The best books about the Blues set in Mississippi, Chicago, Florida, and beyond

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been a working blues musician for almost half a century, a blues harmonica teacher for much of that time. Twenty-five years ago I first began offering university-level courses on the blues literary tradition. My experience as a Harlem busker back in the 1980s and a touring performer in the 1990s as part of the duo Satan & Adam critically shaped my approach, anchoring me in the wisdom, humor, and deep-groove aesthetics of partner, Mississippi native Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee. The blues is or the blues are? It’s complicated! I try to honor that multiplicity and the people who put it there.

I wrote...

Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition

By Adam Gussow,

Book cover of Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition

What is my book about?

The devil is the most charismatic and important figure in the blues tradition. He's not just the music's namesake ("the devil's music"), but a shadowy presence who haunts an imagined Mississippi crossroads where Delta bluesman Robert Johnson is supposed to have traded away his soul in exchange for fearsome skills on the guitar.

Working from original transcriptions of more than 125 recordings, I explore the surprisingly varied uses to which black southern blues people have put this trouble-sowing, love-wrecking, but also empowering figure. The book culminates with a bold reinterpretation of Johnson's music and a provocative investigation of the way that the citizens of Clarksdale, Mississippi, managed to rebrand a commercial hub as "the crossroads”, claiming Johnson and the devil as their own.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards

Adam Gussow Why did I love this book?

I’ve been assigning The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing in Southern Studies classes at Ole Miss for the past twenty years; the incarcerated students in my blues lit class at Parchman said this was their favorite book. 

Honeyboy, born in 1915, grew up in the bad old Mississippi Delta, back when cottonfield sharecropping, lynching, and prison farms were the givens. The blues were his way out. He learned his trade, rambled widely, took his pleasures where he found them.

“I had three ways of making it,” he writes. “Women, my guitar, and the dice.” He knew all the great bluesmen, and gigged with most of them: Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Little Walter. An unforgettable Delta blues autobiography.

By David Honeyboy Edwards,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World Don't Owe Me Nothing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This vivid oral snapshot of an America that planted the blues is full of rhythmic grace. From the son of a sharecropper to an itinerant bluesman, Honeyboy’s stories of good friends Charlie Patton, Big Walter Horton, Little Walter Jacobs, and Robert Johnson are a godsend to blues fans. History buffs will marvel at his unique perspective and firsthand accounts of the 1927 Mississippi River flood, vagrancy laws, makeshift courts in the back of seed stores, plantation life, and the Depression.

Book cover of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

Adam Gussow Why did I love this book?

Wald is a contrarian’s contrarian; this revisionist study--lucid, sensible, self-assured--demolishes not just the soul-selling-at-the-crossroads mythology embraced by fans of Robert Johnson, but a series of romantic misconceptions about blues music in general and Mississippi blues in particular.

He reminds us, for example, that classic blueswomen like Ma Raney and Bessie Smith were the first stars of the blues; that Johnson was, by contrast, virtually unknown on a national level during his own lifetime; and that Johnson, celebrated by his mythologizers as a devil-haunted innovator, was actually a savvy, record-copying consolidator of a broad range of contemporary blues styles.

He was also a “polka hound” and human jukebox, according to Wald, a jack-of-all-trades who played Gene Autry songs and other pop tunes for the pleasure of his audiences, black and white.

By Elijah Wald,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Escaping the Delta as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The life of blues legend Robert Johnson becomes the centerpiece for this innovative look at what many consider to be America's deepest and most influential music genre. Pivotal are the questions surrounding why Johnson was ignored by the core black audience of his time yet now celebrated as the greatest figure in blues history. Trying to separate myth from reality, biographer Elijah Wald studies the blues from the inside -- not only examining recordings but also the recollections of the musicians themselves, the African-American press, as well as examining original research. What emerges is a new appreciation for the blues…

Book cover of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: A Play

Adam Gussow Why did I love this book?

I remember reading Wilson’s play for the first time as a grad student, not long after I’d been a street musician in Harlem working with a brilliant, irascible old bluesman from Mississippi, and thinking “I know these guys.”

Wilson, the greatest American blues playwright (and one of the greatest American dramatists period), has an uncanny ear for the jibing, jiving, wisdom-declaiming back-and-forth that fills the conversational space between four southern-born musicians who find themselves in a Chicago recording studio one day in 1927, getting ready to back up their boss, Ma Rainey.

