Before the proverbial ink is dry on the previous blog post, I am here with the promised 37 page essay that forms the introduction to the book and the documentary series Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues. This has been on my mind a lot lately, and I would be reading it multiple times in the future. The writing gets richer as you get acquainted with each Bluesman.
One would be hard pressed to find a more comprehensive and readable walk-through of the hundred years of the Blues. It treads the thin line between an emotional attachment with the Blues makers and being a comprehensive big picture view of the whole expanse of the Blues, knowing and showing where each of these Blues fit. Most writings on Blues, especially when talking about it’s history get rather annoyingly sterile and academic. This one’s a rare beast though. And as I said before, as you discover the music, the essay sounds so much more vivid.
A moment in the TVseries Treme caught me off-guard recently. A jazz trumpet player, Delmond is whining about the lack of people’s interest in Jelly Roll Morton’s music, how it is called ‘ancient’. Comparatively, European classical music of up-to 300-500 years back is considered contemporary and people experiment with it, listen to it as popular music, while someone like a Morton, barely 60-70 years hence is considered ancient.
That is a very wise and astute observation. Perhaps the old Delta Blues come from a time of racial embarrassments that the cultural consciousness wants to forget about. I could understand why young Black children are not navigating towards the Blues. Nevertheless, one would think that a period of such rich musical heritage choc-a-bloc full of talent wherever you look would have passionate writing describing all of it. Alas, though, one has to follow obsessive audiophiles having a loyal ear for their favorite Blues artists, and their inspirations. Piecing together the whole big picture as a newbie listener is an exhausting and bewildering experience. How much can one take in? How does one connect musical inspirations, career paths, development of musical styles, and musical centres of excellence, of how the records business evolved. This is fascinating stuff.
Dip in. Very highly recommended.
A Century Of The Blues
- Robert Santelli
1903. The place: Tutwiler, a tiny town in the Mississippi Delta, halfway between Greenwood and Clarksdale. It is dusk, and the sky is rich in summer color. The slight breeze, when it visits, is warm and wet with humidity.
William Christopher Handy, better known by his initials, W.C., waits on the wooden platform for a train heading north. Handy, the recently departed bandleader for Mahara’s Minstrels, a black orchestra that mostly plays dance music and popular standards of the day, is a learned musician who understands theory and the conventions of good, respectable music. He had joined the Minstrels as a cornet player when he was twenty-two years old and traveled widely with them: the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Cuba. In time, he became their band director. Now, some seven years later, here he is, fresh from agreeing to lead the black Clarksdale band Knights of Pythias.
The train is late, so Handy does the only thing he can do: He waits patiently, trying to stay cool, passing the time with idle thoughts, and scanning the scenery for anything that might prove the least bit interesting. Finally succumbing to boredom, Handy dozes off, only to be awakened by the arrival of another man who sits down nearby and begins to play the guitar. His clothes tattered and his shoes beyond worn, the man is a sad specimen, especially compared to Handy, whose clothes bespeak a black sophistication not often seen in these parts.
The man plays and Handy listens, growing increasingly interested in the informal performance. Handy, of course, has heard many people, black and white, play guitar before, but not the way this man plays it. He doesn’t finger the strings normally; instead, he presses a pocketknife against them, sliding it up and down to create a slinky sound, something akin to what Hawaiian guitarists get when they press a steel bar to the strings.
But it isn’t just the unusual manner in which the poor black man plays his guitar. What he sings, and how he sings it, is equally compelling. “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog”: Most people around these parts know that “the Southern” is a railroad reference, and that “the Dog” is short for “Yellow Dog,” local slang for the Yazoo Delta line. The man is singing about where the Southern line and the Yazoo Delta line intersect, at a place called Moorhead. But something about the way the man practically moans it for added emphasis, repeating it three times, strikes Handy hard; the combination of sliding guitar, wailing voice, repeated lyrics, and the man’s emotional honesty is incredibly powerful. Handy doesn’t realize it yet, but this moment is an important one in his life, and an important one in the history of American music as well. The description of this incident, written about by Handy thirty-eight years later in his autobiography, is one of the earliest detailed descriptions of the blues ever written by a black man.
Handy called his book Father of the Blues. It’s a good title for a book—but not, strictly speaking, an accurate one. What Handy did on that railroad platform in Mississippi a century ago was witness the blues, not give birth to it. But there’s no disputing that he was forever after a changed man. “The effect was unforgettable,” he wrote. Even so, he found it hard to bring the blues into his own musical vocabulary. Wrote Handy: “As a director of many respectable, conventional bands, it was not easy for me to concede that a simple slow-drag-and-repeat could be rhythm itself. Neither was I ready to believe that this was just what the public wanted.”
But later, during a Cleveland, Mississippi, performance, Handy’s band was outshone—and outpaid—by a local trio playing blues similar to what he heard in Tutwiler. Shortly thereafter, Handy became a believer. “Those country black boys at Cleveland had taught me something… My idea of what constitutes music was changed by the sight of that silver money cascading around the splay feet of a Mississippi string band,” wrote Handy.
In 1909 Handy penned a political campaign song, “Mr. Crump,” for the Memphis mayor. He later changed the title to “The Memphis Blues” and published it in 1912. The song was a hit. Entrepreneurially savvy, Handy delved deeper into the music, following it with “The St. Louis Blues,” “Joe Turner Blues,” “The Hesitating Blues,” “Yellow Dog Blues,” “Beale Street,” and other blues and blues-based compositions. Their commercial success made Handy well-off but, more importantly, solidified the idea that the blues could exist in mainstream music settings, beyond black folk culture. The blues had arrived, thanks to W.C. Handy. American music would never be the same.
No one really knows for certain when or where the blues was born. But by the time of Handy’s initial success with the music in 1912, it’s safe to say it had been a viable black folk-music form in the South for at least two decades. With a couple exceptions, ethnomusicologists didn’t become interested in the blues until later, thus missing prime opportunities to document the origins of the music and to record its pioneers. Still, there are enough clues to indicate that the blues most likely came out of the Mississippi Delta in the late nineteenth century.
Like all music forms—folk, pop, or classical—the blues evolved, rather than being born suddenly. So to understand the origins of the blues, you need to take a look at what came before it. You need to go back to the early part of the seventeenth century, when African slaves were first brought to the New World. Europeans involved in the slave trade stripped as much culture from their human cargo as possible before their arrival in the New World. But music was so embedded in the day-to-day existence of the African men and women caught in this horrific business that it was impossible to tear their songs from their souls. In West Africa, where many of the slaves came from, virtually everything was celebrated with singing and dancing: births, marriages, war, famine, religious beliefs, hunts, death. To eliminate music from an enslaved West African was to kill him.
Not that white slave owners in the New World permitted West African music rituals to exist without condition on early plantations along the Eastern Seaboard. Some slave owners forbade any music made by slaves, fearful that rebellious messaging could be encoded in the rhythms and chants. Other slave owners permitted limited music, particularly in the fields. Singing, the owners eventually realized, produced more and better work from the slaves. More liberal slave owners allowed singing and dancing during days of rest and holidays but often under the watchful eye of a work foreman or field master. Then there were those slave OWNERS, a minority to be sure, who actually trained some of their slaves in Western music theory so that they’d be able to entertain guests at white socials and other plantation events. These slaves played stringed, woodwind, and keyboard instruments and created ensembles that played both popular and sacred music.
The earliest indication that slaves other than those specially trained were able to participate in music celebration beyond their own indigenous strains happened in the church. In the early eighteenth century, during the religious revival period known as the Great Awakening, there existed a desire to make Christians out of the pagan slaves. This missionary zeal swept the American colonies as slaves were taught the teachings of the Bible and spent much of their Sundays in church, albeit a segregated church. While white churchgoers sang hymns with stiff rhythms that required formalized responses from the congregation, Christian slaves sang hymns, too, but were unable to contain their enthusiasm when asked to sing God’s praises. Over time, swinging rhythms, hand clapping, foot stomping, and improvised shouts made black Christian music significantly different from the sounds emanating from white churches. The hymns might have been the same, but the singing surely wasn’t.
Eventually, black sacred folk songs of redemption and salvation, and of the triumph of hope over despair, created a genre called the Negro spiritual. Songs such as “Go Down, Moses” and “Roll, Jordan, Roll” were sung in the church and in the fields, as slaves seldom regarded the separation of sacred and secular music. The Negro spiritual didn’t gain popularity beyond the black community until the 1870s, when Fisk University, a newly appointed black college in Nashville, sought to raise money via a musical tour by its choir. The Fisk Jubilee Singers played not only to white audiences in the United States but also in Europe, prompting attention to the Negro spiritual as a creditable sacred folk-music form.
“THE ST. LOUIS BLUES”
By W.C. Handy
I hate to see the evening sun go down
I hate to see the evening sun go down
It makes me think I’m on my last go ‘round
Feelin’ tomorrow like I feel today
Feelin’ tomorrow like I feel today
I’ll pack my grip and make my getaway
St. Louis woman wears her diamond ring
Pulls a man around by her apron string
Wasn’t for powder and this store-bought hair
The man I love wouldn’t go nowhere, nowhere
I got them St. Louis blues, just as blue as I can be
He’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea
Or else he would not go so far from me.
