It is difficult to imagine another subject in which a writer is quite so wide open to blame as when he writes about the blues. There are so many people he must try to satisfy that he may simply leave them all unhappy.
If he is white (as he probably will be, for only a couple of black writers -- LeRoi Jones and Albert Murray -- have ever had much to say about the blues), he may have to justify himself to black intellectuals for having had the nerve to write about black music in the first place.
If he is an ethnomusicologist (there are such; I didn't make the word up), then he may get a bit hung up on the anthropology of it all, emphasizing links with African culture to the neglect of all else.
If he is a social historian, he may try to treat the blues as social document and forget to the profound irritation of blues fans, that it is music, first and foremost.
Finally, if he sets out to please the fans, he is sure to disappoint some, for he cannot possibly say enough to satisfy them about all the important bluesmen of this century.
To a greater or lesser extent, Robert Palmer is guilty of all these sins, if sins they are. That is to say, he is white and an enthnomusicologist who sometimes seems determined to read the blues as a text rather than listen to it as music. And because he concentrates almost exclusively on the blues of the Mississippi Delta, he is certain to disappoint fans of Texas, Tennessee and Louisiana blues.
Yet all that Palmer does in "Deep Blues" he does very well. Even when he overdoes things a little, as when he attempts to tie the blues directly to Africa (to the Yoruba and the Senegambia), he sounds so authoritative that he is darned near convincing. Then why hold back? Well, he makes such generalizations and glib associations -- as, for instance, when discussing Muddy Waters' style: "As in the singing of the Akan of Ghana, the flatter the pitch, the more intense the feeling." Well, I daresay the same could be said of country singer George Jones. Besides, have you ever listened to field recordings from any part of Africa? Does that music sound like the blues? No? I rest my case.
But when Palmer is right, which is at least 90 percent of the time, he is uniquely right. For instance, when he recounts the life of Charley Patton, the first bluesman of more than local reputation, he does more than just present the facts (although I believe he has assembled more of these than any other writer on the blues so far).
Palmer also does some scene-setting with an understated and beautifully realized interview of Joe Rice Dockery, the present owner of Dockery Farms, the plantation on which Patton was born and grew up, the place where he lived most of his life. Dockery gives information, all right, but it is also possible to draw from what he says an impressionistic portrait of the entire plantation system -- distorted certainly, seen from the top down, but a fascinating picture nonetheless.
His decision to limit his story to the Mississippi Delta region probably also came from his familiarity with the music of that region. Perhaps it's just as well he did it this way, though, for he tells the story so well; I don't think anybody has handled the Arkansas side of it better. He is to be commended for seeking Robert Lockwood Jr. and getting him to talk (others have tried without nearly as much success). And the patchwork he provides of Rice Miller restores this master of the blues harp to his rightful place in the postwar blues hierarchy.
Palmer does take us up to Chicago; that, by and large, is where the Delta blues has gone, brought north by musicians such as Muddy Waters (whose personal and professional saga provides the framework on which the book has been arranged). But this journey northward has in no way spelled a deterioration of the music. As Palmer sums up:
"Has deep blues been declining, falling ever so slowly from the grace of its early years? I don't think so; I think it's been in a constant state of flux. . . . Blues has lost a lot; it's lost the sense of in-group solidarity that once tied it so closely to its core audience, its crucial context of blackness. But it's gained a new, wider context, and that isn't necessarily bad."