The Land Where The Blues Began
by Alan Lomax
There aren't that many folklorists who manage to generate an 800 page FBI file but Alan Lomax was never one to keep his mouth shut - even when the prevailing orthodoxy said he should. He spent a career finding and recording music - not to exploit it for his own ends but to preserve it for the future - and documenting the lives of the people that produced it.
The Land Where The Blues Began is Lomax's exploration of the Mississippi Delta and it's role in producing the most influential musical form of modern times(1). It's beauty as a brain feeding book is because it works at so many levels: -
As a general history of the blues - obviously - but also providing portraits of some of the extraordinary characters in and around the blue's scene. If you're writing fiction you can never read too many good descriptions of real people the more you are exposed to the human race in its astonishing variety the truer your fictional characters will be.
On top of that the book is a travelogue of the Mississippi Valley in the 1940s giving insights into the sights, smells, living conditions and social attitudes of the time. It was from this book that I first learnt about Beale Street and the Castle of Missing Men(2). It also gives a look, just for the icing on the cake, into the mindset of a southern born radical minded white man, his honesty as a reporter extending to his own reactions and habits of mind.
And it's quite short too and well written.
(1) It ain't jazz okay although that's probably the second most influential musical form of modern times.
(2) Beale Street is like a microcosm of Black American history in that you keep peeling away layers of indifference, racist historiography and downright suppression to find amazing stories - Robert Church anyone?