The blues would borrow from Negro spirituals as well as from field hollers, the most primitive of black music. Field hands didn’t exactly holler as much as they whooped, moaned, and sang in sudden and completely improvised ways. A rhythm might come to mind and a melody, too, and then made-up lyrics, perhaps reflecting an approaching storm, a Saturday social, or the resolute stubbornness of a mule. Work songs were more organized musical expressions. Actually, a worker, be it a slave or a post-Civil War sharecropper, could make any song into a work song, if he sang it while working. But many work songs were sung by groups of workers, particularly those picking cotton or laying railroad track or building a levee, who seemed to move in a rhythmic unison. Work songs didn’t make the work easier, just a tiny bit more tolerable.
Black folk songs, some of which could be considered work songs, like “John Henry,” helped give rise to the blues too. In the song, Henry, a big, strapping black railroad worker, works himself to death trying to outdo a mechanized steel drill. Another song, “Stagolee,” (a.k.a. Stagger Lee) tells the tale of a black con man. These musical narratives created characters, outlined plots, and usually contained some kind of lesson for the listener.
Spirituals, work songs, folk songs-these nineteenth-century black music forms were forged with the last of the major blues influences, the minstrel. No other American form is as wrapped in shame as the minstrel, yet there is no doubt of the music’s popularity in the nineteenth century, first with white audiences and then with black. Minstrelsy, born in the years before the Civil War, consisted of white singers and actors in corked blackface coarsely ridiculing black southern plantation life for white audiences, many of which were based up North. They lampooned black slang and superstitions, physical features, and virtually everything else connected to the black man’s condition in antebellum America. Dancing and singing songs inspired by black folk music, minstrel entertainers portrayed the typical black slave as little more than a clown or ignoramus. After emancipation and the end of the Civil War, whites grew less interested in minstrel shows. Rather than let minstrelsy die (which, admittedly, had created a canon of black-flavored music from the likes of Stephen Foster and other white composers), black singers and dancers eager for the opportunity to scratch out livings as entertainers adopted the form. Using burnt cork on their already dark-skinned faces, which, looking back today, seems to be the ultimate racial insult, black entertainers re-created minstrelsy by presenting the song-and-dance skits to their own people as a form of musical comedy. Black minstrelsy peaked in the late 1870s, and although the traveling minstrel entertainers were black, as were their audiences, the troupes were owned by whites, including Mahara’s Minstrels.
“Music did bring me to the gutter. It brought me to sleep on the levee of the Mississippi River, on the cobblestones, broke and hungry. And if you’ve ever slept on cobblestones or had nowhere to sleep, you can understand why I began [‘The St. Louis Blues’] with ‘I hate to see the evening sun go down.’”–W.C. Handy
With so many influences, it is surprising that the blues should be such a “simple” music form—at least on the surface. Lyrically, the blues is about repetition. A first line is sung and then repeated with perhaps a slight variation: “My baby, oh, she left me, and that’s no lie/Well, I said my baby, oh, she left me, and no way that’s a lie.” These two lines are followed by a third line that answers the first two: “Wish my baby’d get back to me, before I lay down and die.”
Musicologists call this the “A-A-B” pattern. The best blues songwriters pack a whole lot of narrative into such simple lyrical patterns, as the blues has a way of telling its own story. Good love gone bad, evil women and worse men, alcohol, poverty, death, prejudice, despair, hope, the devil, and the search for better days figure into many blues songs. The great bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell once said, “The blues, it jus’ keeps goin’ on, goin’ on…Know why? ‘Cause the blues is the story of life and the spice of life.” Mississippi Fred hit it right on the head.
Musically, the blues introduced the “blue” note, one of the most significant contributions to American music made by black culture. These notes are usually made by flattening—lowering by a half step—the third, fifth, or seventh positions of a major scale. Presenting all kinds of emotional possibilities for the musician, blue notes give the blues its special feel, and when they are draped around a blues chord progression, the results can be so rich and human, that it satisfies the soul in a way no other music can.
By the late 1890s, it is likely that the blues had taken all its influences and evolved into a form of its own on the plantations that thrived in the Mississippi Delta during this period. Since the blues was born black, the Delta provided the community support necessary for the music to flourish. In the summer, the most tortured of seasons in the Deep South, the large stretch of land known as the Mississippi Delta is as hot as it is flat. During the day, the sun bakes the landscape, much of it below sea level, with nary a rise or hill rump in sight. The seemingly endless fields of cotton, the Delta’s principal crop, and the scattered small hamlets, with names like Lula and Bobo, can be paralyzed by the heat and humidity.
The Delta’s blues legacy is larger than its physical domain. Only 160 miles long from Memphis to the north, to Vicksburg to the south, and some fifty miles wide, it is not even a true delta, as in the area around the mouth of a river. Rather, it is a remarkably fertile alluvial plain, with soil as dark as the laborers forced to work it. The Delta has its rivers; one of them, the mighty Mississippi, is its western border. One of the more compelling stories of Delta history has to do with man’s attempt to keep the Mississippi River out. Long and high levees built by former slaves and sons of slaves in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries kept, more or less, the river from overflowing onto the plantations that grew out of early Delta farms after the land was cleared of its old growth forest.
During the years after the Civil War, known as the period of Reconstruction, the commercial success of cotton made many of the white southern plantation families wealthy. Acres and acres of cotton were planted and picked by black workers and then shipped to Memphis. Having so many fields that needed tending guaranteed work for thousands of black laborers, making the ratio of black to white in the Delta nearly ten to one. Although black workers now had their freedom, in reality they were bound to the plantation, because they worked for a pittance and often owed money to the plantation store for the high-priced goods sold there. Jim Crow laws, the rise of racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, and prejudice at every turn made it all but impossible for blacks to enjoy the freedom and dignity that whites did. It was a cruel existence, and the blues documented the black man’s woes better than any other form of cultural expression.
The earliest places a person could hear the blues were probably at socials, parties, fish fries, and in juke joints, small shacks on the outskirts of the plantation, where blacks converged on Saturday nights to drink cheap whiskey and dance. The earliest bluesmen were probably local plantation workers who owned a guitar or banjo, had a knack for singing and entertaining, and played for tips. Later, as the blues matured and grew more popular, bluesmen became itinerant entertainers, going from juke to juke, living a life of whiskey, song, women, and wandering.
With its large black population, the Mississippi Delta was the perfect place for the blues to grow, but it wasn’t the only place down South where the music thrived. By the turn of the century, the blues had surfaced in west Texas, the Arkansas Delta on the western side of the Mississippi River, Louisiana, and even in Georgia and the Carolinas. The spread of the blues was organic and irregular. The blues pioneers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had no clue as to the emerging importance of the music they played. There was no way for them to know or even imagine that the blues would have implications far beyond the juke joint, that it would become the foundation for virtually every popular-music form—jazz, rhythm & blues, rock & roll, soul, funk, hip-hop—of the new century. What these blues musicians did know was that when they played, people listened, threw some money into their hat, maybe bought them a pint of whiskey. And that was good enough for them.
It’s important to note that in the early years of blues history, few of the musicians who played the blues played just blues. Most likely interspersed into their collection of songs were spirituals, folk standards, pop favorites, just about anything that would make a crowd of people take note. The idea of specializing in a particular music form and calling oneself a blues musician was something that, like the music itself, occurred over time. Early bluesmen were really songsters, musicians who played a variety of songs, often in different styles. Their aim was to entertain—and to profit from it in some capacity.
“WE WEAR THE MASK” 
By Paul Laurence Dunbar
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O Great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh, the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise, We wear the mask.
The blues spread throughout the South in the early twentieth century, thanks to itinerant musicians carrying what they learned in one place to another. Traveling medicine and minstrel shows often used musicians who played the blues, thus giving the music a more structured entertainment platform. Not all black folks frequented juke joints, of course, but many showed up in the town square when a traveling troupe came by. They listened, laughed, and danced, and some of them even bought elixirs and potions guaranteed to cure whatever ailed you.
The early blues musician accompanied himself on guitar, or occasionally on banjo or mandolin. Poorer musicians might have played only the harmonica or simply sang. Mostly, the blues musician was a solo artist, though duos were not uncommon. Also, black string bands or small orchestras, the kind led by W.C. Handy, began to play blues as the form grew in popularity. Handy’s sheet-music success with tunes such as “The Memphis Blues” and “The St. Louis Blues” enabled the music to expand beyond the poor black community. Black piano players who worked in saloons and whorehouses in southern cities also began adding blues to their repertoire. In New Orleans, where local musicians were more apt to play cornets and piano than guitars or harmonicas, thanks to the popularity of parades, marching bands, and social clubs, blues was one of the bases for “jazzing up” songs. As early as the 1890s, Charles “Buddy” Bolden, a gifted cornet player, had begun “jazzing” songs in New Orleans, as opposed to “ragging” them, which is what you did when you played ragtime, a black-created American music form popular in the 1890s and early 1900s. Bolden influenced a whole generation of horn players to do the same. Blues was a good foundation from which to jazz a song, and the black musicians who followed in Bolden’s footsteps—in particular, a young Louis Armstrong—were as much blues musicians as they were experimenters in this new sound, jazz.
Throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century, the blues matured and became increasingly popular in the black community, both rural and urban. Though white musicians, especially down South, knew about the blues and borrowed ideas from the music, the blues didn’t truly penetrate white music culture until later, when artists such as Jimmie Rodgers incorporated blues into their hillbilly sound.
The turning point for the blues occurred in 1920. Although the phonograph had been around since the late 1870s—the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company had been established by Thomas Edison in New York in 1878, the same year that Emile Berliner patented his “gramophone”—it wasn’t until the turn of the century that entrepreneurs figured out a successful way to market prerecorded music. Columbia Records began selling discs in 1900; three years later the Victor company got into the business. From the outset these companies and others targeted white consumers.
In 1920 a black composer, Perry Bradford, convinced OKeh Records to record a song he had written, “Crazy Blues,” with the singer Mamie Smith, an African-American. Prior to 1920, few in the fledgling recording business thought blacks would buy records. Too poor, they reckoned; even if they did have the money, no one knew whether or not they would spend it on music for the home. Bradford’s idea paid off—handsomely. “Crazy Blues” was reputed to have sold nearly seventy-five thousand copies in the first month of its release. Other companies noticed, and, almost overnight, the “race” record industry was born, based on the success of the first blues record.
“Crazy Blues” wasn’t a pure blues record by today’s standards. It did, though, contain enough blues strains to warrant calling it a blues record. Mamie Smith’s background was vaudeville and cabaret. Based on the success of Smith and “Crazy Blues,” the blues soared in popularity. Other recording companies quickly signed black female singers to make blues records; most of the time the women had backgrounds similar to Smith’s. It wasn’t until a young, Chattanooga-born woman arrived on the scene in 1923 that the blues found its first authentic star. Her name was Bessie Smith.
Smith, no relation to Mamie, didn’t just sing the blues—she made you believe the music was the blood running through her veins. A tall, hefty woman, she delivered full-bodied stories of despair and vivid lyrical descriptions of a world where misery was no stranger to the downtrodden. Sung with a voice as big as she was, her blues was profound, and Bessie acquired the title Empress of the Blues. Without question, she was the best and most influential female blues artist of the 1920s, a decade that would become known as the “classic blues era.” Just about every blues woman who followed her, and many jazz and gospel singers, too, was touched by her emotional intensity and consuming delivery.
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey would make music history in the 1920s as well. While the younger Bessie was crowned the blues empress, Rainey was called the Mother of the Blues by her record company (and later also by music historians). Rainey’s blues was raw, earthy, very authentic—a true link to the blues singers, men and women who pioneered the music, and those, like Bessie Smith, who would make blues records and become blues stars in the twenties.
Many blues historians figured that Rainey was Smith’s mentor and that everything Ma knew about the blues she taught to Bessie. More recent accounts of the Rainey-Smith connection describe it as “adversarial,” or at least highly competitive. Whatever the case, Smith probably learned some things about singing the blues from Rainey when they toured together in 1912 with the Moses Stokes Company. Rainey was just too convincing a blues singer to ignore. But what made Smith the bigger-selling (and, ultimately, the more accomplished) artist was her range and versatility. Smith also endeared herself to young women, black and white, with her self-assuredness. When she sang “ ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” with the lyrics “If I go to church on Sunday/Then just shimmy down on Monday/’Tain’t nobody’s business if I do …”
Smith began her recording career in 1923, the same year Rainey began hers. By this time virtually all of the recording companies of the day were on to “race” records, and talent scouts scampered about looking for black women who could sing the blues. They found none with Smith’s pedigree, but singers like Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, and Clara Smith (no relation to either Mamie or Bessie), among others, made more than competent blues records. Many of these women didn’t have Smith’s natural talent or the hardened blues edge that Rainey did. Most came from vaudeville and cabaret backgrounds and focused on the blues when it meant better-paying performances and the chance to record.
Bessie Smith recorded for Columbia for ten years, making more than 160 records, often with the likes of first-rate jazzmen such as Louis Armstrong, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, pianists James P. Johnson and Fletcher Henderson, and clarinetist Buster Bailey. Just about all the records made by classic blueswomen in the 1920s were made with jazz musicians. No musician of note back then considered himself only a “blues” artist. This was the Jazz Age, after all, and the boundaries that historians would use later on to separate blues from jazz didn’t exist in the 1920s. Nightclubs in black sections of northern cities like New York’s Harlem featured jazz bands and blues singers on the same bill. Both blacks and whites listened to it, danced to it, and made it a vital part of the cultural story of the 1920s.
If the classic blues sound was almost exclusively female driven and urban, the country-blues sound that existed at the same time was male dominated and rural. Country-blues artists often performed solo on a street corner. Some of the earliest country-blues recordings occurred after record company talent scouts traveled south to find new sounds. Companies such as OKeh, Paramount, Gennett, and Vocalion all sent scouts to find artists to record on portable equipment set up in hotel rooms, empty warehouses, or wherever there was enough room and quiet to make the recordings. Record companies also recorded country-blues artists in New York, Chicago, and Grafton, Wisconsin, where recording studios existed. Country-blues musicians unaware of this new business of recording would eagerly record and sign away rights for a few dollars. The chance to hear themselves on a Victrola and earn quick money proved irresistible.
Artists such as Papa Charlie Jackson and Daddy Stovepipe were among the handful of male country artists to record in the early 1920s. But it wasn’t until two sightless street musicians—Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake—recorded their songs that country blues made its mark commercially. Though country blues in the 1920s seemed richest in the Mississippi Delta (where, later in the decade, nearly a dozen seminal artists would make some of the most powerful country blues in the pre-World War II period), neither Jefferson nor Blake resided there.
Jefferson was a Texas singer/guitar player whose blues repertoire also included robust amounts of hymns and folk standards, plus dance, rag, and pop songs of the day. Despite his handicap, Jefferson’s versatility kept him traveling extensively throughout the South, playing country jukes and small towns, as well as cities. When Paramount began recording him in 1925, Jefferson was a seasoned entertainer and musician who had perfected a blues style culled from more than a decade of playing for tips on street corners.
A number of Jefferson recordings, including “Match Box Blues,” “Black Snake Moan,” and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” demonstrate Jefferson’s talent for breaking the rhythm dramatically, answering his own vocals with fingerpicked flourishes. His wide use of improvisational twists and turns made his music interesting and unconventional, while his song lyrics, like those of so many other country-bluesmen of his time, centered on hard times, with double entendres spicing things up. Jefferson’s popularity made him the best-selling country-blues artist of the 1920s. By the time of his sudden death in Chicago in 1929, he had been traveling with a chauffeur and living more lavishly than just about any other country-blues artist of the time. With a catalogue of more than eighty songs, Jefferson took full advantage of a recording career that lasted only a few years.
Arthur “Blind” Blake came out of the Southeast and began his recording career in 1926. Little is known of his personal life, but musically his blues style told an entirely different story than Jefferson’s, suggesting that country blues in general had matured to such a point by the mid-1920s that different geographic regions yielded different blues styles, all of which contributed to a growing blues catalogue.
An exceptional guitarist, Blind Blake’s syncopated blues numbers featured some of the most elaborate fingerpicking of the period. Blake, as well as other first-generation southeastern blues guitarists, also infused liberal amounts of ragtime-influenced elements into his music, creating a bouncy and bright sound. Lyrically, Blake mixed his themes. In some songs, particularly “Diddie Wa Diddie,” “Skeedle Loo Doo Blues,” and “Come On Boys, Let’s Do That Messin’ Around,” Blake lightened things up with the kind of lyrics that would keep a party going and attract sizable tips. However, in other songs, Blake bit down hard on police brutality (“Police Dog Blues”), lynchings (“Rope Stretching Blues”), and black despair (“Bad Feeling Blues”).
Because he had thin vocals, Blind Blake’s guitar was his primary voice. Blake recorded through most of 1932, with some eighty titles to his credit, many of which remain rag-guitar masterpieces, prompting a whole generation of East Coast blues musicians to be influenced by his style.
The Mississippi Delta’s closest contender for the commercial success garnered by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake came from Charley Patton. With a gruff, hoarse voice (imagine Tom Waits singing country blues) and an equally rugged guitar style, Patton was the single most influential early Delta bluesman. Distinguished blues writer Robert Palmer put Patton “among the most important musicians twentieth-century America has produced.”
In addition to creating a brand of blues featuring complex rhythms, accented by percussive taps on his guitar, elongated melodies, and a slide-guitar technique that cut a path virtually every other Delta bluesmen had to acknowledge, Patton was also a convincing songwriter, often including in his songs astute social commentary. “Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues” told of the plague of insects that destroyed many Mississippi farms in the early 1900s. Both part one and part two of “High Water Everywhere” describe the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. “Dry Well Blues” is about a Mississippi drought; “Moon Going Down” told of the destruction by fire of a Clarksdale mill. Patton also sang of personal experiences. When he was arrested in the town of Belzoni, he gave his side in “High Sheriff Blues” and “Tom Rushen Blues.” He contemplated leaving Mississippi in “Going to Move to Alabama.”
