There’s no doubt that Blues music is perhaps the most misunderstood and often misjudged music in all of American history. Since its beginning in the early 20th century, no form of expressive art has ever meant more or influenced as much life as Blues music has. It’s imperative that people understand where Blues music has its roots and how, through its natural progressive nature, it has ties to almost every conceivable form of modern music.
You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.
It was 1903 when W.C. Handy heard what we now call “the blues” playing while he waited for his late-arriving train at a Mississippi depot. Handy was a bandleader and a music publisher. Although he has come to be known as the “Father of the Blues,” he admits that he didn’t start the Blues. This genre of music came from the souls of slaves and emerged simultaneously throughout the South, originating as early as 1890.
To fully understand the Blues, we must backtrack to the time of slavery in the United States. Out of 35-40 million Africans to be tricked, trapped and captured onto slave ships, only an estimated 15 million made it to America. Their African heritage gets stripped from them (or withered away on its own), and whatever was imposed upon them transformed into a culture of its own. It’s undeniable that it suppresses their religions and replaced by Christianity.
During the time of the American War of Independence (1775-1783), the Northern states declared slavery illegal. The south, however, did not. Even when the slave trade stopped in 1807, the South ignored it, and illicit trade continued.
Through the fields, you could hear long, drawn out moaning going on, but the slave owners didn’t see much harm in it, so they let it continue. After the workday was over, slaves would get together and sing out affirmations, pledges, and prayers that they eventually lengthened out with repetitive choruses. At first, they accompany their vocals with handmade drums, but slave owners soon grew worrisome that this may be some signal created from one set of slaves to another that would ultimately lead to a revolt, so the use of drums ends. The songs, however, remained a reflection of the infinite sadness and despair of an oppressed people.
Eventually, slavery did come to an end shortly after the Civil War. The war and its defeat shatter the Southern economy, which leads to many former slaves moving to the North and West to communities where other freedmen had already developed. The black community, now broken up, had no structure of its own on which to build.
In 1840, the first successful wave of acceptance of black music took over by white performers who called themselves “nigger mistrals.” They painted their skin black as a form of costume. If people didn’t portray blacks as laughable idiots, then they were seen as inhumane and something to fear; more of a caricature then a human being. Giles Oakley, author of the book, The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues, says: “The lives of all black people in America have been fundamentally shaped by the racial experience of slavery; the memory of enforced servitude in the past has molded attitudes and feelings in the present and has conditioned the black American’s stance in the world. Since the end of slavery, the black communities have been searching for their identities about white culture, about themselves and their past.”
In the early 1890’s, Ragtime music seemed to replace minstrels, with jazz and blues being inspired and born around this time. Ragtime got its name due to the clog dancing is known as “ragging,” which was mostly shuffling. A musical form of piano blues emerged from ragtime during the 1900’s in New Orleans, and it became known as “boogie-woogie.” A man by the name of Jelly Roll Morton became one of the first ragtime and jazz composers and pianists but says he never forgot his early grounding in the blues in New Orleans.
Around the turn of the century, medicine shows became increasingly popular. These were shows put on by black blues musicians (and sometimes white country blues musicians with black singers) who traveled with traveling salesman who was promoting some new cure-all elixir in small towns outside of significant city limits. White and black audiences alike would come out for the entertainment, seemingly leaving the Jim Crow laws at the door. William Ivey of the Country Music Foundation confirms that the existence of a standard repertoire between the early country musicians and the old blues musicians forced a type of business relationship, even at the peak of segregation.
We jump ahead a few decades to when the blues became commercial. Most young, white Southerner’s first heard black music on a jukebox. Black-oriented radio was crucial to the commercial and creative process that enabled rhythm and blues (R & B) to establish itself. Almost in succession, the decline of network radio, the rapid growth of television and the discovery of an expanding and increasingly concentrated black consumer market shaped the growth of black-oriented radio during the decade after World War II. In the late 1940’s, white-owned WDIA in Memphis and WOOK in Washington D.C. adopted the first all-black programming formats. Shelly Stewart, a resourceful and self-educated black man from Birmingham, Alabama got a job at WEDR. The station’s white owner, J. Edwards Reynolds, carefully announced his black-oriented station’s intentions to “stay completely out of politics.” Stewart says he knew what his boss meant. “It was about dollars and cents. It was not about supporting racial justice… for some of the white station’s owners you could not do a PSA (public service announcement) for the NAACP…they didn’t want you to announce voter registration…cause that would empower coloreds.”
Blues came from the soul, however, which meant that it was virtually impossible to stop. All across the country, various forms of the genre were being created and popularized by emotional lyrics, powerful music and a sense of pride and communication that echoed throughout the music. Blues was mostly about two things, the lyrics, and the instrumentation. Guitars weren’t a part of the blues until 1920 were when it replaced the banjo. The history of drums present in African music can be traced back centuries, but the modern drum set gets introduced to the blues right after World War II. The bass was added in the 1940’s, first in the form of an upright bass and later replaced in the early 50’s by the electric bass. The harmonica was a vital aspect of the blues, found in even it’s most primitive forms – although the piano is the first musical instrument heard on a blues record.
