Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Portraits in Blue: William Stout’s Legends of the Blues

Posted By on Wed, Jun 19, 2013 at 11:53 AM

In 1980, famed underground cartoonist Robert Crumb created a set of trading cards titled Legends of the Blues. The set featured portraits and biographies of 36 classic country blues artists and African-American jug bands of the 1920s and '30s. Crumb eventually followed up with the card sets Early Jazz Greats and Pioneers of Country Music, and all three were collected into book form in 2006. While Crumb’s book has become a classic of musical biography and portraiture, it was also a reflection of his personal tastes as he concentrated on many obscure artists from his favorite era of American music.

Now, artist William Stout — himself a veteran of the classic underground comix scene of the 1960s and '70s — has delivered a sequel of sorts to Crumb’s book with Legends of the Blues. Based on the same general format (and with Crumb’s approval) Stout drew 100 pen-and-ink and watercolor portraits of classic blues artists that capture their lively and diverse personalities. Along with the portraits, Stout authored short biographies, listings of recommended songs, and lists of interesting rock-era cover versions for each featured artist.

As with Crumb’s book, the artists that Stout chose to delineate reflect his personal tastes, but Stout’s view of the blues is much more inclusive and more reflective of its wide and varied history from the 1920s through the 1960s. Stout recognizes that blues was seen more as a style than a distinct genre until white fans discovered the music and tried to set it apart from the mainstream of both rhythm & blues and rock ’n’ roll. This means that he casts a much wider net than the country blues troubadours of the Depression and their electrified Chicago Blues inheritors that many hardcore blues fans often obsess over at the expense of other important artists. He includes many early blues queens like Bessie Smith and Victoria Spivey, jazz chanteuses like Billie Holiday and Helen Humes, jump blues shouters like Louis Jordan, Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris, rock ’n’ roll pioneers like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Johnny Otis, and even oddball and hard-to-pigeonhole figures like Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon.

Also included in the book is a 14-track CD that wisely avoids the more common songs by well-known artists, instead shining a spotlight on obscure gems. For any longtime fan of the blues, or the greenest blues neophyte, Stout’s beautiful love letter to a great American musical style is a must-have.

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