Charley Patton also lived the life that mythologized the idea of a bluesman. He was a heavy drinker, a carouser, a womanizer, a brawler, once getting his throat slashed in a fight. Mainly Patton clowned around, never giving much thought to getting serious with things other than entertaining people. Living large with little, Patton was known to tear up a juke with performances on guitar that included playing the instrument behind his head or while laying on the floor, or throwing his instrument up in the air, catching it, and resuming playing, never missing a beat.
Despite his popularity in the Delta, Patton didn’t get the chance to record until 1929, when Paramount took the suggestion of talent scout H.C. Speir to cut some sides with the Delta bluesman. Despite Patton’s huge place in early blues history, his record sales never approached those of Jefferson’s or Blake’s. One reason might have been that Pattoris sandpaper voice and unique guitar style didn’t translate as well on record as they did in the juke joint. Or it might have been that Paramount just got to Patton too late.
Like many things in America, the race-record industry came crashing down in late 1929, when the nation said goodbye to prosperity and hello to economic calamity. The Depression killed the Jazz Age and with it the notion that life was one big party. Female blues singers who had become materially comfortable, wearing fancy clothes and acting every part the diva, were soon back living the blues, not just singing them. Nightclubs closed. Theaters featuring revues and vaudeville-styled acts now showed Hollywood films. Performance opportunities disappeared, and recording sessions were scarce. Record sales, even among African-Americans, one of the most loyal music-consumer groups, dropped steadily. There was never any question whether or not the blues would survive. The music, after all, had always dealt with themes of despair and deprivation. It was the most Depression-proof music America had. What was in question was whether the business of the blues would make it through the earliest, most damaging years of the 1930s.
It did, but barely. The classic blues era effectively ended in 1929, although major blues performers such as Bessie Smith continued on. Smith recorded the song “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” that year, a personal and national reflection of the mood that suddenly covered America. Two years later, Columbia Records ended its nearly decade-long association with Smith, although she did record one more time, in 1933, thanks to the persistence of a young talent scout named John Hammond.
Bessie Smith died in a car crash in Mississippi in 1937. Ma Rainey passed on in 1939. Many of the other classic female blues singers resorted to singing in southern tent shows or small clubs up North, or just faded away as demand for their brand of the blues dried up. America had changed, and so, therefore, must its music. The romping sounds of Dixieland, or Traditional Jazz, as twenties jazz would become known, had evolved into swing and big-band dance music. Blues gave up its “classic” sound, ending the only time the musical form would ever be dominated by women. Down South, country blues remained popular, but many artists lost the chance to record because field trips diminished and record companies were less eager to invest in race recordings. Up North, transplanted bluesmen (and a few women, particularly one known as Memphis Minnie) settled in cities like Chicago and began performing together in combos, which would sow the seeds for the electric-blues-band revolution of the 1950s.
One of the few record companies that had managed to survive the economic crash and that continued to record blues artists in the 1930s was Bluebird, a subsidiary of the Victor label. Producer and talent scout Lester Melrose made it the most significant blues record label in the 1930s. Based in Chicago, Melrose and Bluebird favored artists who came out of country blues but who had the vision to alter their sound to make it more urban and therefore more attractive to black Americans living in northern cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Gary, Indiana. These African-Americans, many of whom had come north in the teens and 1920s looking for better economic opportunities, had been introduced to singers and performers who favored thicker, jazzier musical accompaniment in the form of drums and piano. To them, the sound seemed hotter and more exciting than the sound generated by a singer and a single acoustic guitar, the trademark accompaniment of country blues. Transplanted southern black musicians like Big Bill Broonzy easily made the transition from country to city and ended up some of the era’s most important recording artists.
Broonzy was born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas; he served in the army during World War I, making him more aware of life outside the South and making it more difficult for him to return home to the cotton fields and live as a black sharecropper. In 1920, Broonzy moved north, settling in Chicago, where he set aside his original instrument, the fiddle, and picked up a guitar, learning much by hanging around with blues old-timer Papa Charlie Jackson. Broonzy also learned from a bigger blues stalwart, Tampa Red, whose wife rented rooms in Chicago, mostly to young musicians just off the train from Memphis or Mississippi. Tampa Red, whose real name was Hudson Whittaker, first recorded in 1928, with Paramount and then Vocalion. Overnight, Red grew famous for a duet he had recorded with Georgia Tom Dorsey called “It’s Tight Like That.” The risque number was a big seller, not only because of its bawdy lyrics but also because of Red’s hot guitar licks. One of the seminal songs of the period, it ushered in a blues trend called “hokum” that featured loose rhythms and cleverly penned, ribald lyrics. Red even formed a combo called Tampa Red’s Hokum Jug Band, which artfully defined the hokum style, after his partner, Georgia Tom Dorsey, moved from secular to sacred music. Dorsey found God after the success of “It’s Tight Like That” and used his musical genius to help create the modern gospel sound. A pianist, songwriter, and shrewd businessman, Dorsey formed the Thomas A. Dorsey Gospel Songs Music Publishing Company, writing hundreds of gospel tunes, including the monumental “Precious Lord.” Over time, Dorsey became known as the Father of Gospel Music, while his old blues partner, Tampa Red, was dubbed the Guitar Wizard.
If Big Bill Broonzy learned the rudiments of the blues from Papa Charlie Jackson, he picked up the music’s subtleties from Tampa Red. Broonzy jumped into the hokum craze, recording in 1930 with the Famous Hokum Boys, who cut blues party songs rich with rag-flavored strains and jumpy rhythms.
Broonzy recorded right through the Depression years in a variety of settings: solo, duet, combo. He was, perhaps, the most versatile blues artist of the period and one of its best-selling recording artists. Folk blues, country blues, hokum, prototype urban blues—they were all part of his repertoire. With Broonzy, Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, guitarist Scrapper Blackwell, and piano player Leroy Carr, the thirties urban-blues sound was rich and lively.
Down South, despite the Depression, country blues served its audience equally well. Memphis, with Beale Street as its nerve center, contained the region’s blues heartbeat. Although Memphis lacked its own record company, field recordings were still occasionally done there for the northern record companies, attracting blues musicians harboring the hope of making records like the ones heard on Victrolas in black communities throughout the South.
Located on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River and at the northern edge of the Mississippi Delta, just over the Mississippi-Tennessee state line, Memphis
became the mid-South’s cotton center in the post-Civil War years. Cotton commerce kept the city busy and flowing with money. A large black population was already in place by the turn of the century, and with Beale Street cooking on Saturday nights, it was no wonder blues musicians flocked to Memphis from the neighboring Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas and from western Tennessee.
Ever since the mid-1920s, when Will Shade’s group, the Memphis Jug Band, recorded for the blues talent scout Ralph Peer in Memphis, part of the city’s blues scene consisted of jug bands, informal groups of musicians, some of which played homemade instruments like the washtub bass and the whiskey jug. Jug bands also featured banjo, harmonica, and fiddle players mixed with, say, a couple of guitarists, and maybe a kazoo player.
Members came and went. Formalized structure was an anathema to jug bands. Playing hokum and hokum-styled blues with a little of this and some of that thrown in for good measure, jug bands were as popular at parties as they were on street corners, and by the mid-1930s they had become an essential part of the Memphis blues scene. Although other cities down South had their own jug bands, no jug-band scene was ever as lively or as good as the one in Memphis. Other popular Memphis-based jug bands that made records included the Beale Street Sheiks and Cannon’s Jug Stampers, with Gus Cannon on banjo.
Memphis also had its share of more traditional blues artists, solo singer/guitarists who wandered the region, worked the corners and alleyways of Beale Street and played parks and parties around town. If they hadn’t been born in Memphis, chances are such blues musicians came from the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas or rural Tennessee towns. Brownsville, Tennessee, for instance, was the home of bluesmen Sleepy John Estes, Hammie Nixon, and Yank Rachell. Some of these places had small blues scenes of their own, but there was greater opportunity in Memphis, and most blues artists at least passed through the city at one time or another.
Memphis might have been the South’s urban center, but no region possessed the richness or the number of major blues figures of the Mississippi Delta. From the earliest blues origins in the late nineteenth century through the Depression years and even beyond, the Delta was, in a word, bluesland. The region turned out one great blues musician after another mainly because the blues was an indelible part of black life and owned a significant part of its cultural landscape.
Living and working conditions were harsh in Mississippi, giving blues songsters plenty to write about. Music was a real escape; it took black people away from the drudgery of fieldwork, the poverty of their homes, and prejudice that greeted them practically every time they came in contact with a white man or woman. The juke joint, where blues could be heard either blaring out of a Victrola or played live in the corner of the room, became a black oasis, a place where your guard could be let down, your soul bared, and your feelings of despair lost in a haze of music, kinship, and whiskey.
