A Blues Life

A Blues Life

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Henry Townsend, who first arrived in St. Louis and began playing guitar in the mid- 1920s, was an integral part of the St. Louis blues scene during its formative years. Three-quarters of a century later, Townsend is the last remaining link to the early blues world of St. Louis. This enchanting oral history recounts Townsend's early days as a shoeshiner fronting for a bootlegging operation, his passion for the guitar ('the sound of that guitar just went through me, just penetrated me like a bullet'), and his collaborations and friendships with many of the musicians and entrepreneurs who shaped the blues scene in St. Louis. Through Townsend's easy reminiscences, the guitarist Lonnie Johnson, the pianists Walter Davis and Roosevelt Sykes, and the promoter Jessie Johnson come vividly to life, along with scores of other individuals both remembered and forgotten who left their mark on a key musical genre.Touching on important social aspects of St. Louis life, from racism and police harassment to honky-tonk speakeasies, "A Blues Life" offers a personal and often moving commentary on music and culture in the city. Townsend recounts that in the 1920s, St. Louis' Booker T. Washington Theater brought in famous acts like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Peg Leg Bates, but very few local blues artists ever appeared there. While middle-class blacks regarded jazz as on the border of respectability, the blues were far over the line, and especially the raw, 'gut bucket style blues' that he says set St. Louis blues apart from the styles developing in Chicago, Kansas City, and Mississippi. A living legend, Townsend is still active as a performer and a recording artist. His story is a priceless first-hand account of a world long gone, even as his music-making continues to influence a new generation of St. Louis blues artists.show more

Product details

  • Hardback | 192 pages
  • 150 x 236 x 20mm | 439.98g
  • University of Illinois Press
  • Baltimore, United States
  • English
  • 0252025261
  • 9780252025266

Review quote

"'Your life is the life you live. What you live is how it should be written.' So says Townsend on the last page of his as-told-to-autobiography describing almost 90 years of a bluesman's life... Credit Greensmith for preserving the wonderful conversational tone of Townsend's narrative, for providing chapter notes that add details, and for a discography that goes to 1997." - Choice "A fascinating look at the venerable singer/guitarist/pianist's life and times. Townsend's meetings with Robert Johnson and gigs with Big Joe Williams and other lesser-known musicians are expressively recounted in his own words in this thin but nonetheless valuable volume. And, as always, the story of regional blues in the last century also opens a window on American history, society, and culture in general. If this isn't one of Oprah's book club picks ... it definitely receives Sweet Home's highest recommendation." - Kevin Toelle, Sweet Home "Takes the reader on an intimate tour of the world of 'gut bucket style blues' that distinguished the St. Louis style from the Chicago or Mississippi blues emerging during the same time period... His recollections are detailed, unvarnished, and often surprising." - Missouri Life "The recollection of life in St. Louis and its attendant blues scene ... is the book's selling point, and Townsend gets his points across with his own lyrical, vernacular voice... [Greensmith provides] a corrective for all those who have written about blues singers, but never bothered to talk to one." -- Stuart L. Goosman, Ethnomusicologyshow more

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6 ratings
4 out of 5 stars
5 17% (1)
4 67% (4)
3 17% (1)
2 0% (0)
1 0% (0)
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