rested on a number of superb books he’d written on jazz history, including the groundbreaking West Coast Jazz. Yet Gioia acknowledges in his introduction to Delta Blues that, of late, he’d been drawn more and more back to what he calls “the deeper essence of the blues”, sensing a “richness to these songs, especially the older tunes from the Delta tradition”.

Given how much has been written already about the history of the blues, it’s a brave writer who ventures once more into this terrain. But, to his credit, Gioia has produced a panoramic epic on one of the greatest bodies of music in American history. At the same time, he’s updated earlier accounts, constantly questioning the veracity of what’s been handed down, particularly in the case of Robert Johnson, where the myths far outweigh the facts.

Anyone who has read widely on blues history will know the bare bones of many of these stories, beginning with the legend of WC Handy first hearing the blues at a railway station in Tutwiler in the first years of the 20th century. From these apocryphal beginnings, Gioia recounts the rich story of the Delta blues tradition, beginning with Charley Patton, and extending on through Son House, Bukka White, Tommy Johnson, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt. He recounts the story of Alan Lomax, whose field recordings in the region for the Library of Congress turned up a young sharecropper named McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) at Stovall’s plantation in 1941; the white entrepreneurs like HC Speir, who acted as talent scouts for the big labels; the early blues historians, like Samuel Charters, Robert Palmer, and Stephan Calt. He looks at the devastating effects the Great Depression wrought on this music, as record sales plummeted and careers ended overnight, some pretty much before they’d begun; how the introduction of mechanized cotton-pickers led to a mass migration north. Gioia follows the music where it leads, with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and BB King spreading the Delta blues to Chicago, Memphis.

Aside from the familiar names, Gioia also touches upon many lesser known names, some known to us only from one or two songs, their stories otherwise lost. He broaches the role of the early record collectors, their motivations and place in history, the late 1950s and early 1960s journeys of John Fahey and others in search of surviving bluesman. Their stories of tracking down Skip James, Son House and others are the stuff of legend; but of course it was too little too late, with most ‘rediscovered’ bluesman living only a handful more years, already worn out by a life of hardship and neglect. Though in the case of Skip James, recreating this lost music as though no time had passed at all. Their re-emergence would help fuel the blues revival of the early sixties, inspiring a new generation of young white musicians, such as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.

Gioia’s wide-ranging story of the Delta blues is an important contribution to the history of American music. It is not possible, in such a brief review, to do full justice to the broad scope of his research and storytelling. In the end, the history of the Delta blues is one of competing and overlapping stories, peopled with larger than life characters; it’s a story full of economic hardship, of good and bad fortune, a fragmented saga made up out of the songs and music and memories that have been handed down to us. Gioia’s Delta Blues lovingly re-assembles the shards that make up this story, giving us, in the words of his book’s sub-title, “The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music”. It is only fitting that these stories be told and retold, and this music be played and listened to, down through the ages, as long as humanity survives.

Rick Rubin: In the Studio
by Jake Brown
pb $29.95

For many of us, Rick Rubin is best known as the mastermind behind the astounding series of albums recorded by Johnny Cash in the final years of his life. If Rubin had done nothing other than help bring this extraordinary body of work – generally known as the American Recordings – into existence, we’d be forever in his debt. But as Jake Brown’s book makes patently clear, Rubin’s finely tuned ear has never been content resting on its laurels.

What stunned most pundits at the time was that Rubin, a bearded and long-haired white boy, had previously been co-founder of Def Jam records back in the early eighties, a radical label best known for its pioneering recordings of hip hop. In fact, Rubin was barely out of school when he began issuing recordings by LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy. In a further stroke of genius, he paired Run DMC with his childhood heroes Aerosmith – the killer single ‘Walk this Way’, which married rap with metal, launched hip hop into the mainstream.

A tendency to musical restlessness soon saw Rubin fall back on his early love of metal, producing albums by Cult, Slayer and others. His genius was further enhanced when he managed to capture and bottle the funk of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers on Blood Sugar Sex Magik and 1999s Californication. In more recent years, Rubin has cast his net widely, working with everyone from Tom Petty, the Dixie Chicks, Neil Diamond, Rage Against the Machine, U2, Weezer, Metallica, and System of a Down. In the interim, he’s bagged himself seven Grammy’s, including two Producer of the Year awards.

Jake Brown’s book takes us chronologically through Rubin’s recordings. He makes it clear there is no ‘Rubin’ sound, in the way we might talk about Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’. In fact, Rubin openly admits he’s relatively useless around the mixing desk; his genius lies in working closely with artists to help them produce the best possible record they are capable of. Sometimes, this might simply entail talking to them for days, telling them what sounds good and what doesn’t, suggesting songs, building up their confidence. After all, who else might have paired Johnny Cash with a Nine Inch Nails’ song?

It’s telling that Rick Rubin’s first record carried the statement ‘Reduced by Rick Rubin’, as if his mission consisted of trying to reduce an artist to their purest essence, stripping away everything non-essential. This is certainly what he engineered in the case of the Cash recordings.

Author Jake Brown quotes extensively from bands and artists that Rubin has produced – though mostly from magazines rather than direct interviews – and they have much of interest to say about his working methods. But perhaps where he lets us down is in not managing to get us inside Rubin’s headspace, at no time do we glimpse the cogs whirring away as he tosses off another masterpiece. In the end, Rick Rubin the man remains something of a mystery, a genius most at home inside the confines of a studio, but an enigma nonetheless.

——reviewed by Des Cowley


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