A Blues Life: Henry Townsend as told to Bill Greensmith
By its title A Blues Life implies that this is a biography, but those hoping to read a cohesive story from beginning to finish will likely be disappointed. However, what we do get is quite valuable, especially if the reader is already somewhat familiar with classic blues pianists.
The contents of the book are derived from numerous interviews with Henry Townsend by Bill Greensmith. Greensmith recorded the interviews and then went about the task of fact-checking and organizing the content. The fact-checking is saved for the end notes where Greensmith simply states if the evidence he found supports Townsend’s statements. None of Townsend’s original statements are altered in the body of the book.
Although not indicated as such, the content overall is organized into three parts: 1) Townsend’s recollections of growing up, 2) his recollections about playing blues and the activities associated with that as well as the playing of other blues artists, 3) a summation of his general viewpoints on life and music. The end seems to come rather abruptly as the recollections barely acknowledge the passage of time and hardly any discussion about the changes in blues is included (e.g. pre-war vs post-war or solo vs. electric band blues).
Townsend does, however, give us a good look into what life was like for blues players and black people in general back in those days. Much of it is harsh and violent, and I must admit that the account of the conflict between Henry Townsend and J. D. Short was uncomfortable, even disturbing to read. Still, by reading such accounts I believe that ultimately we gain a better understanding of the blues. There are also humorous parts, the best of which is Townsend’s story of how he and a friend were able to con their fellow soldiers in boot camp with an ingenious card-playing scheme. Through all of it Townsend comes across as stubborn but clever, and intelligent enough to thrive in almost any situation.
Although Henry Townsend’s life and music is interesting enough, what he has to say about other blues players is often valuable in shedding light on certain musical mysteries. One is the allegation that Sylvester Palmer and Wesley Wallace were the same person. The origins of this idea are reasonable enough as there are significant similarities between Palmer’s and Wallace’s recordings and blues artists frequently recorded under fictitious names. Townsend makes an effective argument against that notion, both by drawing from personal recollections as well as talking about the stylistic differences between the two.
In the end we have to forgive any of the faults in this book simply because there are so few books about or by blues pianists. I believe that Greensmith did the best he could with the material given.