Deep Inside the Blues: Photographs and Interviews by Margo Cooper

by Kevin Wierzbicki

This coffee table-style hardcover tome is impressive in myriad ways, not the least of which is the collection of photos that Cooper presents. Featuring players like "Farmer John" (John Horton Jr.), "T-Model" Ford, Bill Abel, Robert Lockwood Jr., Betty Vaughan, Ike Turner, Sam Carr, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, Junior Wells, Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Bobby Rush and many others, Cooper's lens work is a treasure trove of shots of artists taken both on stage and in various off stage settings. There's a shot of Bo Diddley, his classic rectangular guitar in hand and his mouth open to let out a whoop, and a photo of a jubilant B.B. King, seated and playing Lucille, taken in 2001 in Indianola, Mississippi, King's hometown and the place where the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center would open some seven years after the picture was taken. There's a great shot of Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, sweaty and in the throes of a vocal performance and ironically, with those big eyes closed. Many of the offstage shots are melancholy at the least and sad at the most; James "Super Chikan" Johnson stands outside the remains of his childhood home in Rena Lara, Mississippi, an abandoned juke joint where a shattered Miller High Life sign still hangs is shown overgrown with vegetation, Joe Cole looks forlorn at a cotton field with his acoustic slung over his shoulder, no doubt remembering the plight of former plantation workers. No matter the tenor of the photo, each provides a thought-provoking image that many will see as immortal. Then there's the text portion of the book that offers interview transcriptions to go with the photos. Cooper is known as an oral historian who works in the classic documentary tradition, so she presents facts here as opposed to opinion. The interview pieces are not in question and answer form; the questions have been edited out leaving just each artist's commentary. This is a great technique that creates the feeling that you're in an intimate setting with the player. You can, for example, easily imagine Willie "Big Eyes" Smith gesticulating wildly when he reminisces about being told by religious family members as a youth that "The Devil gonna get you! The Devil gonna get in you!" Readers will experience joy, sadness, wonderment and many other emotions as they get enthralled in the tales throughout. Where needed, Cooper adds commentary to explain a particular situation or expand on it, but for the large part all here is straight from the player's mouth. Fun, educational and endlessly entertaining, "Deep Inside the Blues" is a presentation to be cherished. 347 pages and with about 160 photographs, the book also holds a foreword by National Endowment for the Humanities former chairman William R. Ferris.


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