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A READING LIFE | JAMES SALLAS

The beat of the blues, and country, between pages

In my other life, I'm a musician, playing Dobro and steel guitar, banjo and mandolin, with various country, bluegrass, and old-time groups. For a time in the '70s, as acoustic music gained huge popularity, the two lives coincided, and I wrote regularly for magazines like Frets, Pickin', Steel Guitarist, and Mugwumps. I went on to write a book, ''The Guitar Players," about the ways in which the development of specifically American musics paralleled that of the guitar as a solo instrument, and to edit two others. But soon enough the market for such books blew away, as had, with changing tastes, the magazines. Music held its place and importance in my life, but I went on to write about other things. I do try to keep up, however. So this month and next I'll be talking about books on traditional music.

Favorites first, the ones I circle back to again and again.

I'm from Helena, Ark., stomping ground of Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Johnson. My first music, the first music I made my own, was blues. The single indispensable book here is the late Robert Palmer's ''Deep Blues" (Penguin, paperback, $15). Beginning with a wonderful section on the origins of the music in African culture, especially Senegambian society and the Wolof peoples, ''Deep Blues" goes on to survey in captivating fashion the manner in which rural Southern and Delta blues made the trip up the river to Chicago and from there into mainstream American music. (For more about Helena, see Chapters 5 and 6.) Palmer writes fascinatingly of the influence of African techniques such as call and response, hocketing, whooping, voice masking, polyrhythm, and polyphony on the blues; of the plantation orchestras who upon Emancipation disbanded, their members taking to the roads as itinerant ''musicianers"; of onetime military wind instruments to be had cheaply in pawn shops following the Civil War; of Charlie Patton, the two Sonny Boy Williamsons, Muddy Waters, and a host of others.

Dealing chiefly with Delta blues, Palmer's book leaves a great deal about the music unsaid. So for much of the rest you can turn to an older book, one of many by Paul Oliver, ''The Story of the Blues" (Northeastern University, paperback, $18.95). Individual chapters treat the mixing of cultures in the wake of the Civil War; regional blues in the Eastern states and in Texas, Alabama, and Georgia, all of them quite distinct; string, washboard, and jug bands; tent shows and the ''classic blues" singers; boogie-woogie and barrelhouse piano. Along with its remarkably comprehensive discussion of the music in all its variety, the book is also a treasure house of photos: Lightnin' Hopkins playing at the Sputnik Bar in Houston; Sonny Boy Williamson looming satanically onstage at a '60s folk festival; Tampa Red in bowtie and knowing smile; Ma Rainey backed by a jiving hot-jazz quintet; Jesse Fuller with his 12-string guitar, harmonica, and homemade, foot-operated bass (the ''fotdella").

On quite a different note, so to speak -- and from what many might consider a different world -- there's country music. The landmark here is Bill C. Malone's ''Country Music, U.S.A." (University of Texas, paperback, $34.95), the 2002 edition of which was extensively revised, with new material added to bring the book up to date. Originally published in 1968, this is the platform from which all others take off, tracking country music from its folk origins through early commercial ''hillbilly" music to Jimmie Rodgers and the cowboy stars, into the commercial expansion of the war years and the huge boom in the late '40s to mid-'50s to ''the Nashville sound" and the resurgence of bluegrass.

''I hope that this book has contributed to both an acceptance and an understanding of country music," Malone writes in a new introduction. ''My affection for the music has never been hidden, and, for good or ill, that emotional attachment has colored scholarship." Malone's love of the music manifests itself in every sentence he writes; his scholarship is just as palpable. It's a large book, 646 pages, sometimes dense with information but always eminently readable and informative.

Beginning from the premise that country music originated in the Southern working-class culture, like many of us Malone laments the recent loss of that connection as country music has flattened into just another pop sound. I, for one, would suggest that the tremendous popularity of bluegrass in recent years derives from listeners seeking just that connection.

Finally, for a walk on the wilder side, there's ''Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll," by Nick Tosches (Da Capo, paperback, $16.50). Tosches's first book, it is an odd beast indeed, bearing chapters with titles such as ''Orpheus, Gypsies, and Redneck Rock 'n' Roll," ''You're Going to Watch Me Kill Her," and ''Yeah, But They Break If You Sit on Them," and brilliant, off-kilter passages like this description of Western-swing pioneer Bob Dunn:

''Bob Dunn was the lord of the steel guitar. In the 1930s, he wrought a music full of electronic wonders. Great yelling dissonances burst from his bastard tool like glass against a stone wall. . . . He mixed loud, lucid notes with fast, jagged triplets and grabbed at variously toned shreds of melody that complemented the song with bizarre, lizard-eye concision. These solos lunged drunkenly, or rushed, graceful as a hawk, from here to there to here."

Please join me again next month for a look at some recent books on traditional music -- instruments, styles, and players.

James Sallis's collection of stories, ''A City Equal to My Desire," is just out from PointBlank Press.

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