Down to the Crossroads 

New volumes plumb the depth and desire of the devil's music

New volumes plumb the depth and desire of the devil's music

The blues' primal subjects—love, betrayal and that final dead end that awaits us all—have always looped around place names and travel, usually by thumb or railroad car, as five new books attest. Highway 61: Heart of the Delta, edited by Randall Norris and illustrated with photographs by Jean-Phillipe Cyprès, is a collection of essays with a foreword by Morgan Freeman, who explains why he returned to his native Mississippi. In Journeyman's Road: Modern Blues Lives From Faulkner's Mississippi to Post-9/11 New York, musician Adam Gussow chronicles the current state of the blues as he and his partner, Mister Satan—along with other present-day figures—move far beyond that fabled highway. In fact, Gussow's book roams all the way to Africa, and the sections that venture from Texas to Harlem and Greenwich Village are particularly fine.

Gussow appears on a panel with Ted Gioia, jazz pianist and author of Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music, an erudite but accessible study that veers with ease and enthusiasm not only among the various rural towns of the Delta, but also between Pythagoras and Skip James. Another volume here, Tom Graves' Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Robert Johnson, adds some facts to the life story of the mythic musician—commemorated, appropriately in this context, with three different headstones in three separate Mississippi locales. Crossroads, the third "debunking" Johnson bio to appear in as many years, is surely the only book on the bluesman to include an entire chapter on Walter Hill's movie of the same name.

Among these blues studies, one book journeys beyond the genre itself into Americana music. It Still Moves, Amanda Petrusich's beautifully written "audio-travelogue," as critic Simon Reynolds calls it, begins in Brooklyn, but the section titled "Trail of the Hellhounds: Clarksdale's Deep Mississippi Blues" is its most compelling. Fittingly, Petrusich's first quotation comes from Nashville's Jeff Green, the former executive director of the Americana Music Association, about the diversity of the current scene, thanks, in part, to the computer age: "Pro Tools and convenient, portable studios mean that it's a ball game where almost anybody can play." Or a highway on which anyone might fare. Say amen, somebody.

Cyprès and Norris appear at 2 p.m. Sunday in Room 31; Gussow and Gioia appear at 1 p.m. Friday in Room 12; Graves appears at noon Sunday in Room 12; Petrusich appears Saturday at 10 a.m. in Room 31.


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