Toledo, elder and griot, the keeper of ancestral wisdom, butts heads with Levee, the hotheaded young innovator who bears, and brandishes, deep wounds inflicted by white southern violence. The play’s denouement is hurtful, shattering, unforgettable.  

By August Wilson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ma Rainey's Black Bottom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Fences and The Piano Lesson comes the extraordinary Ma Rainey's Black Bottom—winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play.

The time is 1927. The place is a run-down recording studio in Chicago. Ma Rainey, the legendary blues singer, is due to arrive with her entourage to cut new sides of old favorites. Waiting for her are her Black musician sidemen, the white owner of the record company, and her white manager. What goes down in the session to come is…

Book cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Adam Gussow Why did I love this book?

The first American writer to describe southern juke joints from the inside (in Mules and Men), Hurston took everything she’d learned about 1920s blues culture in Polk County, Florida, and spun it into a tale of self-empowering female adventurism. 

Spunky black heroine Janie Starks works her way through a couple of dud husbands before falling for the loveable but maddeningly unpredictable bluesman Tea Cake, who is a decade younger.

He “stings” her thrillingly, like Memphis Minnie’s lover in “Bumble Bee Blues” (“You stung me this morning...I been restless all day long”), and teaches her to fish and shoot, but he also slaps her around.

Is he a feminist heartthrob or feminist nightmare? Janie—one tough blueswoman, it turns out—finally solves the problem, rifle in hand.

By Zora Neale Hurston,

Why should I read it?

17 authors picked Their Eyes Were Watching God as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cover design by Harlem renaissance artist Lois Mailou Jones

When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds ...

'For me, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD is one of the very greatest American novels of the 20th century. It is so lyrical it should be sentimental; it is so passionate it should be overwrought, but it is instead a rigorous, convincing and dazzling piece…

Book cover of Jook Right On: Blues Stories and Blues Storytellers

Adam Gussow Why did I love this book?

A precise, thoughtful, and unromantic blues scholar, Barry Lee Pearson was also a friend of, and occasional booking agent for, DC-area acoustic blues legends like John Jackson and Cephas & Wiggins.

Jook Right On, which I was delighted to blurb and use in my own teaching, offers a series of compact autobiographical testimonies—“blues stories”—on a wide range of topics from a wide range of blues people. 

“Wordsmiths by trade,” Pearson writes in his brilliantly incisive introduction, “these storytellers bring to their tales qualities also found in blues musical performance and philosophical perspectives characteristic of the blues tradition such as improvisation, ironic humor, ambivalence, and a life-affirming sense of hope in the face of adversity.”

Constitutionally immune to cliches, Pearson brings you closer to the blues musician’s perspective than any writer I know.  

By Barry Pearson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jook Right On as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Pearson has collected a gold mine of compelling tales, organized them with convincing logic, and introduced them with the kind of penetrating insight and professional modesty that any blues scholar might do well to emulate. This is a terrific book—one I know I’ll use in my own teaching.” —Adam Gussow, author of Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues TraditionJook Right On: Blues Stories and Blues Storytellers is what author and compiler Barry Lee Pearson calls a “blues quilt.” These blues stories, collected by Pearson for thirty years, are told in the blues musicians’ own words. The author…

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Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

Book cover of Snow on Magnolias

Betty Bolte Author Of Notes of Love and War

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Author Editor Traveler Crocheter Reader

Betty's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Magnolia Merryweather, a horse breeder, is eager to celebrate Christmas for the first time after the Civil War ended even as she grows her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after the terror of the past four years. Only, all of her plans are thrown into disarray when her secret lover returns and starts asking questions she can’t answer without disaster following.

Bryce Day comes home to Alabama after he’s discharged from the First Alabama Cavalry USA with guilt weighing on his heart. His neighbors won’t cotton to his Unionist bent, and the woman of his heart likely won’t give him a second chance after his silence during the war. Only, she’s hiding something from him.

How can they have any hope of a loving life together with lies and secrets between them?

Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

What is this book about?

One terrible lie, a desperate measure to save her past, just might destroy her future…

Award-winning author of historical fiction presents a new novel of love and lies, secrets and sensuality, and the hands of fate weaving it all together.

The American Civil War is finally over and Christmas beckons. Magnolia Merryweather, backyard horse breeder, is eager to celebrate for the first time since the war began even as she continues to grow her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after all the terror of the past four years. She’s preparing to follow in her mother’s matriarchal footsteps,…

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Interested in the blues, blues musician, and Mississippi?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the blues, blues musician, and Mississippi.

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