Different Styles for Different Regions
There are several different styles of blues music, some originating from different geographical regions and others just from different musical genres. In 1920, when blues first made it onto records, they were dominated by female singers and musicians. Most of them performed in tent shows or medicine shows and had voices so loud and intense that amplifiers were not necessary. This type of Classical Female Blues usually encompassed only pianos but had some singers backed by a full jazz band and went strong until the 1930’s. Some of the most famous ladies from this sect of music include Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and Victoria Spivey.
Jump blues grew out of the boogie-woogie piano craze of the 1940’s It had a quick beat, a jazz influence, a horn section and a lead vocalist, some of which include Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner an Johnny Otis.
Country blues describes all various forms of acoustic blues. It covers all the regional styles of blues which I will later address in fuller detail. Two very famous musicians came from these origins; Skip James and the often covered Leadbelly.
Piano blues has been a part of the blues scone the turn of the century, long before someone recorded blues. It includes ragtime, boogie-woogie, second line, barrelhouse blues, “supper club” blues and the Chicago style blues. Otis Spann and Sunnyland Slim were some of its most infamous performers.
During the 1950’s and 1960’s, our neighbors across the ocean took notice of this fantastic art form and soon began replicating American blues, working mostly off of electric Chicago Blues artists and acoustic folk blues musicians. They performed their music with great respect for these originators, almost bordering on elevating them to sainthood. Eric Clapton, The Yardbirds and the early recordings of the Rolling Stones are the most famous examples.
Modern electric blues is what most of us hear these days. It copies older styles of blues playing, mostly from the 1950’s and 1960’s and mixes it with contemporary influences. It is a little rock, soul, and funk all mixed. I’m sure you recognize the name Johnny Lang, Bonnie Raitt, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, don’t you?
Modern acoustic blues may also sound familiar, seeing as it’s contemporary music that’s rooted in tradition, particularly older blues artists from the 1920’s and 1930’s. A solo artist typically performs this form of blues and is strictly guitar based, although sometimes a harmonica can also be heard. Guy Davis, Taj Mahal, Keb’ Mo and Kenny Sultan seem to have mastered this form.
More Specific Regional Styles
Although it seems as if there couldn’t possibly be any more styles of blues, we haven’t yet discussed the various regional forms of blues. This is typically the way blues is defined; the origin of an artist didn’t necessarily mean he/she was from that area. In some instances, two musicians could be from the same area but have vastly different sounds. However, there was a specific distinction in overall performance styles and sounds that lead to the creation of the many different regional forms.
Chicago style is the most popular and widely heard. This area became the blues music center in the 1930’s and 1940’s when Mississippians left fields and headed north for factory work. Early electric Chicago blues features highly amplified harmonica, slide guitar and the piano as its main instruments. Muddy Water’s first band originated use of this type of line up. Musicians who have become famous with this style of blues, other than Muddy Waters, are Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf.
Delta (a.k.a. Mississippi Blues) came from the Delta region of Mississippi, not to be confused with the Mississippi Delta. This form was mostly played acoustically and developed sometime between 1920 and 1930. This was the first guitar-based blues ever to be recorded and incorporates intricate fingerpicking, lots of slide work and deep boogie rhythms delivered with great emotional depth. Son House and Robert Johnson, the latter of which I will discuss later, are both spawns in this genre.
Texas style has been around most of the 20th century an first gained its popularity around 1920. It is heavily influenced by jazz and is most noticeable by its relaxed playing style, backed by a horn section of 4-5 pieces. T-Bone Walker influenced B.B. King and others with his single string guitar soloing.
Memphis blues gets a little more complicated since it includes two different strains, one from the 1920’s and the other from the 1950’s. During the 1920’s, this form developed due to medicine and tent shows. The 1950’s strain, also known as jug bands, was a humorous type of blues usually played for tips or the musician’s amusement. It contained a basic string-band lineup and makeshift instruments that imitated brass and woodwind instruments. Someone was generally blowing into an empty jug to mimic the sound of a tuba, hence the nickname. This genre of blues was responsible for introducing the now standard practice of assigning song parts for lead and rhythm guitars. Eventually, this form went electric as well. You can find the examples in the recordings of Howlin’ Wolf, Gus Cannon and the early records of B.B. King.
It seems that the West Coast would have their brand of the blues and alas, they most certainly do! However, Texans created this form who traveled west in the 1940’s. Although many great guitar players use this style, most of the guitar solos are very “fluid,” and it’s more likely that musicians performing this style are accompanied only by a piano. Charles Brown, Floyd Dixon, and Percy Mayfield are examples.
