ENCYCLOPEDIA of the BLUES. 2 volumes. Edited by Edward Komara. (New York: Routledge, 2006. Pp lxii (x2 [sic]) + 1208, introduction, photographs, musical notation, bibliographies, discographies, indices. US$295.00 (cloth)
This is a set of books that I have been awaiting impatiently for a couple of years; a broad-brush publication of this nature on blues is certainly needed and would be a useful reference. Unfortunately, this one is not “it”. In trying to be all things to all people, the set ends up being less than the sum of its wobbly parts for many reasons. Paramount among them are avoidable factual inaccuracies. The editor seems not to have focussed on a specific audience and to have “shotgunned” material against the wall to see what sticks! While some errors are inevitable, too many stand out on my first runs through of the books. Since the text is not more specific in its apparent aim (folklorists and other academics?; popular culture mavens?, music industry honchos?, blues anoraks?), it hits no targets solidly and will not be truly satisfactory to any one interest group.
I have indicated in the headings above that the Roman-enumerated section is present twice – once at the beginning of each volume – those repeated fifty-seven pages could have been put to better use. The table of contents is also inaccurate for each volume as it reads “Entries A-Z 1” in both, rather than “Entries A-J 1” in Volume One and “Entries K-Z 557” in Volume Two. Said Table of Contents runs as follows: ”List of Entries A-Z; Thematic List of Entries; List of Contributors; Introduction; Frequently Cited Sources; Entries A-Z; Index”. The first listing seems redundant, since it merely alphabetically lists all the books’ entries with no paginations. Additionally, most of these “contents” entries do not need to be duplicated at the beginning of each volume.
And then there are the factual errors in the main text, especially in the briefer entries. I have picked a sampling of such entries from the main text of artists, etc. that I know something about to demonstrate this:
ACEY, JOHNNY – b.1925 Pianist and vocalist active in the 1950s and 1960s; also performed and recorded with Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams. His best known solo songs are “You Walked Out” and “Stay Away Love”. Recorded for the DJL, Flyright, and Falew! labels. Ryan Olsen/Edward Komara
Discography: Lord, LSF. See also Interstate/Flyright/Krazy Kat/Magpie/Heritage/Texas Blues; Williams, Paul “Hucklebuck” (p.6)
John A. Gowdelock (Johnny Acey) was born near Gaffney, SC – he also played harmonica, guitar, and bass guitar and may still be living in The Bronx. He did not record with Paul Williams… that was jazz pianist Johnny Acea from Philadelphia! His best known side (to White folks) was probably “I Go Into Orbit” done for the Fling label in 1962: He also recorded for All Platinum Records in NJ in the 70s… enough for a single and an LP to have been issued. Further, the listed Flyright Records has been mainly a reissue label (and contrary to the “see also” with this piece, there is no entry on it or any of the above listed labels; the Heritage Records in the book is a different one altogether). Acey did record for Arrow and Fire before Fling, and was also recorded on Fire as Johnny Clef! By the 80s he was a member of a gospel quartet (see Ray Allen’s book) in the NYC region. His older brother was SC harmonica-player Sharron Gowdelock. None of this information is totally obscure and there has sadly been a real let-down in the fact-checking department here.
Here’s another one:
JAMIE, ALSTON – b. James Lenny Alston, 18 October 1907; Orange County, NC. Drummer and percussionist in North Carolina blues and dance music. Recorded tracks in 1973 on Flyright’s Orange County Special LP. (p. 22) Rochelle Montagne/Edward Komara
Actually, Jamie was born in Chatham County and moved with his family to Orange County later. He was a guitarist who played with both Black and White string bands back in the day – including Black banjoist John Snipes. (see books by Cece Conway, and Bruce Bastin.) Same problems as above, including the non-existent “see also” reference.
Mistake in the heading… Spark Records was an independent label started by Leiber and Stoller in CA (see p. 592). Omitted from the skein of Atlantic labels in this listing are Cat, East-West, Plaza, Cotillion, Quality, a.o. I worked at Atlantic at one time.
