Delta dawning

The blues has undergone so many transformations in the past century that identifying the start of the form has become as difficult as categorizing the music itself. Alan Lomax's "The Land Where the Blues Began" (The New Press) offers a rare and ambitious look into the cultural and musical heritage that gave rise to the blues long before it was discovered by white British electric guitar players in the 1960s. Originally published in 1992 and recently reissued, Lomax's book demystifies the origins of the blues by tracing its genesis through the steamboat docks, prison farms, railroad teams and levee camps of the black South in the early 1900s.

Through the book we get a feel for how quickly the South was changing by mid-century, and we gain greater appreciation for the historical recordings that the Lomaxes made for the Library of Congress. Lomax tells of setting out to record some old Delta spirituals that he had heard years before only to find that in many places they had long been replaced by standardized hymns from the European tradition. It took some effort to locate congregation elders who remembered how to sing in the original style. That many of these pieces were recorded at all is testament to the perseverance and commitment of Lomax and his team.

Lomax died in 2002, and it is easy to lapse into superlatives about his career as the pre-eminent ethnomusicologist of the 20th century. But the true centerpiece of this book is not Lomax; it is the painful accounting of the birth of the blues. "The Land Where the Blues Began" contains detailed first-hand accounts of life in the Delta, related by the black men who built the levees at the end of a whip for little or no pay. Their matter-of-fact tales of shootings and prison rape convey the everyday suffering they endured. Unable to express themselves for fear of persecution, they conveyed their pain through music.

The problem with books on music history is that they're a lot like watching a movie with the sound turned off. With no audio to support its numerous lyrical transcriptions, "The Land Where the Blues Began" can sometimes be as flat as it is well-researched. To remedy this, Rounder Records issued a same-title companion CD with the recent repressing. The disc, a collection of 28 tracks recorded by Lomax and his companions between 1933 and 1959, contains a healthy portion of songs cited in the book. The liner notes for each track reprint the passage from the book that pertains to it, the song lyrics and background on the recording itself.

The vintage Delta spiritual "Rock, Daniel" is included, along with the newer version of the gospel tradition. Especially interesting is "Mississippi Sounding Calls," which were depth measurements shouted by steamboat laborers to their boat captains. Nicely packaged and digitally remastered from the original field recordings, the CD -- sold separately from the book -- helps to fully realize some of the haunting rhythms of America's not-so-distant post-slavery past.