Been Here and Gone: A Memoir of the Blues

Written by David Dalton
Review by Steve Lewis

In what has to be one of the more audacious undertakings of the year, David Dalton relates the entire history of the blues, one of American’s more indigenous musical inventions, through the eyes of one Coley Williams, an aged Delta bluesman who is wholly fictional, but who was there.

Late last century, at age 100 (or so) Coley looks back on his life, as he tells Dalton about how he knew and played with Charley Patton, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Robert Johnson. Howling Wolf, the young B. B. King, Chuck Berry. As a youngster Coley felt the terror of the KKK, witnessed lynchings, and knew the struggle for life that blacks led in the South. In his weaker (and less affluent days) he robbed stores and stole his first electric guitar.

The Delta dialect sounds authentic. Coley’s story is boisterous, rowdy and raunchy. (Check out why his days on live radio were limited to one performance!) He was there when Elvis recorded his first sessions with Sun Records, the birth of rock and roll. He was there when the Rolling Stones swallowed up the American blues and regurgitated them back again. He was there when Jimi Hendrix first played as Jimmy James and the Flames.

What’s lacking, if I could be so bold as to suggest, is a narrative drive to the tale. On a personal level, we’re left only to wonder if Coley’s marriage to the long-suffering Vida Lee will survive. Overall, the book is best read in bits and pieces, I believe, and it should have come with a CD to slide into the player at the same time as the book is read.

Even without, it’s nothing more than a richly preserved, knock-em-dead recreation of musical history, masterfully done. Hmm, hmm, hmm.