Posts tagged with: history

Mississippi John Hurt: A Book Review

Published as part of the American Made Music series by the University Press of Mississippi, Mississippi John Hurt is a well written biography of  legendary blues musician John Hurt by Philip R. Ratcliffe.  Tracing Hurt’s family back to slavery days, Ratcliffe gives us the background which must be a part of any study of blues music.  It also gives us a view of music in the middle of the last century.  The music industry today is based on music copyrights establishing  authorship so that royalties can be paid.  But, Hurt and the other musicians first recorded in the 1920’s bent familiar melodies and changed words to fit their own styles and moods.  For example, Hurt’s recording of the familiar song “Frankie and Johnny,” is about Frankie and Albert.

John Hurt was a small, quiet, unassuming man from Avalon, Mississippi, which is just at the edge of the Mississippi delta.  He was discovered in 1926 and made several records in Memphis and New York before the depression claimed all the recording companies.  He went back to farming and was re-discovered in 1963 during the folk music revival.  He went on tour at age 70 and died in 1966.

John Hurt played the guitar by running a constant bass beat on the top three strings with his thumb, index, and middle fingers while playing a melody on the bottom three strings with his ring and little finger, sometimes plucking the frets above with his left hand.  It’s light and airy with none of the harsh, string stretching improvisation that came with electric guitars in the 1950’s.  His music would be categorized as Old Blues, i.e., part folk music, part blues, part African rhythm and style.  He sounds more like Jimmie Rogers, the father of Country Music also recorded in 1926, than Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker.

Ratcliffe has given us a window into the society of Mississippi during the Jim Crow years, and it’s nuanced.  The Ku Klux Klan was an ever present threat to blacks who violated the strict segregation rules of the time, yet Hurt’s family and friends describe a friendly rural area where the races lived together and cooperated in farming and logging.  Their social lives revolved around their churches, segregated by race, and the local store, where the races mixed.  Black and white people enjoyed John Hurt’s singing and playing.

I bought this book as research for my next book, Sliding Delta.  A quest to find Mississippi John Hurt and learn to pick the Delta Blues takes a Chicago college boy south of Memphis in the summer of 1965.  It’s a coming of age historical novel about the delta, the blues, and The South.

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Islands of Destiny, by John Prados: Book Review

This is a strong book. Written by an accomplished and experienced historian after exhaustive research of source material not available to previous authors on World War II in the Pacific, Islands of Destiny is an entertaining read; if you like history. If you’re looking for a summer beach book, this isn’t it. I bought it for research for a historical novel I might write one day, and I wanted someone else to read the volumes of memoirs and histories published in English since WW II, then wade through the recently translated diaries and journals of the Imperial Japanese Navy and their sailors and airmen, screen through the inflated after action reports each side produced after battles to count how many planes and ships were actually lost, lay out in reasonably concise terms the perspective of the various combatants, and tie it all together with maps, technical analysis of ships, planes, radar, secret codes and Japanese and American doctrine. Here it is. Other reviewers have criticized author Prados as providing excessive detail and not enough personal drama; get a romance novel, I say! This is the best chance we arm chair admirals will have to understand how it all went down.

The Solomons form the eastern edge of the Coral Sea, which borders Australia. At the beginning of WW II the Japanese took Rabaul, in the Bismarck Archipelago, which is just to the north of the Coral Sea. When they landed on Guadalcanal and began building an airfield, they threatened to encircle Australia and cut her supply route to the US. In July, 1942 American Marines landed on Guadalcanal. Thus begins this story of two mighty nations locked in mortal combat at the end of their supply chains. It went on for a year.

Every book review needs some quibbling. John Prados is positively toxic on the subject of General George Kenney and the Army Air Corps’ contribution to the Solomons Campaign. True, the Solomons was a Navy show, and the Navy did the bulk of the fighting and dying there, but the Army Air Corps held the eastern flank while protecting Australia from imminent invasion through New Guinea, and they did it on a shoestring compared with the firepower the Navy could muster. There are a lot of Japanese names in this book and I couldn’t keep them straight. The addition of their source material is critical to this document, but it made for some tough cross checking. Perhaps a graphic with the Japanese hierarchy could have been added.

Contrary to some reviewers, author Prados gives us many personal vignettes and human profiles drawn from diaries and published memoirs to personalize this tale. I don’t fault him a bit for being too dry. Insights I gained from this story include how our cracking of the Japanese code affected virtually every battle. It wasn’t just the strategic movements but the actual routes and timing of ship movements, and the fact that we maintained that secret until 1978! Both American and Japanese dive bomber pilots experienced 80% attrition during major battles; put yourself in that cockpit as the engine warms up.

This book, in its paper form for the maps, pictures, and reference materials, belongs in the library of all descendants, American and Japanese, of the brave men who fought The Solomons Campaign. They changed the world.  http://www.amazon.com/Islands-Destiny-Solomons-Campaign-Eclipse/dp/B00D9T9QA4

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