The Blues Has Always Been Totally American

Growing up, my parents listened to country. I enjoyed it for what it was at the time but as I grew older I grew away from that style of music because it didn’t represent me. I then started listening to Rock, Rap and R&B. I also enjoyed those genres for what they were as well but, something inside of me was not satisfied. It wasn’t until I was about 12 years old when I was introduced to the Blues. I was hanging out with the older folks in the neighborhood, as I did much of the time growing up, and a rock song played on the radio. I can’t recall which song but I do remember a fellow asking me ‘Do you know where Rock came from?’ I replied with a no. He said ‘Rock came from Rhythm and Blues. Do you know where Rhythm and Blues came from?’ Once again I replied no. ‘Rhythm and Blues came from the Blues.’ he said. Being the curious youngster I was, I just simply had to find out what this ‘Blues‘ was. One day riding on my bicycle I passed a record store. Of course, I stopped. Upon entering the store I asked the clerk where I might be able to find Blues music. The clerk pointed me to a section that said ‘Blues’. I guess I could have found it myself. I looked through the records and cassettes that were there and one in particular jumped out at me. “Robert Johnson: Lost In Vain”. After paying for the cassette I rushed home and pushed it into the player. When I hit play, that is when my world changed. Being a pre-owned cassette it was toward the middle of the recordings not having been rewound. The song playing was ‘Crossroads’. I didn’t pay much mind to the lyrics at the time but the sound of that guitar and the feeling it gave me was as if the music was reading my soul aloud. I felt complete. After my last blog, I decided to share with you some history of the Blues along with some artist information and songs they played.

Blues is a genre and musical form that originated in African-American communities in the “Deep South” of the United States around the end of the 19th century. The genre is derived from European folk music, spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, is characterized by the call-and-response pattern and specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues is the most common. The blue notes are also an important part of the sound. Blues shuffles or walking bass reinforce the trance-like rhythm and form a repetitive effect called a groove.

Little is known about the exact origin of the music now known as the blues. No specific year can be cited as the origin of the blues, largely because the style evolved over a long period and existed in approaching its modern form before the term blues was introduced and before the style was thoroughly documented. Ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik traces the roots of many of the elements that were to develop into the blues back to the African continent, the “cradle of the blues”. One important early mention of something closely resembling the blues comes from 1901, when an archaeologist in Mississippi described the songs of black workers which had lyrical themes and technical elements in common with the blues.

African American work songs were an important precursor to the modern blues

There are few characteristics common to all blues, as the genre takes its shape from the peculiarities of each individual performance. Some characteristics, however, were present prior to the creation of the modern blues, and are common to most styles of African American music. The earliest blues-like music was a “functional expression, rendered in a call-and-response style without accompaniment or harmony and unbounded by the formality of any particular musical structure”. This pre-blues music was adapted from the field shouts and hollers performed during slave times, expanded into “simple solo songs laden with emotional content”.

Blues as a genre possesses other characteristics such as lyrics, bass lines, and instruments. The lyrics of early traditional blues verses consisted of a single line repeated four times. It was only in the first decades of the 20th century that the most common current structure became standard: the so-called AAB pattern, consisting of a line sung over the four first bars, its repetition over the next four, and then a longer concluding line over the last bars. Early blues frequently took the form of a loose narrative, often relating troubles experienced within African American society.

Many blues elements, such as the call-and-response format and the use of blue notes, can be traced back to the music of Africa. The origins of the blues are also closely related to the religious music of the Afro-American community, the spirituals. The first appearance of the blues is often dated to after emancipation and, later, the development of juke joints. It is associated with the newly acquired freedom of the enslaved people. Chroniclers began to report about blues music at the dawn of the 20th century. The first publication of blues sheet music was in 1908: Antonio Maggio’s “I Got the Blues” is the first published song to use the word blues. Hart Wand’s “Dallas Blues” followed in 1912; W. C. Handy’s “The Memphis Blues” followed in the same year. The first recording by an African American singer was Mamie Smith’s 1920 rendition of Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues”. But the origins of the blues date back to some decades earlier, probably around 1890. They are very poorly documented, due in part to racial discrimination within US society, including academic circles, and to the low literacy of rural African American community at the time. Blues has since evolved from unaccompanied vocal music and oral traditions of slaves into a wide variety of styles and sub-genres. Blues sub-genres include country blues, such as Delta and Piedmont, as well as urban blues styles such as Chicago and West Coast blues. World War II marked the transition from acoustic to electric blues and the progressive opening of blues music to a wider audience, especially white listeners. In the 1960s and 1970s, a hybrid form called blues rock evolved.

