The Little Walter Journey

Jakub Jiaxis Svoboda


Behind any meaningful piece of writing, there is always a passion: without passion, writing is reduced to mere text production. When I started looking for a topic for my Bachelor’s thesis I was in a position shared by numerous fellow students at the department, that is, wondering about what to write about. I spent several days until it finally dawned on me, plain and simple: the question is not what I want to do with my thesis but rather what I want my thesis to do with me. I saw the thesis as an organism which would serve two primary purposes: one, broaden my horizons and two, keep me entertained.

With these two things in mind, I went on to take my pick. In my view, it is always better to write about something which you have some knowledge of beforehand, something which is not completely uncharted territory. However, I wanted to stay away from spheres which were too close to my heart, as I could easily fall into the trap of carving an idol of a thesis rather than an academic paper. As one of my biggest life passions is jazz and blues (and music in general), I wondered if I could produce a paper which would deal with either of these, taking into consideration the socio-cultural background of the respective era.

After a bit of pondering, I opted for the blues, as I play the harmonica a bit and was curious about the instrument’s history both within and beyond an American context. Besides this, I also took into account the fact that one of the most enjoyable seminars I attended at the department was “The African American Experience”, and the blues and its link to narrative history has a lot of say when it comes to African Americans. Do not be afraid to get inspired by what the department offers – if you have enjoyed a particular seminar, it is very likely that you will enjoy writing about something related to its content.

Although I immediately fell in love with my topic and had so many ideas which I was eager to put down on paper, I stopped myself and said: Hang on! You cannot discuss all aspects of the blues in some 30+ pages. You have to stay away from a thesis title which would go something like “The Blues and its Role in 20th-century America”; such a paper would inevitably end up being shallow and over-comprehensive. I had to pick one aspect of the blues, or better, one blues figure which my thesis would revolve around.

Scratching my head, I took a deep breath and decided to aim right for the target. My guts told me that if anything I had to write about Little Walter – the uncrowned king of the blues harmonica, the blues prophet who lived a true bluesman’s life, a rather controversial figure in the history of the genre. I realise that when it comes to academic writing, controversy is vital as it generates discussion. And what else is a thesis if not a form of discourse: in fact, without actually discussing your sources, evaluating them and providing your own views, the thesis becomes a simple body of text. A body with few signs of life at that.

Remember what I said at the beginning about the thesis being an organism? Well here I was, with a general idea about what shape my Frankenstein should take, but no actual material to put it together from. I had to find my sources – books, journal and newspaper articles, documentaries (search youtube, you’ll be surprised by what you find), discussion groups. In other words, anything relevant to my preliminary keywords: blues, harmonica, African-American music, American 20th-century history and, of course, Little Walter. Most of the servers which were recommended to me you probably know as well, but repeating them will do no harm: I searched (making sure that I logged in using the IS secondary password), ran my keywords and ended up with a couple of articles I would happily cite, and then proceeded to the German branch of Amazon, which opened up a whole universe of books, including literally dozens of titles relevant to my topic. Why Simply because the delivery fees are way lower than on the American or British ones.

Anyway, I discovered a biography of Little Walter, which turned out to be the biggest investment of all, amounting to just under a thousand crowns. I had to buy it, though, for obvious reasons. Reading it from cover to cover, I gained substantial insight into the man’s life and, more importantly, the period and what it entailed for African Americans. I would suggest that anybody who is serious about their thesis should do something similar – start with a single general book related to your topic, and then proceed to more specific titles. Besides being a tremendous read, the biography had a vast bibliography (never miss those when you are putting together material for your own thesis), providing me with a dozen more books which I could obtain, either on Amazon or elsewhere. It turned out that you can actually full-text-search specific phrases in Google Books, which will then show you the sections where your keywords appear in the book. You can then cite any given page, without having to buy the book.

Of course, I ran a quick search in the and MZK systems, but to little avail – academic studies and books on the blues seem to be in limited supply at Masaryk. In the end, I used zero books from faculty libraries – the few they had I had already obtained from Amazon, and more up-to-date sources were unavailable. In fact, before doing any writing, I made sure that I got hold of at least a few books published after 2000, so that I would be more in touch with more recent writing on the subject: as some blues researchers seem to have fallen under its mythical spell, the more critical a book was in relation to the role of the blues within the first half of the 20th century the better. This is where Amazon and Google Books come in extremely handy – obtaining titles like In Search of the Blues by Marybeth Hamilton, published in 2007 (ten years ago already), which attempts to strip away some of the myths which surround the blues, is no easy task at Czech libraries. All in all, I bought some 10 books, spending a couple of thousand crowns in total, and eventually managing to spice up my library with interesting titles which I can use in the future.

Obviously, I did not have time to read everything thoroughly, and I usually just skimmed through the relevant passages, always starting with the index in the back, looking for keywords such as harmonica, Chicago, Little Walter and Muddy Waters. In the end, I was left with a pile of notes, relevant to the respective chapters which I had agreed on with my supervisor, Michael George, whom I cannot thank enough. The actual writing process was easier than I expected and thoroughly enjoyable: when working on each chapter, I used my notes but I also let my mind wander a bit, remembering what I had read and pondering whether there was anything I could add. I also re-read my work, much to the puzzlement of my wife, who commented that it would be better if I continued writing rather than going back over my work. She was probably right, but I needed the text to be coherent. After a few weeks, I had prepared a draft, which I sent to Michael in parts for feedback. After some correction and rephrasing, I had a Word document titled “From Down South to Chicago: Little Walter, Race and the Blues”, which I printed in two copies and took to a copy centre to get comb-bound. No need to have it hard-bound, comb-binding is lighter and so much cheaper.

And what does the final thesis look and read like? Feel free to check it out in the IS. It contains a small bonus for the reader – an original email interview with Charlie Musselwhite, an American harmonica player who learned from Walter. I did the interview with the help of Charlie’s wife and manager, Henri, whose email I found on I just tried my luck and she got back to me. It turns that if you have a passion, things sometimes just come your way.