Thus, the surroundings were indeed right for the blues to flourish in the Mississippi Delta, and they did just that. Charley Patton died in 1934, but he was just one of a number of Delta bluesmen who had perfected a blues style and gotten it onto record before the Depression, or just as it hit. Son House, Tommy Johnson, Tommy McClennan, Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt, all major Delta blues stylists, unveiled the rich diversity of Delta blues with their late 1920s and early 1930s recordings.
If there was an equal to Patton’s blues pedigree, it came from House. He knew Patton, shared a mutual friend in blues guitarist Willie Brown, traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin, in 1930 to record for Paramount Records with them, and worked many of the same Mississippi juke joints and fish fries. Like a few other blues artists from the period, House had always been torn between God’s music and the devil’s, as blues was often called, even in the black community. The saints and sinners that did battle in House’s soul produced some of the most riveting blues of the period. House played guitar with a furious intensity, as if his life depended on it, and he sang with equal conviction. With Son House, the blues possessed an emotional intensity that was not easily replicated.
Skip James owned a similar story. Born into a religious family in Bentonia, Mississippi, James learned to play piano before he picked up the guitar. The blues came easy to James, and in 1930 he was discovered by H.C. Speir, who sent James to Grafton to record on the heels of House, Patton, and Brown. James’ blues sound was like no other. With a falsetto that was at once mysterious, detached, spooky even, James also sang about the inherent conflict between good and evil. Demons and fallen angels floated through James’ songs, as did Jesus. You could feel the torment that James struggled with in his music. One moment he sings “Be Ready When He Comes” or “Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader,” while in another he describes how he’d “rather be the devil than to be that woman’s man.” Add to all this a compelling and original guitar technique, with its lonely notes, finger-picked and eerie minor chords—quite different than the slashing Delta style of Charley Patton and Son House—and you have in Skip James one of the most artistically significant bluesmen of the period.
There were many other singer/guitarists whose work was critical to the development of Mississippi Delta blues in the late 1920s and 1930s, including Bukka White and Big Joe Williams. Their blues, in addition to the music made by Texas bluesmen such as Blind Willie Johnson, Texas Alexander, and Lead Belly, and those musicians playing blues on the East Coast, following the path cut by Blind Blake—Barbecue Bob, Blind Willie McTell, and Blind Boy Fuller—made this the most creatively fruitful period for country blues.
Despite the blues brilliance that came from these artists, none of them achieved the mark or the place in blues history that a skinny singer/guitarist with extraordinarily large hands did. Robert Johnson cut fewer than thirty songs in a recording career composed of just two sessions in two years. Nonetheless, Johnson became the single most important artist of the country-blues period and one of the most important blues artists of all time, although none of this came to fruition during Johnson’s lifetime. In his biography, fact and fiction are blurred, and wrapped around his legacy are many of the myths and themes that helped give the blues its colorful story.
“STONES IN MY PASSWAY”
By Robert Johnson
I got stones in my passway
And my road seem dark as night
I got stones in my passway
And my road seem dark as night
I have pains in my heart
They have taken my appetite.
I have a bird to whistle
And I have a bird to sing
Have a bird to whistle
And I have a bird to sing
I got a woman that I’m lovin’
Boy, but she don’t mean a thing.
My enemies have betrayed me
Have overtaken poor Bob at last
My enemies have betrayed me
Have overtaken poor Bob at last
And there’s one thing certain
They have stones all in my pass.
Now you tryin’ to take my life
And all my lovin’ too
You laid a passway for me
Now what are you trying to do
I’m cryin’ please
Please let us be friends
And when you hear me howlin’ in my passway, rider
Please open your door and let me in.
I got three legs to truck on
Boys please don’t block my road
I got three legs to truck on
Boys please don’t block my road
I’ve been feelin’ ashamed ‘bout my rider
Babe I’m booked and I got to go.
Johnson, it was believed by some, got his guitar prowess by selling his soul to the devil at a Mississippi Delta crossroads at midnight. More likely, what happened was that Johnson learned by watching Son House and other early Delta bluesmen, by listening to records, and by practicing with a rare fervor that made him an amazing guitarist—seemingly overnight. Johnson didn’t develop a new country-blues style; instead, he absorbed most everything he heard, blending styles, picking up nuances, remembering lyrics and song themes—in general, synthesizing almost everything consequential about the blues up to that point. In that way, Johnson created the ultimate country-blues style.
Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911, making him just old enough in the late twenties to take in the sounds and styles of the great Delta bluesmen who played the dances, socials, house parties, and juke joints all around him. He must have had access to a Victrola because strains of Leroy Carr and other non-Delta bluesmen are woven into Johnson’s blues brand, something he could have only learned from their recordings. From Skip James and Tommy Johnson (no relation), he learned to depict in his lyrics the fight against darkness and light, making his music more intriguing. Some of Johnson’s best songs—”Me and the Devil Blues,” “Cross Road Blues,” “Hellhound on My Trail”—detail this never-ending tug-of-war. He also toyed with black hoodoo culture, of which the crossroads, the place where devilish deals were made, figured prominently.
Johnson’s voice wasn’t pretty or weathered; rather, it was whiny, but in a profound way. It ached, it reached out for comfort, it was dark and lonely, it could stop you in your tracks. But Johnson’s guitar playing was even more stunning. No one, not back then, nor today, has been able to fully reproduce Johnson’s gift to phrase guitar notes and chords so that they answered oh-so-artfully the lyrics he sang. The size of his hands may have had something to do with the way he played. Listening to Johnson you often swear two guitarists are playing, not one. His long fingers reached for notes other guitarists could only dream of, while his penchant for slide guitar and “walking” bass riffs gave his style a remarkably rich language of notes, tones, and sounds. No wonder people thought he made a deal with the devil.
Precious little is known about Johnson’s life; only two photos of him exist. He was born illegitimate, married young, lost his wife during childbirth, traveled widely, was shy yet attracted women wherever he went, and did his share of drinking. He first recorded in a San Antonio hotel room in late 1936. In three days he cut sixteen songs—all of them classics. Less than a year later, this time in a Dallas warehouse, he recorded a second, and final, time. Again the results were legendary. Not long after this session, Johnson was allegedly poisoned in Mississippi by a jealous juke joint owner who accused Johnson of flirting with his wife. Johnson was twenty-seven years old.
Dying so young, Johnson never got the chance to know the importance of his music or his life. His records were not big sellers during the Depression, and when he died he was buried in an unmarked grave. But a quarter century later a collection of his songs put out in album form as King of the Delta Blues Singers became one of the most influential blues albums of all time. Everyone from Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan was moved by Johnson’s music.
The country blues of Robert Johnson had to wait until the 1960s before it became more than a mention in the broader span of American pop music. But for other brands of the blues, that wasn’t the case. In New York, Kansas City, Chicago, and other urban areas, the jazz-blues connection that began in the 1920s not only survived the Depression years but actually flourished. In New York, Duke Ellington made the transition from the roaring twenties to the swinging thirties without a misstep. Swing contained more controlled improvisation and more tightly defined melodies and rhythms than ragtime, making the music more quickly accessible. With all its “swinging” rhythms, it filled the dance floor. The swing band was larger than the Dixieland band, often possessing upwards of a dozen and a half members. Such size made it important for musicians to have more predetermined roles. With a band of incredibly talented players and an artistic vision as broad and innovative as any of the great composer/bandleaders in the twentieth century, Ellington wrote compositions and arrangements that were steeped in the blues. His was a sophisticated sound, gorgeous in its movement, texture, and arranged phrasing, yet always harkening back to the blues. Graceful and rich in meaning, Ellington’s songs dressed up the blues with such style and grace that it would have sounded out of place in country-blues juke joints down South, although, thanks to his incessant touring Ellington and his band were indeed known down South.
Swing had many bandleaders and musicians, black and white, who understood the importance of the blues in this new jazz form. But those who worked out of Kansas City truly made the blues the centerpiece of swing. Walter Page’s band, the Blue Devils, was one of the best of the early Kansas City groups that made blues swing hard and hot. Bennie Moten also had a band with strong blues roots.
“DREAM BOOGIE” 
By Langston Hughes
Good morning, daddy!
Ain’t you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
You’ll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—
It’s a happy beat?
Listen to it closely:
Ain’t you heard
What did I say?
Take it away!
When Moten died suddenly in 1935, William Basie, best known as Count Basie, picked up where Moten had left off. Born in New Jersey, Basie cut his jazz teeth in Harlem in the 1920s before being stranded in Kansas City. A brilliant piano player, Basie emphasized the blues in Moten’s style, opening up brand-new blues possibilities within the jazz framework. Together with musicians such as saxophonist Lester Young and singer Jimmy Rushing, Basie put Kansas City on the blues map and kept it there.
Chicago also had its share of piano players who brought new ideas to the blues. But in the Windy City, one of the styles to flourish was less connected to swing and big-band jazz and more a primal root of rock & roll. In 1928 a young piano player, Clarence Smith, whose friends called him Pine Top, moved from Pittsburgh, where he’d been working with Ma Rainey and others, to Chicago. Smith had a song, “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie,” that rocked rent parties in local black neighborhoods and lent the latter part of its title to one of the most exciting piano styles of the century. Boogie-woogie featured a romping rhythm, driving melodies, bass notes that jumped instead of walked, and an overall upbeat mood that could heat up a room and fill up a dance floor in record time.
