As the world celebrates the 100th birthday of Mississippi Delta blues legend Robert Johnson this spring, a new book about the blues genre and the land where it was born is set for release.
Hidden History of Mississippi Blues, published by The History Press (available April 2011), begins and ends in the land of cotton and juke joints — the land that introduced the world to Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and so many others lesser known but just as inspiring.
“Hidden History of Mississippi Blues is an overview of the music’s earliest days, height of popularity and current state of things,” explained author Roger Stolle, adding, “One ‘hidden’ aspect of Mississippi blues is that in addition to the past history, there is much that’s still present. Mississippi blues survives just under the radar in the juke joints and house parties of the Delta. It occasionally sticks its head out and gets on TV or goes on tour, but even then, it is such an archaic art form that many of the uninitiated aren’t really sure what to do with it once they’ve experienced it. You need to either find it where it still lives naturally or have a tour guide to help you make a virtual journey. This book attempts to do a bit of both.”
If anyone would know about blues in Mississippi, it would likely be Stolle. For most of the past decade, he has called Clarksdale, Mississippi — the heart of the blues Delta — his home. Owner of the Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store there, Stolle also books Mississippi blues acts for major clubs and festivals in the region, contributes to radio shows like XM/Sirius’ Bluesville, writes for magazines like Blues Revue , and produces indie blues films and albums.
The book came about after months of conversation and a bit of a search, according to Will McKay, the commissioning editor for the project.
“At The History Press, we had been talking about publishing a volume on Mississippi blues for some time,” said McKay. “With a book of this scope and magnitude, we really felt like it required an author with just the right voice and background to make it work. We wanted to try to cover a massively important and influential genre in just one book, and we wanted it to be immediately accessible to a mainstream audience. So, we were thrilled when Roger agreed to come on board.”
Telling the Mississippi blues story through important historical happenings, fascinating (sometimes humorous) interviews, and personal anecdotes, Stolle weaves together an addictive story that could only come from a land as rich in history and mystery as the cotton-fueled Delta.
“There’s a reason why rock musicians from the Rolling Stones to Jack White love the blues and continue to go back to the well for inspiration time and time again,” said Stolle. “It is the foundation, the dictionary. It is the root of all modern, popular music. A lot of younger rock, rap, R&B and soul musicians these days don’t even realize that their sounds and stage shows have been informed by the blues.”
Hidden History of Mississippi Blues begins with Stolle’s own personal journey from Midwestern white suburbia and big-city corporate America to a fascinating foreign land so close to home — the Mississippi Delta. Then, through both ancient and recent history, it tells the compelling story of the blues — sometimes in Stolle’s own voice, other times in the words of the men who were there and lived to tell about it.
To enhance this story, McKay and Stolle also invited another contributor into the loop — photographer and blues fan, Lou Bopp of St. Louis.
“When Will asked if I knew any good blues photographers, I told him I knew several,” recalled Stolle. “But the more we talked about the project, we decided that we wanted to feature photos of Mississippi’s living blues, not just archival shots. I met Lou in a juke joint when he was documenting just that — living blues — so he seemed like a natural. His photos capture both the musicians and the environment in which they thrive.”
Over forty photographs — some black and white, some color — help to put a face on Hidden History of Mississippi Blues. From the withered stare of an 83-year-old blues veteran to the playful expressions of a 27-year-old juke joint prodigy, Bopp’s photos add texture and life to an already engaging story.
Blues music producer Jeff Konkel of St. Louis-based Broke & Hungry Records contributed a Forward to the book as well — providing yet another experienced voice to the project.
Placed together, the words and photos of Hidden History of Mississippi Blues bring a music, history and people to the printed page in a purposely intimate way — leaving readers rooting for the bluesmen and pondering the future of the music.
Hidden History of Mississippi Blues will be available at book stores nationwide beginning in April. The book will also be available via The History Press web site at www.historypress.net, where it will be available for pre-order very soon.
Roger Stolle and Lou Bopp will hold their first book signing event at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art (www.cathead.biz) in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on April 15th at 3pm — also the weekend of the Juke Joint Festival (www.jukejointfestival.com).