The Louisiana Blues owes its sound to Chicago electric blues, only much looser and less emotionally charged. It does sound like it was recorded in the thick of the bayou due to its lazy beats. Listen to the music of Lightin’ Slim or Lazy Lester if you want to hear it for yourself.
Last, but certainly not least, from New Orleans, we find our “celebration” music. Early recordings of Fats Domino will reveal piano rhythms, energetic horn sections and a distinctive “rumba” beat.
Jazz or Blues: Which Came First?
It’s tough to say whether jazz influenced the blues or if it’s the other way around, but what is undeniable is the influence that blues has had over almost all the modern styles of music we hear today. Lonnie Brooks says, “Rock ‘n’ Roll is nothing but the blues speeded up.” Gospel gave a lot of it’s vocalizing techniques to the blues and vise versa. Boogie Woogie is otherwise known as Rhythm & Blues, and it just jumps blues with big-voiced vocalists influenced by gospel singers. Even country music has its roots in blues with its traditional blues lyrics and musical structures. Both genres are very emotional and very honest displays of art. Cub Koda notes, “As country music gains a larger mainstream audience and the median age of country music buyers drops, modern country is beginning to sound more like rock ‘n’ roll, which makes its connection to the blues even stronger.”
There are two controversial blues artists who, in my opinion, really defined what this music was all about. Bessie Smith was dubbed “The Empress of the Blues” and expressed her great vocal talent during the classic female blues period in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Her depth of emotion and sense of rhythm became the standard by which many female blues and jazz singers getting measured. During her era, Bessie sold more records and made more money than any other blues artists, male or female. You can listen to her influences in the singing of Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin and Me’Shell Ndege’Ocello. Bessie Smith was considered a cultural hero because of her no-nonsense assertiveness and very liberated lifestyle that seemed highly taboo at the time. She was an emancipated woman who had little patience for anyone who tried to exploit her. There’s a famous story involving white-robed Ku Klux Klan members who were trying to destroy the tent that she was performing. She sent some of the prop boys out to discourage them, but they were intimated by the Klansman. Bessie ran within ten feet of them, put one hand on her hip and made a fist out of the other and screamed (along with obscenities), “I”ll get the whole damn tent out of here if I have to. You pick up them sheets and run!” Some more abuse finally drove them away, at which time she went back to the prop boys and said, “And as for you, you ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of sissies.” It was this spitfire drive, determination, and courage that influenced so many female musicians after her. Bessie Smith so revered Janis Joplin that she was the one who finally paid for a gravestone that marks her burial spot.
Robert Johnson is both a man and a myth. Well, at least his guitar talent is. Two stories are surrounding this man; one which suggests that he met the Devil himself at the nearby crossroads. The Devil grabbed his guitar, tuned it and then handed it back to Robert. From that day on, his supernatural talent with the guitar and his outstanding vocals were said to far exceed those of any other blues musician. The more likely version of the story places Robert in Mississippi where he was born in 1911 to the wife of a successful furniture maker and a local man (who was not her husband) named Noah Johnson. In his spare time, he taught himself how to play the harmonica and learned how to play guitar by watching others, such as Son House, Charlie Patton, and Willie Brown. Robert Johnson married in 1929 and was ready to settle down when a year later he lost both his wife and son during childbirth. Robert left town, traveling and playing the blues where ever he could. When he returned home a few years later, he ran into Son House and Willie Brown and was asked to sit in at a juke joint dance in Banks, Mississippi. Once the gig was over, the two older musicians only had one explanation for his sudden increase in talent: he must have sold his soul to the Devil. Although Robert admitted of getting influence from several famous blues artists, he stated his most significant impact was a strange blues artist name Zinneman. Robert made a habit of following Zinneman to the local graveyard where he likes to practice at night. No one is quite sure what he learned from Zinneman during those late night sessions, but when he returned home from Hazelhurst (Zinneman’s origins), not only could he play and sing anything from country to pop to polka, but he was also writing songs as well. Some years later, at the age of 27, Robert was poisoned by the jealous husband or boyfriend of a woman he had been flirting with earlier in the evening at a dance he had been performing.
Why We Owe Blues Music
These are just two examples of the type of individuals who shaped the art of music as we currently know it. From the basis of pain and suffering has come a source of expression that affects us all because of its raw, truthful energy that is extremely adaptable. No matter what you go through in life or where you’ve been, there is a song that has its roots in blues that can ease the feelings and thoughts going through your mind and soul. I have long said that music is my medicine, but now I see how it afforded so much more than just my spoiled idea of inner pain. The music has roots deep in American history and will continue to leave its legacy through the many lives it will inevitably touch. I owe a lot to Blues music. I think we all do. So, with that, I say thank you to those who took part in the revolution of music – and, without even meaning to, the revolution of the human spirit.