Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History, from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago’s South Side to the World by Robert Palmer

Discussion Questions

Discussion Question for the week of Apr 9 – Apr 15
In the prologue of the book, Robert Palmer states:
“Blues can’t be adequately understood if we confine our analysis to phonograph records or to the music that’s sung in nightclub and concert situations by blues musicians today. We need to understand what blues came from, where it grew, how it changed, what sorts of camouflage it had to adopt in order to preserve its identity. And we need to understand the people who made and listened to the blues, not just as blacks or oppressed Americans or romantic archetypes or clever technicians or successful entertainers but as particular people who made particular personal and artistic choices in a particular place at a particular time” (19).
In what ways do you make efforts to learn about the blues within its larger cultural context? What recommendations do you have for people to start this journey to a greater understanding of the blues and the people who create it, play it, sing it, listen to it?


Discussion Question for the week of Apr 16 – Apr 22
Palmer discusses eight different cultural roots/features within blues music in the first chapter. He takes plenty of time to stress that these are learned cultural skills, and even if black people weren’t playing music, they were expected to be aware of or have these skills to be a fully participating member of the community. Therefore, the music comes from the culture. One example of musical skill learned from a cultural tradition is hambone, a game derived from juba, patting “performed by striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other—all while keeping time with the feet, and singing,” which teaches polyrhythmic movement and music (37). Why is it important for people listening to blues music to be aware of the cultural roots of the blues?


Discussion Question for the week of Apr 23 – Apr 29
What do you make of the description of the Dockery plantation? Is it romanticized, or do you think it’s fairly accurate? And if you read the book Slavery by Another Name, how do you evaluate the description of the Dockery plantation with that knowledge? Does the description as written do anything in particular for how we view the blues musicians and music played there?


Discussion Question for the week of April 30 – May 6
Chapter three talked a lot about the history and music of Delta blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson. What were your thoughts about Robert Johnson’s music the first time you heard it?


Discussion Question for the week of May 7 – May 13
Sunnyland Slim, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon—these are a few of the many musicians Robert Palmer discusses in Chapter 4. What similarities in situation, experience, and musical innovation and training do you see in these musicians?


Discussion Question for the week of May 14 – May 20
So often when we think of blues we think of the legend musicians, but far more people influenced blues music and made musical innovations that allowed for the legends to become legends. When Robert Palmer went to interview Robert Lockwood, he stated that Lockwood was pleasantly surprised when Palmer wanted to hear about his life rather than Robert Johnson’s. And Palmer got some fantastic stories and information from Lockwood afterward (177). What musicians’ stories have you learned in this book that have been your favorites so far? Why are they so memorable to you? And what ways do you think we can work to learn the stories of many blues musicians, not just the legends?


Discussion Question for the week of May 21 – May 27
Palmer mentions and discusses many different blues recordings throughout his book. Many in the chapter for this week’s reading you may have heard or be familiar with. Of the songs Palmer has mentioned, we’d love to hear which one is your favorite. What makes it your favorite?