The blues, a music rooted in slavery and oppression, and nurtured under Depression and Prohibition, has always made a virtue of struggling against overwhelming odds. Periodically its cause has benefited from enthusiasts whose work in documenting its history has helped it survive. Bill Wyman, The Rolling Stones's bass player from 1962 to 1993, follows here in a tradition established by writers such as Paul Oliver and the founders of the Library of Congress archive, especially the father-and-son team John and Alan Lomax.
The Lomaxes were "ballad hunters" who toured rural America in the 1930s and 1940s, making recordings for posterity of often-unknown blues greats. Muddy Waters, for example, was discovered driving a tractor on a plantation. In 1933, the Lomaxes visited Angola Prison, Louisiana, where they recorded Lead Belly, who was serving time for assault. Afterwards they helped secure his release and he became their chauffeur for a while. This was not the first time the extraordinary Lead Belly had received a pardon: in 1925, he had persuaded the Texas governor to free him from his 39-year sentence for murder - by singing him a song pleading for a pardon.
Blues Odyssey is filled with such stories of legendary figures: Charley Patton, the greatest of the early Delta bluesmen; Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, pioneering queens of 1920s blues; and, perhaps most influential of all, Robert Johnson, famously reputed to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in return for a sudden transformation in his guitar playing. Wyman also traces the rise of the urban electric sound of Muddy Waters, "king of Chicago blues", and John Lee Hooker.
He judges Elmore James, because of his influence on Brian Jones, to be "a major, maybe even the main reason why the Stones came about". The band repaid the debt: along with the many musicians involved in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated and the Yardbirds, they led a British blues boom by the middle of the 1960s.
Appearing alongside a 47-track compilation CD and a two-part TV series, Blues Odyssey is a thorough and accessible history, pitched at the mainstream market but commendably without apparent dilution of content. The detailed text by Wyman and Richard Havers is supported by hundreds of photographs, all interspersed with maps, lyrics, song histories, recommended listening and Wyman's personal anecdotes about particular artists. Dedicated to Jones and Stones road manager Ian Stewart, this is certainly a personal history, with regular references to incidents in Wyman's own career. He is a meticulous diarist and archivist, and as in his previous two books, his writing here clearly draws on those sources. But his preciseness with words is evidence of not only an unusually ordered mind (archaeology is his hobby), but also a musician who is very conscious of his exact place in blues history. Muddy Waters relates how he was still sidelined under the label "race records" until the Stones came along. Wyman is rightly proud of his own role in taking the blues to a wider audience.
Oliver Craske is senior editor, Genesis Publications, where he edited Wyman Shoots Chagall .
Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey: A Journey to Music's Heart and Soul
Author - Bill Wyman with Richard Havers
ISBN - 0 7513 3442 1
Publisher - Dorling Kindersley
Price - £19.99
Pages - 400