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The Guitar and the New World: A Fugitive History

reviewed by Taigen Dan Leighton

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The Guitar and the New World: A Fugitive History is by Joe Gioia (SUNY Press).  Joe happens to be a member of my Ancient Dragon Zen Gate sangha in Chicago, but I would highly recommend the book even if I did not know him.

The book includes a wide range of intriguing meanderings, book-ended by the hidden background of the author’s Sicilian and Napolitano ancestors, one of whom was an early guitar maker.  Along with the history of the guitar in Europe and 19th and early 20th century America, interesting histories of Western New York State and a presidential assassination appear.  But the book’s true subject is the fugitive nature of history itself.

The primary thesis of the book, sure to be controversial, is that the Blues is mostly derived from Native American roots, rather than African.  Joe documents in some detail the fascinating history of how through the whole southeast including Appalachia but more, from the Florida Seminoles, West to Oklahoma, and up through the Northeast and upstate New York, there was not only large-scale inter-marriage but cultural interaction, especially musical.  

Many Blues idioms, vocal and musical, go back to Native Americans, including "Hey Hey" [as in "Hey Hey Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song"].  Howling Wolf claimed his Choctaw ancestry, but Muddy Waters is also an obviously Native American name.  Joe Gioia provides plenty of anecdotal and circumstantial evidence, all that is possible after the erasures of official history, including insight into the realities of slavery.  One repellent but riveting example is how the term “Blues” derives from the toxic and nauseating indigo production.  But after fifty years of extensive searching in Africa, nobody from musicologists to Buddy Guy have found anything like Blues musical patterns in Africa.  

Discussions include Jimmy Rodgers, Charlie Patton, Eddie Lang, the Carter Family, Leadbelly, and many more, and Native American echoes appear in both Rock and Country music.   Fascinating and highly readable, this is an important book, revealing a major contribution of Native Americans to mainstream American culture.