Blues is a fantastic style of music to play and listen to but it’s also a fascinating story. Learning about the people who created the music, what their lives were like, and the world they lived in will make your blues experience richer and help you understand the meaning behind the notes you play. Many of the key figures in blues history died without ever being interviewed or captured on film, but an enormous amount of research over the past few decades has helped to fill in missing pieces and bring new facts and perspectives to light.
Here’s a brief introductory list (presented in no particular order) of informative and readable books about general blues history, styles, and people. From any of these titles you can follow threads to go deeper into specific subjects like regional styles and the lives of influential blues musicians (brick-and-mortar bookstores that stock blues-related titles are extremely rare, but all of these can be found on line):
The Story of the Blues - Paul Oliver
A very readable overview of the origins and evolution of blues in the 20th century by one of the most respected and prolific writers on blues history.
Deep Blues - Robert Palmer
Fascinating stories and profiles of the people and places that figure in blues history, with a particular focus on the connection between Delta and Chicago blues.
The History of the Blues - Francis Davis
A comprehensive overview of the origins and evolution of blues from country to urban.
The Devil’s Music - Giles Oakley
A history of blues as both a musical style and social expression.
The Country Blues - Sam Charters
Charters was a key figure in the “blues revival” of the ‘50s and ‘60s and this book represents one of the first serious efforts to research and document the history of Southern blues.
The Land Where Blues Began - Alan Lomax
Alan Lomax and his father John made hundreds of field recordings of country blues, prison songs, and other regional styles in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Here he describes his trips through the South, the people he met, and the music they made.
Delta Blues - Ted Gioia
An overview of the musicians and culture of the Mississippi Delta in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
Chasin’ that Devil Music - Gayle Dean Wardlow
Wardlow is a well-known Delta blues scholar and record collector; this book focuses on the early development of the style in the ‘20s & ‘30s
Chicago Blues - Mike Rowe
A detailed portrait of the musicians and musical style of Chicago blues in the 1950s &’60s.
Urban Blues - Charles Keil
Part sociology, part music and part biography; the social context of blues as it evolved into a truly urban style in the ‘50s and ‘60s
Rollin’ and Tumblin’ - edited by Jas Obrecht
A compilation of interviews with post-war blues guitarists, including more information of particular interest to blues guitar players than most of the other general histories.