R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country Features 114 Illustrations of the Artist’s Favorite Musicians


It was one of my favorite gifts of Christ­mas 2006. No, all apolo­gies to every­one who bought me thought­ful gew­gaws, but it was, with­out a doubt, the favorite. A hum­ble, unas­sum­ing pack­age con­tained a ver­i­ta­ble ency­clo­pe­dia of Amer­i­cana: over one hun­dred por­traits of jazz, blues, and coun­try artists from the gold­en eras of Amer­i­can music, all drawn by a fore­most anti­quar­i­an of pre-WWII music, R. Crumb. Beside each portrait—some made with Crumb’s exag­ger­at­ed pro­por­tions and thick-lined shad­ing, some soft­er and more realist—was a brief, one-para­graph bio, just enough to sit­u­ate the singer, play­er, or band with­in the pan­theon.

Though a fan of this sort of thing may think that it could get no bet­ter, glued to the back cov­er was a slip­case con­tain­ing a CD with 21 tracks—seven from each genre. A quick scan showed a few famil­iar names: Skip James, Char­lie Pat­ton, Jel­ly Roll Mor­ton. Then there were such unknown enti­ties as Mem­phis Jug Band, Crockett’s Ken­tucky Moun­taineers, and East Texas Ser­e­naders, culled from Crumb’s enor­mous, library-size archive of rare 78s. Joy to the world.

Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Coun­try began in the 80s with a series of illus­trat­ed trad­ing cards, as you can see in the video above (which only cov­ers the blues and jazz cor­ners of the tri­an­gle). The first cards, “Heroes of the Blues,” came attached to old-time reis­sues from the Yazoo record com­pa­ny. Even­tu­al­ly expand­ing the cards to include jazz and coun­try, work­ing in each cat­e­go­ry from old pho­tos or news­reel footage, Crumb cov­ered quite a lot of musi­co-his­tor­i­cal ground. Archivists and authors Stephen Calt, David Jasen, and Richard Nevins wrote the short blurbs. Final­ly Yazoo, rather than issu­ing the cards indi­vid­u­al­ly with each record, com­bined them into boxed sets.

The book—which val­i­dates my sense that this music belongs togeth­er cheek by jowl, even if some of its par­ti­sans can’t stand each other’s company—evolved through a painstak­ing process in which Crumb redrew and recol­ored the orig­i­nal illus­tra­tions from the print­ed trad­ing cards (the orig­i­nal art­work hav­ing dis­ap­peared). You can fol­low one step of that process in a detailed descrip­tion of Crumb’s con­ver­sion of the blues cards to a silkscreened poster. Crumb’s process is as thor­ough as his peri­od knowl­edge. But Crumb fans know that the com­ic artist’s rev­er­ence for Amer­i­cana goes beyond his col­lect­ing and extends to his own ver­sion of kitchen-sink blue­grass, blues, and jazz. Lis­ten to Crumb on the ban­jo above with his Cheap Suit Ser­e­naders. And if any­one feels like get­ting me a Christ­mas present this year, I’d like a copy of their record Chasin Rain­bows. On vinyl of course.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Short His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca, Accord­ing to the Irrev­er­ent Com­ic Satirist Robert Crumb

Record Cov­er Art by Under­ground Car­toon­ist Robert Crumb

The Con­fes­sions of Robert Crumb: A Por­trait Script­ed by the Under­ground Comics Leg­end Him­self (1987)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Steven Smith says:

    I hope that, I can access the open cours­es. I could nev­er gath­er open­ing the open­ware of M.I.T. They seem to be nice folk. I will bor­row buy R.Crumb a book. Also, donate.
    Hap­py 🇺🇸 Hol­i­day,
    PS: Did u see his 1984 doc­u­men­tary bio.? (painful­ly)

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