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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

July 18, 1993|CHRIS GOODRICH

THE LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN by Alan Lomax (Pantheon: $25; 539 pp.). Alan Lomax and his father, John Lomax, began recording Southern black music in the 1930s, decades before folk and blues were "discovered" by white musicians of the rock 'n' roll era. The Lomaxes didn't get to Tunica County, Miss., in time to interview the now-legendary bluesman Robert Johnson--he was dead at 21, apparently poisoned--when Alan Lomax returned to his native South as a Library of Congress researcher in 1942--but on that and subsequent recording campaigns he found gold on every street corner. Lomax recounts meetings with obscure musicians who later became famous--Muddy Waters before he made good in Chicago, for example--but the enthralling sections of "The Land Where the Blues Began" are the author's conversations with prison singers like Bama, musicians like the fife-making Napoleon Strickland, and railway-track rhythm callers like Houston Bacon. Lomax doesn't stick closely to his musical subject, yet the reader hardly cares because it's impossible not to be fascinated by these oral histories of roustabouts, work gangs, evil "Mister Charlies," and levee mule teams. This is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind book, where even blues aficionados are sure to find gems they've never heard before . . . such as the song by a World War II inductee in Mississippi that begins, "Uncle Sam ain't nary woman, but he sho can take your man."

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