- 20 March 1909; Washington, GA
- 22 March 2002; Greenville, SC
Singer, guitarist, with rack harmonica. In 1941 he recorded for OKeh, including a rare rendition outside the Robert Johnson circle of musicians of “Terraplane Blues”. Except for the 1960s, he remained an active musician based in the Atlanta, GA area.
Edward Komara (p.299)
Not bad… Frank also recorded in 1949 for Regal and an LP for TRIX in the early 70s and a CD for Music Maker literally before he died. More importantly, song titles are not copyrightable and Frank’s “Terraplane Blues” has absolutely NOTHING to do with the sainted Robert Johnson’s song! Nothing. The Hudson Terraplane was a current model back in the day (late 30s)… that’s all there is to that: He did know and run with Tommy McClennan, and Robert Petway, though!
- 22 June 1928; Stuart, VA
- 31 January 1995; Blacksburg, VA
Acoustic guitarist versatile in blues, folk songs, and the occasional postwar blues. For his living he owned a general store with a gas station on Route 8 near North Carolina.
Edward Komara (p.334)
Turner also played C&W, and bluegrass with White musicians near Stuart. Plus, there is no mention of his brother, Marvin, anywhere. Would one write about The Blues Brothers and only mention Jake? I don’t think so.
One omission (of which there will always be myriad in such a book): I detect a certain US-centrism as well. Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges is left out, even though he has released a half-dozen current albums (but outside of the US). I suspect that the fact that this Texan seldom performs in the States may have something to do with it… Eugene seems to play almost everywhere else! As a mid-forties, Black singer/guitarist/songwriter who grew “organically” into the music (his father, once known professionally as “Hideaway Slim” ran a juke joint in the old days in LA, and Eugene is lead singer with The Bridges Brothers gospel group), he is a rare beast. The future of the music lies with such as he, rather than the hoards of blond, White kiddies who get way more ink! His absence here is unfortunate, at best.
So, enough about the faults; what’s good here? Closer reading shows that there’s lots of useful “stuff” enclosed within the two sets of covers in spite of the inaccuracies of certain entries. It spreads a broader and deeper net than the late Sheldon Harris’ Blues Who’s Who, going beyond just individual musicians, and includes broader headings such as regions/states; musical styles and techniques; instruments; points of cultural interest; historiography; record labels; related art forms; specific “major” songs. These longer entries seem quite good, well written and researched, and are worth knowing about and using. Many appropriate people have been utilized herein and much of their work is fine, so this is a reasonably useful reference, but with the aforementioned caveats.
Like Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in “On the Water Front”, this set could’a been a contenda, up there with the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture for depth and breadth. I wish it had been. The cost of the two volumes here makes it prohibitive for most individuals (too bloody dear, they’d say hereabouts!) – see if your local library will get a set, for it’s not without its uses. In trying to be all things to all people, and probably assembled under time pressures, the Encyclopedia of the Blues just doesn’t cut it. The ideas are there, but the execution has been faulty and so a blanket endorsement is not possible. Harris is probably still the best bet overall, albeit quite outdated and more narrowly focussed; coupled with the newly-minted The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings, the two together would also be notably cheaper. I’d love it if there were to be a second new and improved edition of this set, but I doubt the publisher will go for that when this one sells badly. As Kevin Kline’s character pointedly said in the film “A Fish Called Wanda”: “Disappointed!” A golden opportunity badly missed.
n.b.: To deal with one topic that I intimately know, TRIX Records (my one-time record label) has an entry replete with too many errors for such a short piece – the mis-identification of the Guitar Shorty of North Carolina being the most egregious. I must also make mention of my few small (requested, and credited) contributions here: My biography; the “Piedmont Blues” entry; and the TRIX Records entry… but my version of that, sadly, got lost in the production sauce.
WORKS CITED: (all pp. attributions in the text are from the book reviewed.)
-Allen, Ray. Singing in the Spirit: African-American Sacred Quartets in New York City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
-Bastin, Bruce. Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
-Conway, Cecelia. African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.
-Harris, Sheldon. Blues Who’s Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1979.
-Russell, Tony and Chris Smith (ed.). The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings. London; Penguin Books, 2006.
-Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris (ed). Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill, NC/London: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
PETER B. LOWRY
PUBLISHED (Western Folklore: Vol 68, No 2/3; Winter 2009)