When it comes to music, there is nothing more American than singing the blues. The heart and soul that ushered in a new era of music owes itself not only to the talented singers and musicians, but also one of the blues’ most iconic instrumenst — the harmonica — and in Herbert Quelle’s debut novel, Monika’s Blues, non-fiction and fiction merge to tell the story of how the instrument from Germany gave the blues its signature sound.
Monika’s Blues follows Walter, a newly retired German-American teacher, on his journey from hometown Chicago to the deepest parts of the Mississippi Delta to soak in the essence of the blues and how the original blues legends got their hands on the harmonica to make it an essential piece of American music history.
how the instrument from Germany gave the blues its signature sound
A journey Walter intended as a solo one is quickly thrown off course shortly after leaving the city limits of Chicago as he finds himself picking up Luther, an African-American man, holding up a sign outside a rest stop with the final destination of Cairo, Illinois written on it — Walter’s first destination.
The risk of inviting Luther into his car pays off as their shared destination opens up doors Walter never imagined possible on this journey of the blues. In the short trip to Cairo though, Walter finds himself bearing witness to the racial clash that so often appears in the news almost every day.
Despite Walter’s original plans to hit the historical streets of Cairo, or at least the remnants of what used to be, Luther turns into a treasure trove of knowledge and forgotten history as he is welcomed into the home that might just hold the most important pieces of blues harmonica history.
Author Herbert Quelle, who now serves in Chicago as the Consul General of Germany, set out to share his personal harmonica passion with readers of Monika’s Blues in a way that blends historical facts and figures, or dry non-fiction as he states, with a storyline that opens people up to what he calls a “most fascinating relationship between a German industrial mass product and African-American musicians”.
the most sensual description of a musical I have ever read
Quelle’s choice of opening this story with what might be the most sensual description of a musical I have ever read is pure magic, though its exotic nature doesn’t carry on as strong throughout the remaining pages of the book. The journey to Cairo and the experiences that follow in the wasteland town is what really keeps the seemingly boring facts interesting.
This becomes more evident later on in the pages that find Walter wondering on his own to finish the journey he originally set out on. Without his new friends by his side, the story shifts more into the history lesson territory in need of intrigue. With a story built around educating readers, this break is almost unavoidable, and I must praise Quelle for turning the last few pages around into the realm of excitement.
Monika’s Blues successfully does its job of uncovering the German influence on such an American genre of music, and after reading the pages you may just end up looking at Blues music with a new eye — or ear.