Bill Dahl with Chris James
Release date: 2016
The University of Chicago Press Review by Mark Baier
New to the bookshelves at fine bookstores everywhere is a literary treasure published by The University of Chicago Press entitled The Art of The Blues. It is one of the most sumptuous visual journeys into the genre imaginable, touching on every conceivable use of graphics and imagery associated with the “art” used in promoting blues music. There are hundreds and hundreds of graphic representations from turn of the century sheet music covers, early advertising, label catalogs and associated ephemera, rare 78 label art from the earliest days of recording, music and movie posters, vintage promo and performance photos and much much more. Hardly steeped in the distant past, The Art of The Blues is equally representative of vintage periods, post war and the modern era. From Bessie Smith to Dinah Washington to Koko Taylor, there’s a bonanza of rich visual treats awaiting that is certain to thrill any blues lover. Compiled by renowned journalist Bill Dahl, and aided by blues artist Chris James’ deep collection of ephemera and vintage artwork, TAOTB is both a visual and literary delight. Dahl’s commentary is spot on and to the point, offering valuable historical context and credentials to the stunning visual content.
Perhaps the most intriguing chapter is the one dedicated to prewar advertising. The task of accumulating these scarce ads is a true act of scholarship and represents a valuable window into a world before the civil rights movement and modern decorums. The ads were targeted for a very specific audience and display humor, rhythm, sex and pathos. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Cannon Ball Moan” is a standout as is Tampa Red’s “Tight Like That.” It’s unforgettable stuff created as a transitory advertisement, yet it endures as the art it truly is. And while it is art, it’s not at all racially sensitive by modern standards. Most, if not all, of the art was produced by record companies that were targeting a specific racial community. Many of the early examples are more than a little racist in their depictions of what the record companies apparently believed daily African American life was all about. The bulk of these images were culled from copies of The Chicago Defender and The Baltimore Afro-American newspapers from the ‘20s and ‘30s, and while some of the images may be challenging, they are all fascinating.
The chapters focusing on the post war era are filled with rarely (if ever) seen before promo shots, posters and record slip covers of all the great blues artists that define the genre. Whether it’s Walter Davis, Pee Wee Crayton, Gatemouth Brown or Chuck Berry, authors Dahl and James have discovered a virtual treasure trove of blues iconography. The chapter dedicated to catalogs features record company promo material usually only seen by store owners, listing artists and sides for Victor, Vocalion, Bluebird, Decca, Okeh and many, many others. Now impossibly rare, these catalogs and their content are a visual and historical blessing. Dahl and James deserve serious kudos for archiving and sharing them.
TAOTB is an oversized “coffee table” style book with rich color plates and heavy high quality satin finish paper. One may be tempted to buy multiple copies so the lavish images can be mounted individually for display; they’re that high quality, and there are so many of them! The depth and quality of the images is almost overwhelming, providing the opportunity for discovery whether it’s the initial or hundredth time the book is enjoyed.
TAOTB comes highly recommended and will be a jewel in any blues fans library. It not only enhances the ability to understand and enjoy the music, it acts as lavish historical document that will enrich anyone’s understanding of American history and the blues place in our ever changing society. Buy 3 copies.
Available at Amazon.com.