Quickly, Chicago became a hub for boogie-woogie. Smith, plus boogie-woogie piano stalwarts Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Jimmy Yancey, all resided in the city during boogie-woogie’s early period; together, they defined the style with their house-rocking sounds.
It wasn’t just jazz that cultivated a relationship to the blues in the 1930s. Although Jimmie Rodgers, a white railroad worker and hillbilly singer, died of tuberculosis in 1933, he had already made his mark by writing a number of prototype country songs with strong blues overtones. Rodgers confirmed that the blues, even in its earliest stages, could be explored successfully by white songwriters and performers. Rodgers grew up poor in Mississippi, where he was early on exposed to the blues. When he started working on the railroad, his blues education continued, prompting him to pen what music historians call some of the earliest country songs—in actuality blues songs written and played by a white man. “Mississippi Delta Blues,” “Long Tall Mama Blues,” and “TB Blues” were just some of the blues songs in Rodgers’ growing repertoire. Rodgers created the “blue yodel” to make his music more distinctive, leading to one of his nicknames, the Blue Yodeler. (Rodgers had a knack for landing nicknames; he was also called the Singing Brakeman and the Father of Country Music.)
Blues strains even began appearing in the music of George Gershwin, one of America’s most distinguished composers. Gershwin’s instrumental composition “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924) became an instant classic in the American music lexicon, and although his opera “Porgy and Bess” (1935) wasn’t directly about the blues, it bore blues themes. Charles Ives and Aaron Copland were among the American classical composers who spoke of the influence blues and other American vernacular music forms had on their own music. In literature, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison brought the blues into their poetry, prose, and essays.
The fascination for blues finally spread into the conventional worlds of academia and governmental institutions. Beginning in the late 1920s and continuing through much of the Depression era, John Lomax, with eventual help from his son, Alan, collected American folk music, mostly for the Library of Congress. For the Lomaxes, music was the pathway into the soul of America. Together they traveled throughout the South, driving the back roads with a tape recorder, searching for songs that told stories and revealed something about the national character. Churches, fields, back porches, even prisons were all places they visited in search of American music.
At the Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana they discovered a convicted murderer, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, who could play guitar and sing songs that reflected African-American culture precisely the way the Lomaxes thought they should. In 1934 Lead Belly earned a pardon from prison after writing a song about Louisiana governor O.K. Allen, in which Lead Belly pleaded for his release. It is not certain how much influence, if any, John Lomax exerted on Allen, but upon going free, Lead Belly began a more formal association with the Lomax family, moving to New York and becoming the elder Lomax’s chauffeur. Lead Belly also began a recording career in the mid-thirties, and although his music seemed out-of-date and too “downhome” for urban blacks, the folk-blues singer struck a warm chord with white audiences, which viewed Lead Belly as an authentic black blues and folk specimen. Young left-leaning radicals in New York embraced him, and Lead Belly gave them back the kind of music that often attacked the bourgeois.
Interest in authentic black music was best represented in 1938 and ‘39 by John Hammond’s From Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall, which brought together black artists from all walks of sacred and secular music. One of the artists he sought most was Robert Johnson; Hammond was fascinated with the sides that Johnson had cut for producer Don Law and hoped to present this mysterious Mississippi bluesman to New York’s urbane music audience, much like an anthropologist might share artifacts from an exotic culture. Hammond, however, was too late. The first concert was slated for December 1938; Johnson had been murdered a few months earlier.
Despite his disappointment in not featuring Johnson, Hammond presented a number of amazing black artists in his From Spirituals to Swing event, which was a great critical success, prompting Hammond to stage a second show the following year. But 1939 would be more remembered as the start of World War II. And even though Germany’s aggression in Poland and later the Low Countries occurred thousands of miles away from the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta, east Texas, and the Carolinas, blacks, and the blues, would be seriously impacted by the events. The world grew darker with each passing month, as war spread through Europe and the threat of war grew stronger in Asia. America was on the sidelines in this brewing epic battle between democracy and fascism, but not for long. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, forcing the U.S. to declare war on Japan. Two days later, America also went to war with Germany and Italy. The world would never be the same, and neither would the blues.
The story of the blues in the 1940s is the story of a people and a music on the move. The war years created opportunities for African-Americans that had never been presented before, and thousands were eager to take advantage. Beginning in 1940, black sharecroppers, farm hands, and laborers, often with their entire families in tow, left the South for northern cities where work in war factories was plentiful—and profitable. Nearly three million blacks left the South between 1940 and 1960. The migration was one of the largest shifts of people in twentieth-century America, and cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Gary, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York saw a dramatic rise in their black population. Out west, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and Seattle saw similar changes.
This wasn’t the first black exodus from the South, just the largest. During World War I factories up North were faced with a shrinking work force as young white males joined the armed services to fight in Europe. Northern black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier persuaded black workers to leave the fields for factories. Thousands came, despite the hardships that went with the journey north, including cases of discrimination that were nearly as bad as those they had fled. The onset of the Depression dampened the prospects for economic opportunities up North, but still a steady stream of black workers made the trek anyway.
World War II quickly put an end to the last vestiges of the Depression. Trains bound for Chicago were filled with young blacks looking for a chance to break out of the poverty that prevailed back home. They brought with them their music—the blues. And as black workers settled into a new, urban life, they relied on their music to see them through. Listening to the old country-blues sounds was a way to cure—or bring on—homesickness. But eventually, country blues began to sound out of place in the big city. For the blues to remain an important part of black culture, it had to absorb new ideas, new sounds, new ways of delivering the emotional highs and lows of black country folk in the big city. And that’s exactly what happened.
The quest for volume resulted in one of the biggest changes in the blues. An acoustic guitar and accompanying voice sounded plenty loud in a juke joint or on a back porch in Mississippi. But up North, the acoustic guitar and vocals were frequently overwhelmed by the din of a nightclub and the busy sounds of a street corner. Beginning in the mid-1930s, some jazz guitarists began experimenting with the electric guitar, transforming the instrument from one that was full-strumming and rhythmic to one on which single-string solos could be played and heard. The electric guitar also broadened the possibilities for new tones and textures.
One of the earliest blues musicians to make a musical statement using an electric guitar was Aaron “T-Bone” Walker, who began playing the instrument in the late 1930s. Walker’s sound was smooth, richly complex, and very jazzlike. Little of what he played had hard connections to country blues. Electrifying country blues so they could survive in an urban setting fell to a young Mississippi transplant to Chicago by the name of McKinley Morganfield, whose friends called him Muddy Waters. In the process of modernizing country blues, Waters created a sound that was bigger, louder, and hotter than practically anything that had come before it.
The roots of the early electric blues that Waters played came out of the country-blues sounds of Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson. In 1941, just a couple of years before Waters moved to Chicago, Alan Lomax had come across him in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, where Lomax recorded the young bluesman for the Library of Congress. Waters sang and played as if he were the natural descendant of Johnson and the rest of the early blues greats. He carried this classic country-blues sound, with its slashing slide guitar and raw chords, to Chicago. Once there, Waters began to adapt the blues and his delivery of the music to what he heard around him.
Waters wouldn’t have made the impact he did without the means to get his music out. Fortunately, two brothers, Phil and Leonard Chess, Polish Jews who had gone into the nightclub business in Chicago, decided to broaden their reach. Believing bigger money was possible in the making and selling of records, the Chess brothers bought into the nascent Aristocrat label in 1947, which had been issuing jazz discs, and began looking for blues talent to record. The Chess brothers hit pay dirt when they brought Waters into the recording studio to cut “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home,” with bass accompaniment by Big Crawford in 1948. It wasn’t the first time that Waters recorded in Chicago. In 1946, two years after he had begun using an electric guitar, Waters recorded for Lester Melrose, but his performance was less than convincing. In February 1948, Waters first recorded for Leonard Chess, but Chess was not impressed, either. Nonetheless, Chess brought Waters back into the studio in April of that year. The session began with a couple songs that included Sunnyland Slim on piano and Crawford on bass. There was little magic. Unfazed, Waters decided to play a pair of songs that he had recorded for Lomax back in Mississippi. But there were differences: Waters was seven years older and more mature as a bluesman, and where he once recorded the songs with an acoustic guitar, this time it was with an electric, an instrument that now felt right at home in Waters’ rugged hands.
Waters’ sound was steeped in country blues, which would appeal to those blacks just up from Mississippi and homesick. “I Feel Like Going Home” was all about longing for a familiar place. But when the song was performed on the electric guitar, Waters gave it a new vitality. It sounded like it was recorded in Chicago, even though it had been written in Mississippi. It was old and new, country and urban. As for the A side, “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” Waters sang and played it with an urgency and a vigor that smacked of sexual frustration. It was a one-two punch, and although Leonard Chess had not yet understood what made for a great blues performance—he was irritated by his inability to understand what Waters sang—he reluctantly agreed to put out the record and see what happened.