The blues grew up in the Mississippi Delta just upriver from New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Blues and jazz have always influenced each other, and they still interact in countless ways today.

Unlike jazz, the blues didn’t spread out significantly from the South to the Midwest until the 1930s and ’40s. Once the Delta blues made their way up the Mississippi to urban areas, the music evolved into electrified Chicago blues, other regional blues styles, and various jazz-blues hybrids. A decade or so later the blues gave birth to rhythm ‘n blues and rock ‘n roll.

No single person invented the blues, but many people claimed to have discovered the genre. For instance, minstrel show bandleader W.C. Handy insisted that the blues were revealed to him in 1903 by an itinerant street guitarist at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi.

During the middle to late 1800s, the Deep South was home to hundreds of seminal bluesmen who helped to shape the music. Unfortunately, much of this original music followed these sharecroppers to their graves. But the legacy of these earliest blues pioneers can still be heard in 1920s and ’30s recordings from Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and other Southern states. This music is not very far removed from the field hollers and work songs of the slaves and sharecroppers. Many of the earliest blues musicians incorporated the blues into a wider repertoire that included traditional folk songs, vaudeville music, and minstrel tunes.

Today there are many different shades of the blues.

Forms include:

Traditional country blues: A general term that describes the rural blues of the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont and other rural locales;

Jump blues: A danceable amalgam of swing and blues and a precursor to R&B. Jump blues was pioneered by Louis Jordan;

Boogie-woogie: A piano-based blues popularized by Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, and derived from barrelhouse and ragtime;

Delta Blues: Guitar, harmonica and cigar box guitar are the dominant instruments used, with slide guitar (usually on the steel guitar) being a hallmark of the style. The vocal styles range from introspective and soulful to passionate and fiery;

Chicago blues: Delta blues electrified;

Cool blues: A sophisticated piano-based form that owes much to jazz;

West Coast blues: Popularized mainly by Texas musicians who moved to California. West Coast blues is heavily influenced by the swing beat.

The Texas blues, Memphis blues, and St. Louis blues consist of a wide variety of subgenres. Louisiana blues is characterized by a swampy guitar or harmonica sound with lots of echo, while Kansas City blues is jazz oriented—think Count Basie. There is also the British blues, a rock-blues hybrid pioneered by John Mayall, Peter Green and Eric Clapton.

Early Artists

Lonnie Johnson (1899-1970)

In an early blues field that boasts of a number of innovative guitarists, Lonnie Johnson was, quite simply, without peer. With a sense of melody unmatched by pre-war players, Johnson was equally capable of knocking out both dirty blues and fluid jazz phrasings, and he invented the practice of combining rhythmic passages and solo leads within a single song. Growing up in New Orleans, Johnson’s talent was seeped in the city’s rich musical heritage, but after the flu epidemic of 1919 he moved to St. Louis.

Signing with Okeh Records in 1925, Johnson recorded an estimated 130 songs over the next seven years, including several groundbreaking duets with Blind Willie Dunn (actually white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang). During this period, Johnson also recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. After the Depression, Johnson landed in Chicago, recording for Bluebird Records and, later, King Records. Although he scored few chart hits of his own, Johnson’s songs and playing style influenced both blues legend Robert Johnson (no relation) and jazz great Charlie Christian, and Johnson songs have since been recorded by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. The Steppin’ on the Blues CD (Columbia/Legacy) includes several of Johnson’s best recordings from the 1920s.

Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

Known as “The Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith was both the best and the most famous of the female singers of the 1920s. A strong, independent woman and a powerful vocalist that could sing in both jazz and blues styles, Smith was also the most commercially successful of the era’s singers. Her records sold tens, if not hundreds of thousands of copies – an unheard of level of sales for those days. Sadly, the public’s interest in blues and jazz singers waned during the early-1930s and Smith was dropped by her label.

Smith returned to her roots and sang in small clubs for a pittance – a far cry from her peak, when she performed in theaters and hotel ballrooms across the country. Rediscovered by Columbia Records’ talent scout John Hammond, Smith recorded with bandleader Benny Goodman before tragically dying in an auto accident in 1937. Smith’s best material can be heard on the two-CD set The Essential Bessie Smith (Columbia/Legacy).

Robert Johnson (1911-1938)

Even casual blues fans know the name of Robert Johnson, and thanks to the re-retelling of the story over the course of decades, many know the tale of Johnson allegedly making a deal with the devil at the crossroads outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi to acquire his incredible talents. Although we’ll never know the truth of the matter, one fact remains – Robert Johnson is the cornerstone artist of the blues.

As a songwriter, Johnson brought brilliant imagery and emotion to his lyrics, and many of his songs, like “Love In Vain” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” have become blues standards. But Johnson was also a powerful singer and a skilled guitarist; throw in his early death and the aura of mystery that surrounds his life, and you have a bluesman ready-made to appeal to a generation of blues-influenced rockers like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Johnson’s best work can be heard on the King of the Delta Blues Singers (Columbia/ Legacy), the 1961 album that influenced the decade’s entire blues revival.

Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958)

Perhaps more than any other artist, Big Bill Broonzy brought the blues to Chicago and helped define the city’s sound. Born, literally, on the banks of the Mississippi River, Broonzy moved with his parents to Chicago as a teenager in 1920, picking up the guitar and learning to play from older bluesmen. Broonzy began recording in the mid-1920s and by the early-1930s he was a commanding figure on the Chicago blues scene, performing alongside talents like Tampa Red and John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson.

Capable of playing in both the older vaudeville style (ragtime and hokum) and the newly-developing Chicago style, Broonzy was a smooth vocalist, accomplished guitarist, and prolific songwriter. When the post-war blues boom rendered Broonzy’s quaint homegrown style a thing of the past, he re-invented himself as a singer of authentic folk-blues and became one of the first blues artists to tour Europe, developing a new and appreciate following. The best of Broonzy’s early work can be found on The Young Big Bill Broonzy CD (Shanachie Records), but you can’t go wrong with just about any collection of Broonzy’s music.

Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897-1929)

Arguably the founding father of Texas blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the most commercially-successful artists of the 1920s and a major influence on younger players like Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. Born blind, Jefferson taught himself to play the guitar, and was a familiar figure busking on the streets of Dallas, earning enough to support a wife and child. Jefferson played for awhile with Leadbelly, and is said to have traveled to the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, and Chicago to perform.

Although Jefferson’s recording career was brief (1926-29), during that time he recorded over 100 songs, including such classics as “Matchbox Blues,” “Black Snake Moan” and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” The specifics of Jefferson’s death are shrouded in mystery, but he is believed to have died in late-December 1929. Jefferson remains a favorite among musicians that appreciate the artist’s simple country blues, and his songs have been recorded by Bob Dylan, Peter Case, and John Hammond, Jr., among others. Jefferson’s crucial early work has been collected on the King of the Country Blues CD (Shanachie Records).

Charley Patton (1887-1934)

The biggest star of the 1920s Delta firmament, Charley Patton was the region’s E-Ticket attraction. A charismatic performer with a flash style, his talented fretwork and flamboyant showmanship inspired a legion of bluesmen and rockers, from Son House and Robert Johnson, to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Patton lived a high-flying lifestyle full of liquor and women, and his performances at house parties, juke joints, and plantation dances became the stuff of legend. His loud voice, coupled with a rhythmic and percussive guitar style, was both groundbreaking and designed to entertain a raucous audience.

