Music writer Martin Hawkins searches for the origins of Baton Rouge blues and the man posthumously credited with establishing the sound and the town on the global music scene, in Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge. Harmonica player and bluesman James Moore, known by the handle Slim Harpo, died suddenly and mysteriously of heart complications at age forty-five, just as he was poised to secure his place in the international music scene. With Moore’s death, his early history and that of the Baton Rouge blues was lost, well before the man or his music became canon. Covers of Slim Harpo’s music by groups like the Rolling Stones helped preserve his legacy long after his demise, and Hawkins salvages as much as possible of what remains.
By all measures, Slim Harpo deserves a victory-lap account confirming his place as the grandfather of Baton Rouge blues. However, left with scant documentation and conflicting, often apocryphal, stories, Hawkins’s search for origins inevitably confronts questions of authenticity in both information about Moore and the idea of a distinct Baton Rouge blues sound. Smartly, Hawkins fills in what isn’t—and often can’t—be known with historical information about Slim Harpo’s time and place. The result is a surprisingly well-sketched picture of Moore, albeit in silhouette, as seen through the lives of his family members, band mates, and peers. Hawkins even manages to extrapolate Slim Harpo’s legacy by following the blues trail through the deaths of Harpo’s cohort and into the blues heritage revivals of the early 2000s. Given the amount of extant information about Moore, definitive conclusions are impossible, but Slim Harpo’s contribution to the swamp sound, his mark on US charts and British Invasion bands, and his enduring effect on the blues scene warrants every page of Hawkins’s tribute.
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