What happened was that nearly all three thousand copies of the song sold in one day. Waters’ success caused a number of things to happen. First, it put him on a path to blues stardom and solidified his career as a recording artist. Second, it began the transformation of Aristocrat from a jazz to a blues label. Third, it regained for Chicago the attention of the blues fans; the city now shared the spotlight with Memphis, at a time when equally exciting things were happening blueswise in that city. And fourth, it announced that a new blues sound and a new blues era were dawning. Muddy’s record had an effect that would continue to resonate unlike any blues recording of its era.
Despite the success of his first record, Waters continued to search for a richer and fuller sound. Waters had begun to play black clubs and beer joints on the South Side of Chicago with a band that included Little Walter Jacobs, a harmonica player; drummer Elgin Evans; and another guitarist, Jimmy Rodgers. Amplification wasn’t just an asset with Waters. Little Walter deftly played his harmonica into the microphone, which he used as an extension of his instrument rather than merely as a means to increase its volume. And when Evans punctuated this new blues sound with a steady backbeat, dance floors got crowded—and fast. Soon other blues bands began forming in Chicago, permanently transforming the music and its place in American history.
Blues bands were reshaping the music in Memphis, too. In addition to its Delta connection and Beale Street, Memphis also had WDIA, the nation’s first all-black-format radio station that hired upstarts like a young Riley King to spin blues records and plug Pepticon, a cure-all tonic. A guitar player and aspiring bluesman, King had moved from Mississippi to Memphis, where he met Sonny Boy Williamson, a blues singer and harmonica player who understood the value of radio.
In 1941, Williamson and guitarist Robert “Junior” Lockwood (who had been taught to play by Robert Johnson when Johnson was living with Lockwood’s mother) approached KFFA, a station in Helena, Arkansas, about doing a live blues show on the air. The manager agreed, sensing the opportunity for the duo to push King Biscuit Flour to black listeners. Each day at noon the group, which would eventually include Peck Curtis on drums and Dudlow Taylor on piano, played for fifteen minutes on the KFFA King Biscuit Flour Time, with the Interstate Grocer Company as its sponsor.
King Biscuit Flour Time was a big success; sales soared and Sonny Boy and his blues buddies grew more popular than they’d ever been in the Delta, since the station blanketed the region. The show eventually also featured Sonny Payne, a white announcer and friend of Lockwood’s, who gave the show stability when Williamson got the itch to wander—which, after 1944, was often. After cutting a series of seminal sides for the Jackson, Mississippi-based Trumpet label that proved Williamson’s talent not only as a harmonica player but also as a singer, songwriter, and bandleader, Williamson left another mark in Chicago in the 1950s, cutting sides for Chess and rivaling Little Walter as the city’s most innovative blues harp player.
“Of all the blues artists that we love, our favorites would probably be Son House, Blind Willie McTell, and Skip James—but it’s Robert Johnson who inspired and influenced us most. He was a full-ranged, truly beautiful singer; good and evil are equally present in his songs. A tagalong to Charley Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown, Johnson in most ways surpassed them all. He outsang, outplayed, and outperformed all of the greats of his time in that area of Mississippi, even though he wasn’t as popular as them.”
—Jack White, The White Stripes
Riley King, who on the air in Memphis was known as “Blues Boy” or “B.B.” King, used his time at WDIA to build a reputation in the blues community and to study the many records he had at his disposal. King might have been a cotton picker and tractor driver in Mississippi, but his taste in music was very cultured, and he preferred jazz as much as he did downhome blues. King was struck by the elaborate guitar musings of Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker and loved a lush big-band blues sound that a hot horn section could provide.
King also admired Louis Jordan, one of the most popular black recording artists of the day. Jordan had scaled down the big-band idea to a more economical “combo” in the years after World War II, when black America seemed to be searching for a fresher sound that was a bit different from the swing bands. Using fewer musicians and insisting on driving dance rhythms with bluesy strains, Jordan created a new “jump” blues sound that would fall under the banner of rhythm & blues in the late 1940s. Jordan also had a knack for spicing up his songs with humor and jive, thus giving “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” “Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t (My Baby),” “Five Guys Named Moe,” and “Caldonia” an irresistible charm.
Jump blues replaced swing as the music of choice in black nightclubs, and there were dozens of black bands, singers, and musicians creating the sounds. Jump blues bands featured “honking” saxophones and “shouting” singers. At times the music was rowdy and raw, but the insistence was always that the blues “jump.” This was feel-good music: The war was over, the nation’s economic footing was firmer than ever, and there existed hope that the gains made by African-Americans in the 1940s would not only stick but enable still more progress to be made in eliminating racial prejudice in America. So the feeling up North and on the West Coast, where jump blues was particularly popular, was best summed up by Jordan when he sang, “Let the good times roll!”
B.B. King took what he learned from Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, and Jordan, fused it with his experiences gained by playing and hanging with other Memphis blues musicians like Bobby “Blue” Bland, Rosco Gordon, and Johnny Ace (known loosely as the Beale Streeters), and turned it all into a sound that made a big impact in the blues community. King began his recording career in 1949; two years later he had a Number One hit on the fledgling rhythm & blues charts with “Three O’Clock Blues.” King was as good a singer as he was a guitarist, always stressing a gospel influence. And with his penchant to get the most out of his band, King and company crisscrossed the country in a bus playing one-night stands in nightclubs and roadhouses, becoming one of the most popular blues bands in 1950s America.
Despite the popularity of the music in the postwar years, the business of the blues was shaky, shady, exploitative, and driven almost entirely by the chance to make a quick buck at the expense of naive musicians. More times than not, blues musicians received a single payment for a recording session; royalties were unheard of in the blues world. Similarly, songwriters were paid a fee for their songs and often had to share credit for composing the music with a producer or record company owner. By the late 1940s, most of the major record companies had lost interest in the blues. This gave a chance for a slew of small, independent record labels like Chess, RPM, Modern, Bullet, and others to gain control of the blues market.
“YOU KNOW I LOVE YOU”
By Lou Willie Turner (As sung by Big Joe Turner)
I know you love me, baby
But you never tell me so
I know you love me, baby, but you never tell me so
If you don’t tell me that you love me
I’m gonna pack my rags and go
I live across the street from a juke joint, baby
And all night long they play the blues
I live across the street from a juke joint, baby
And all night long they play the blues
Every time they spin the record
Honey it makes me think of you
There’s one record in particular, baby
Always sticks in my mind
Yeah, there’s one little song in particular
Always sticks in my mind
Every time they play it, baby,
I start right in to crying
Baby, please don’t leave me
Play the blues for me
Please play the blues for me
[sung over sax solo]
Now I’m gonna fall across my bed, baby
Cry myself to sleep
I’m gonna fall across my bed baby
And cry myself to sleep
And in my dreams I can hear you saying, “Lover, please come back to me”
A Memphis recording service owned by Sam Phillips, conveniently called the Memphis Recording Service, cut tracks by a number of blues artists, including B.B. King, James Cotton, Walter Horton, Little Junior Parker, and a big strapping hulk of a bluesman known as Howlin’ Wolf, who had arrived in West Memphis in 1948, leaving behind the life of a Mississippi sharecropper. Phillips understood black music, wasn’t afraid to record it (even though Memphis was one of the mid-South’s most segregated cities), and believed the blues was an important American music form, though at the time it was made by black artists for black audiences. Phillips’ outfit leased blues recordings for release by other small labels, eventually releasing some on his own label, Sun, until a young white singer named Elvis Presley showed up one day in 1954. With Phillips’ encouragement, Presley revolutionized popular music by taking a blues song, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” hyping its rhythm with a nervous, youthful energy, and singing it like no one had sung a blues song before. Unknowingly, Presley created a brand-new hybrid sound: rock & roll.
Presley had everything in place to make history. For starters, he stumbled into Sun Records, where Phillips was looking for someone white who could sing convincingly in a black style. Going anywhere else to make a record, like, say, Nashville, a few hours east of Memphis, where white singers made the city the capital of country music, would have probably meant Elvis would have never been discovered. Second, not only had Elvis absorbed the sounds of black gospel and blues growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi, before relocating to Memphis, but he genuinely loved black music, which gave his music honesty and sincerity. And finally, Presley was young (not yet twenty years old when he first recorded for Phillips), remarkably handsome, sexy but in a safe, innocent way, and white. Also, being musically astute, he had a firm grasp of country music, white gospel, and the pop music of the day as exemplified by crooner Dean Martin.
Elvis Presley blended the best elements of white and black music and culture and, with Phillips’ guidance, turned the mix into rock & roll and a musical explosion, the power of which had never been felt before, not even in the 1920s, when blues and jazz captured the imagination of young America. The blues was also impacted by the sudden birth of rock & roll in the early 1950s. Black artists began looking more to rock & roll and less to the blues for musical success, especially those who had been singing a very blues-based, black rock & roll prototype—Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ike Turner, Big Joe Turner. So did rhythm & blues singers like Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown, both of whom had big-selling records in 1948 with a song called “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” The young white audience that embraced rock & roll was larger and richer than the black blues and rhythm & blues communities.
