Early Blues, The First Stars of Blues Guitar
by Jas Obrecht
University of Minnesota Press
$22.95 cloth/jacket ISBN 978-0-8166-9804-2
224 pages, 70 b&w photos, November 2015
Featured above, Russell Lee’s 1941 photograph of Lonnie Johnson’s trio playing in a nightclub. Lonnie is at left.
Jas Obrecht is an award-winning journalist who has written widely for blues publications and he has also served as editor of Guitar Player magazine. In addition, he has published two previous books on blues guitar: Rollin’ and Tumblin’: The Postwar Blues Guitarists and Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music. The dust jacket for his current release, Early Blues, shows the author in the throes of his own guitar solo, so he clearly loves his work. That passion emanates from every page of this beautifully written and wonderfully illustrated book.
It’s not merely a book for guitarists, though any serious guitarist would benefit greatly from Obrecht’s depth of knowledge and the superb detail he provides regarding guitar models, tunings, chord progressions and the like for each of his chosen subjects. His erudition on such matters illuminates and entertains in a way that few books of this sort do. He brings to vivid life the often dramatic lives and songs of nine major blues guitarists, most of whom will be familiar to some degree to blues fans. He has a few wonderful surprises in store, though, with his choices of Sylvester Weaver (the first blues guitarist on record) and Papa Charlie Jackson (a flat-picking pioneer).
In addition, Obrecht features the famous blind guitarists: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell and Blind Willie Johnson. Rounding out the collection are features on Lonnie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt and Tampa Red.
Obrecht’s considerable interviewing experience with major blues artists over the years figures prominently in Early Blues, as he quotes directly from such luminaries as Ry Cooder, John Hammond, John Lee Hooker, Jorma Kaukonen, B.B. King, Pops Staples, Johnny Winter and many others. Their appreciation, fandom and acknowledgment of their influences further enhance the importance of Early Blues as a testament to these worthy blues pioneers.
The book is liberally sprinkled with reproductions of 78 rpm records, record company trade advertisements, album covers and promotional and concert photos of the artists, many of them from the author’s own extensive collection.
The author notes that the book was three years in the making, and the loving care that went into its writing and layout is evident. This is a book that will have you seeking out as many of the recordings he mentions as you can. There can be no higher praise from these quarters than to say Obrecht’s scintillating prose is about to stretch our record-buying budget considerably.