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Today is January 22, 2021

Looking to get lost

The blues adventures of Peter Guralnick

By Steven Ward

Looking to get lost

Mississippi used to feature an electric guitar and the phrase, “Birthplace of America’s Music” emblazoned on state license plates.

That was no accident since cultural history has illustrated that the blues, country music and rock and roll were all created by people who were born on the state’s rich, fertile soil.

Biographer and music journalist Peter Guralnick walked with and interviewed many of the state’s musical giants and has written about their grand contributions to music history.

Guralnick penned the prize-winning, two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, “Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love” as well biographies of Sun Records’ owner Sam Phillips and 1960s soul crooner Sam Cooke.

His other books, “Lost Highway” and “Feel Like Going Home” collect profiles of many rock, blues and country legends that hail from Mississippi.

A good chunk of those profiles is the subject of Guralnick’s newest book, “Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music & Writing,” a memoir that delves into his writing process as well as his memorable encounters with music icons over the last 50 years.

“Looking to Get Lost” features chapters on Mississippi musical heroes Skip James, Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Tammy Wynette and Howlin Wolf as well as a piece on Malaco Records in Jackson.

Other chapters in the book highlight visits with Bill Monroe, Jerry Lee Lewis, Solomon Burke, Merle Haggard, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Allen Toussaint and Eric Clapton.

The first artist Guralnick ever interviewed was bluesman Skip James in 1965.

Guralnick first started writing reviews of shows he attended in the U.S. for the English blues magazines, Blues Unlimited and Blues World.

“It was this sense of a larger community, as hungry as I was for insights and information, that led me to approach the great Mississippi bluesman Skip James in the summer of 1965,” Guralnick wrote in “Looking to Get Lost.”

“There could have been no more unlikely interviewer than I, and certainly no one burdened with a greater degree of self-consciousness, but I had witnessed Skip’s astonishing performance at the Newport Folk Festival the previous summer, just after his rediscovery in a Tunica, Mississippi hospital, and his even more astonishing reclamation onstage of the weird, almost unearthly sound that characterized his remote 1930 recordings.”

That interview kicked off Guralnick’s extraordinary career.

In another chapter, Guralnick remembers the experience of hearing Robert Johnson’s Delta blues for the fi rst time. He was only 17.

“Listening to songs like “Crossroads,” “Me and the Devil” and “Hellhound on My Trail” over and over, trying to absorb the locutions, getting some sense not just of the strangeness of the music but of the unmistakable familiarity of its emotional terrain was an unrecapturable moment,” Guralnick wrote.

One of the most fascinating pieces in the book is a fresh take on Elvis Presley’s career through a unique and personal portrait of Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker called “Me and the Colonel.”

Visit for more information about the book and the author.

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