Patton began recording late in his career, but made up for lost time by laying down some 60 songs in less than five years, including his best-selling first single “Pony Blues.” Although many of Patton’s earliest recordings are only represented by inferior-quality 78s, the Founder of the Delta Blues CD (Shanachie Records) offers beginners a solid collection of two-dozen tracks of varying sound quality.

Leadbelly (1888-1949)

Born as Huddie Ledbetter in Louisiana, Leadbelly’s music and tumultuous life would have a profound effect on both blues and folk musicians alike. Like most performers of his era, Leadbelly’s musical repertoire extended beyond the blues to incorporate ragtime, country, folk, popular standards, and even gospel songs. Leadbelly performed for a while with his friend Blind Lemon Jefferson in Texas, honing his skills on the twelve-string guitar. Leadbelly’s temper often landed him in trouble, however, and after killing a man in Texas, he was sentenced to an extended term in the notorious state prison in Huntsville. While in prison, Leadbelly wrote a song for the governor that led to his early release.

A few years later, though, the singer was convicted on an assault charge and sentenced to a term in Louisiana’s Angola Penitentiary. It was while in Angola that Leadbelly met and recorded for Library of Congress musicologists John and Alan Lomax. After his release, Leadbelly continued to perform and record, eventually relocating in New York City, where he found favor on the city’s folk scene spearheaded by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. After his death from ALS in 1949, Leadbelly songs like “Midnight Special,” “Goodnight, Irene” and “The Rock Island Line” became hits for artists as diverse as the Weavers, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and Ernest Tubb. The best CD for the new listener is Midnight Special (Rounder Records), which includes several of Leadbelly’s best-known songs and incredible performances captured in 1934 by the Lomax’s.

Son House (1902-1988)

The great Son House was a six-string innovator, haunting vocalist, and powerful performer that set the Delta on fire during the 1920s and ’30s with scorched-earth performances and timeless recordings. A friend and colleague of Charley Patton, the two often traveled together, and Patton introduced House to his contacts at Paramount Records. House was also a lay preacher and remained conflicted throughout his career, with one foot in the Gospel and one in the profane world of the blues. After his early records sold poorly, House essentially retired from recording for the better part of a decade.

House’s few Paramount label 78s remain among the most highly-collectible (and expensive) of early blues recordings, but they caught the ear of Library of Congress musicologist Alan Lomax, who traveled to Mississippi in 1941 to record House and friends. House virtually disappeared in 1943 until he was rediscovered by a trio of blues researchers in 1964 in Rochester, New York. Re-taught his signature guitar licks by fan and future Canned Heat founder Al Wilson, House became part of the decade’s folk-blues revival, performing live into the early-1970s, and even returned to recording. Although many of House’s early recordings remain lost or difficult to find, Heroes of the Blues: The Very Best of Son House (Shout! Factory) includes a diverse selection of material from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’60s.

Tampa Red (1904-1981)

Known during the 1920s and ’30s as “The Guitar Wizard,” Tampa Red developed a unique slide-guitar style that was picked up and expanded upon by Robert Nighthawk, Chuck Berry, and Duane Allman, among other followers. Born in Smithville, Georgia as Hudson Whitaker, he earned the nickname “Tampa Red” for his bright red hair and upbringing in Florida. Moving to Chicago in the mid-1920s, Red teamed up with pianist Tom Dorsey as “The Hokum Boys,” scoring a big hit with the song “It’s Tight Like That,” popularizing the bawdy blues style known as “hokum.”

When Dorsey turned to Gospel music in 1930, Red continued as a solo artist, performed with Big Bill Broonzy, and helped recent Delta immigrants to Chicago with food, shelter and bookings. Like many pre-war blues artists, Tampa Red found his career eclipsed by younger performers in the 1950s. The Guitar Wizard (Columbia/Legacy) collects the best of Red’s early hokum and blues sides, including “It’s Tight Like That” and “Turpentine Blues.”


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