Been Here and Gone: A Memoir of the Blues

David Dalton, Author William Morrow & Company $25 (432p) ISBN 978-0-380-97676-8
Former Rolling Stone contributing editor Dalton (Rock 100) has a transcendent view of the blues. As he writes in his novel's afterword: ""The rise of the blues, the music God hummed when he made the world, is to me a miraculous event, a ray of blinding spiritual power cast over the soul-corrupting late 20th century,"" and the author's passion is evident in a long, loving tale relating the life of Coley Williams, a 100-year-old blues musician. Coley is old enough to have known the first generation of bluesmen, like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. Describing the Delta landscape of cotton crops and juke joints that gave rise to a whole blues culture, Coley's story is as much about the music of its own telling, in a unique patois comprising French, Yoruba, English and vivid vernacular, as it is about the development of the blues. Between WWI and the Great Depression, playing the piano or the guitar with Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Coley meets the devil with Robert Johnson. Intermittently, he returns to his farm and his wife, Vida Lee. Coley and his adventures thrill in the first half of Dalton's well-researched tale, but the second half of the book falters. In his attempt to make Coley Williams's life synonymous with blues history, Dalton strains the plot in trying to bring his protagonist into contact with every significant R & B and rock artist of the century, up to Jimi Hendrix. But a domestic subplot brings it back home, with Vida Lee cuckolding Coley with her ""brother"" Jimmy. Dalton's shining vignettes, complete with robust dialogue, are the real pleasure of this book--his portrayal of Leadbelly in the Sugarland Penitentiary in Texas is unforgettable, and such shrewd storytelling and strong voices will have blues lovers ""hooked, lined and sinkered."" Read in tandem with Jack Fuller's The Best of Jackson Payne (Forecasts, Apr. 10) , this novel is yet another course in this season's literary jazz feast. (June)
Reviewed on: 05/01/2000
Release date: 05/01/2000
Genre: Fiction
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