The Blues Route: From The Delta To California, A Writer Searches For America's Purest Music

Hugh Merrill, New York: Wm. Morrow & Co., 1990
$17.95, 236 pages

By Lee Bash

You may have met a Hugh Merrill or two in your life. He isn't a blues musician, but the music is in his blood, alive and important. He is an unabashed fan (as taken from the word "fanatic") who loves the music and believes life wouldn't be the same without it. For him, the blues experience goes well beyond that of a casual encounter beyond performer and listener. Instead, he has integrated the music into the fibre of his existence. Fortunately, Merrill is a writer of some skill - capable of making his story come alive and keeping our undivided attention as he spins his fascinating tale. The way he tells it, he was sitting in a bar in Atlanta where a notable blues group was supposed to play, and he was disappointed when the audience didn't respond with the rapt attention he expected. (Apparently he never considered the possibility that the deficiency may have just been a result of geography and culture - maybe the music was just too sophisticated or beyond cultural capacity for those poor, unenlightened, fashionably "hip" residents of Georgia's "big city.") But I digress ... Merrill decides to travel around and take stock of the blues situation - sort of a "blues checkup." If we ever have reason to envy writers, it's probably as a result of those opportunities when they concoct these great ideas for themselves to do exactly what they want to do, but, at the same time, be able to write a book about it.

In fact, this book brings to mind a similar work, The Roots of the Blues: An African SearchBy Samuel Charters. If you've ever encountered this book, you're likely to feel that Merrill isn't even being very original with either his idea or his title (though the play on words in the title is fun). He does mention Charters' book early in his work and makes it clear that his mission moves towards a different direction. We quickly discover that what's really at the heart of this warm, informative book is entirely different than the "Roots" book. In Charters' work, there is a strong sociocultural orientation that is based on the premise that there are African models for what would eventually become the blues. He approaches the topic by using a device much like a research hypothesis and while his work is very informative, essentially, it is a book about Africa and her people. It maintains a travelogue-like feel throughout that sometimes even seems to forget about its main topic - the blues. On the other hand, Merrill's work deals with the very essence of the blues and remains focused on its objective from first to last page - so that it becomes a quest of an entirely different sort.

There is an oral-history quality provided in this work which seems perfectly natural since the blues are steeped in that same tradition. In addition, while Merrill obviously has a good ear and eye for the dialogue and environs he encounters along the way, he enables the reader to grasp the genre as a holistic experience. At the same time, with a constant barrage of asides and pieces of useful information, his work never becomes too esoteric or inaccessible. In fact, these anecdotes really help to flesh out the topic. The result of his approach is that we ultimately realize that we have learned a great deal about the subject without feeling like there was ever any overt "teaching" going on. We gain a better grasp of the blues phenomenon and discover a powerful portrait of its practitioners and disciples at the same time.

If you love the blues or want to learn more about them, you may want to take this "route," which makes for some pleasant reading. The title suggests where his travels take Merrill, but there is a time-travel aspect as well. I suppose it's impossible to write about a music that has existed since before the turn of the century without examining the historic elements, but Merrill's ability to make even this most remote music come alive provides us with a particularly enjoyable reading experience. That is not to say, however, that Merrill's work sugar-coats the hardship of the performers, the decline of popularity of the blues, nor the almost certain near-anonymity that comes with the decision to perform this music. What this book does provide is a clear, intelligently framed picture of a music, lovingly described with skill and told in a manner that makes the experience of reading it worthwhile and satisfying.

(Dr. Lee Bash is Chair, Department of Music, Bellarmine College.)