As much as I enjoy listening to the blues music that I love, I also enjoy reading about it. There’s a rich history of music and musicians available if you’re so inclined. For me, at least, knowing something about the life and times of the musicians make the listening all the more enjoyable.
To that end, I’d like to recommend a book I’m reading, “Looking to Get Lost – Adventures in Music & Writing,” by Peter Guralnick.
Guralnick is one of the great music writers, with biographies of Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips to his credit. Check his web site for a list of his books still in print. I read his two-volume set on Presley, and it’s magnificent in its scope and detail.
In his new book, Guralnick revisits the artist profiles he has written over the years, rewriting some, but insisting in the introduction that “this is a book about creativity.”
“All of these people,” he writes, “are to be celebrated for their wit and wisdom, their humanity, and, yes, their genius. And I would like to present them all to you, without ascribing any more to it than I do in the pages of my books, in some cases as friends, in all cases as people I admire, people from whom I have learned, people whose work has deeply moved and influenced me.”
He tackles musicians from Robert Johnson to Johnny Cash to Chuck Berry to Howlin’ Wolf to Ray Charles and beyond. His interviews go far beyond typical one-shot sitdowns. In many cases, Guralnick has spent years getting to know his subjects. We benefit from this thorough, lifelong approach to his work.
And what he does best is bring his subjects to life, make them human, and show us the person behind the music. And that, of course, makes their music even more compelling.
Guralnick doesn’t limit himself to blues and blues musicians, but that was the music that spoke to him:
“When I was around fifteen, too, I fell in love with the blues: Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie McTell. I lived it, breathed it, absorbed it by osmosis, fantasized it—don’t ask me why.”
The writing is full of stories that are lovingly crafted, interestingly told, and placed in a framework that reflects a great deal of thought about how people think, feel, and make music. The profiles are not music criticism, or reviews of particular recordings or performances.
They are instead insightful portraits, inspired by the artist’s personal life and visions, and skillfully drawn by Guralnick.
They’re also a lot of fun to read. This is a great book for music fans, especially blues fans.
Here’s an interview Guralnick, after he wrote “Sam Phillips – The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll,” in 2016.