A young black man from the St. Louis area with looks as striking as Presley’s and an equal understanding of the formula that mixed black blues with white country, guitarist Chuck Berry wrote his own songs and was just brash enough to think his sound could appeal to both black and white audiences. Berry went to Chicago in 1955 to see about recording his music for Chess. Later that year Chess issued Berry’s “Maybellene,” a song with even more musical significance than Presley’s “That’s All Right,” since it was an original composition (though inspired by a country standard, “Ida Red”), not a cover of an already existing song. And it was performed by a black man.
Music historians may argue that Berry’s history-making record was predated by Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston nearly four years earlier in Memphis at the Sun studio, when they recorded a song called “Rocket 88,” which was released by Chess in 1951. Depending on one’s definition of rock & roll and interpretation of who gave birth to it and where, a good case can be made for Turner and Brenston as being the first rock & roll artists, black or white. But all historians and critics would agree that neither Turner nor Brenston had the social and cultural components in place in 1951 to cause the stir that Presley and Berry did a few years later. With Berry, Chess broadened its catalogue to include black rock & roll artists, making an impact on American music that rivaled Sun’s.
In addition to Berry, Chess scored commercially with Bo Diddley, a black artist whose signature guitar sound featured a rhythm that bounced and boogied and whose songs often contained a beat—the “Bo Diddley” beat—built on a previous black beat described as “shave ‘n’ a haircut, two bits.” Born Otha Ellas Bates in McComb, Mississippi, in 1928, Bo Diddley was adopted as a child, and his name became Ellas Bates McDaniels when his family moved to Chicago in 1934. After playing around the Windy City in blues bands in the early 1950s, Diddley signed a recording contract with Chess in 1955. His debut record—the self-titled “Bo Diddley,” backed by the bluesy “I’m a Man”—made him nearly as big a star as Chuck Berry. But Berry was able to follow up the success of “Maybellene” with nearly two dozen other Chess hits.
Chess Records released its share of rock & roll records in the 1950s, but it ruled the blues during the music’s golden decade. No other label produced as many seminal artists or recordings or did as much to bring the blues into the modern era. Muddy Waters was the label’s first—and biggest—blues artist. But he was surrounded by a group of other artists, some of whom played in his bands (Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Otis Spann) and later became stars in their own right, some of whom were recording rivals (Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson), and some of whom were critical behind-the-scene players, vital to Waters’ success (Willie Dixon).
That Chess was a Chicago-based recording company cannot be underestimated. During the black migration north in the 1940s, which continued unabated in the fifties, hundreds of blues artists settled in the Windy City, as did hundreds of thousands of transplanted black blues record buyers, in effect creating a fertile field of blues talent and a large enthusiastic audience for the records Chess issued. Detroit also had a thriving blues scene in the postwar years. New York had become the home not only of Lead Belly but also of Reverend Gary Davis, Josh White, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and other bluesmen relocated from the Carolinas and the Piedmont region along the Eastern Seaboard as early as the thirties and forties. The Memphis blues scenes continued to thrive in the 1950s, as did the scene in St. Louis and East St. Louis, the nearly all-black community across the Mississippi River in Illinois. Out on the West Coast, Los Angeles and Oakland contributed a blues sound that often was smoother and softer than the sounds back east, courtesy of artists such as singer/pianist Charles Brown. But none of these cities could match Chicago’s blues power. In the 1950s, Chicago became “home of the blues,” and Chess was the kitchen where the music was made.
The chef was Willie Dixon. In the studio he produced records, played bass on them, wrote and arranged songs, oversaw session musicians, befriended artists and offered advice, and acted as talent scout. He also made his own records, although, as a recording artist, he never could match the success of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, the two Chess bluesmen who benefited most from Dixon’s many talents. Both Waters and Wolf relied on Dixon for songs, in particular. Two of Waters’ best records—”Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”—were written by Dixon, while Wolf scored with such Dixon numbers as “Spoonful,” “Little Red Rooster,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” and “Back Door Man.” Dixon also gave Little Walter “My Babe,” which was a big hit for the singer/harmonica player; and to Sonny Boy Williamson went “Bring It On Home.”
Dixon had arrived in Chicago from Vicksburg, Mississippi, as early as 1936, not to play the blues but to pursue a career as a prizefighter. He won the Illinois State Golden Gloves heavyweight championship and turned pro, but after only a few fights he hung up his gloves and picked up the bass. After serving prison time as a conscientious objector for refusing to serve in the armed forces, Dixon played bass in a number of groups, most notably the Big Three Trio, which recorded blues and pop from 1947 to 1952. During this time Dixon met Phil and Leonard Chess at a popular blues club they owned, the Macomba Lounge, and began working for their label in 1948. Hiring Dixon would be one of the Chess brothers’ smartest moves. By 1954, Dixon’s input was critical to the success of the Chess sound.
In addition to Chess, there were many other independent record companies that were part of the postwar blues story—Atlantic and Fire in New York; the aforementioned Sun in Memphis; Modern, RPM, Aladdin, and Specialty in Los Angeles; Peacock and Duke out of Houston; Trumpet from Jackson, Mississippi; Nashville’s Excello and Bullet; Newark’s Savoy; King from Cincinnati; and Vee Jay and Cobra from Chicago. Together, these and other labels made more blues available to the record-buying public than ever before.
And it wasn’t just Chess artists who made the most exciting blues statements on record. In addition to B.B. King, there were dozens more major blues artists who played a part in the golden age of electric blues. John Lee Hooker moved to Detroit from Mississippi in 1943, finding opportunity on Hastings Street, Detroit’s version of Memphis’ Beale Street. Hooker’s brand of boogie-blues and his dark, low-slung, sexually provocative vocals made him one of the most popular of the non-Chess recording artists. Hooker’s landmark record “Boogie Chillen” captured the music’s primal energy and simplicity; the one-chord boogie drone was hypnotic. In the song Hooker tells how he heard “Papa tell Mama, let that boy boogie-woogie,” which is exactly what Hooker did, becoming the dark prince of boogie blues.
By most accounts, Jimmy Reed could drink just as effectively as he could sing and play the blues. Recording mostly for Vee Jay, Reed created a slow-drag, easygoing blues sound that was downright irresistible. Eighteen of Reed’s records made it onto the Billboard R&B charts from 1955 to 1961, including such blues chestnuts as “Honest I Do,” “Big Boss Man,” and “Bright Lights, Big City.” Working with boyhood friend Eddie Taylor, who taught Reed how to play guitar, and his wife, Mary Lee “Mama” Reed, who helped Reed compose his songs and get him through recording sessions despite his penchant for drink, Reed was one of the blues’ most popular artists in the 1950s. As compared to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, who confronted their listeners with gritty, urgent blues, Reed stroked his audience with laid-back blues grooves that hit a responsive chord almost immediately. With his nonthreatening vocals, soft harmonica riffs, and walking bass lines, Reed and his blues were impossible not to like.
Elmore James brought new excitement to the slide guitar style that had been a staple of the blues since the 1920s. Using Robert Johnson as his main inspiration, James created a riveting slide technique first heard in “Dust My Broom,” his epic 1952 reinvention of the Robert Johnson classic “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” for the label Trumpet that featured slurred, hell-raising notes that whooped with emotion. The main slide riff in the James version was used time and again by the guitarist in future recordings and became so identifiable that any blues slide guitar player worth his salt had to master it and include it in his or her guitar vocabulary.
Like so many other bluesmen, James was born in Mississippi. After learning the rudiments of the guitar, playing with Sonny Boy Williamson, and serving in the navy during World War II, James returned to Mississippi, where he played in a series of makeshift bands before getting the chance to record for Trumpet in 1952. Riding the success of his Trumpet recordings, James moved to Chicago, formed a group, the Broomdusters, and recorded for the Meteor label. By the late fifties he had struck a deal with Bobby Robinson’s New York-based Fire Records, which released some of his best post-Trumpet recordings, including “The Sky Is Crying” and “Done Somebody Wrong.” Unfortunately, James died of a heart attack in 1963, never having quite reached the level of acclaim enjoyed by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and other Chess artists.
Ever since Blind Lemon Jefferson became one of the most important country-blues artists of the 1920s, Texas had been a state with a remarkably rich blues tradition. Texas Alexander, Sippie Wallace, and T-Bone Walker all hailed from the Lone Star State, as did Sam “Lightnin’ “ Hopkins, one of the most prolific and consistently popular blues musicians of the twentieth century. Hopkins was a cousin of Texas Alexander, one of the best pre-war blues singers to come out of Texas, and his earliest blues connection was with Blind Lemon Jefferson, who influenced Hopkins’ emerging blues guitar style. Just after World War II, Hopkins began his recording career, which, when it finally ended in the late seventies (Hopkins died in 1982), amounted to hundreds of recordings with nearly two dozen labels.
Hopkins recorded as a solo artist, as part of a duet, and with a band. He was a master improviser, making up songs on the spot, reshaping melodies and lyrics to fit a particular moment or audience, and cutting one song into another. “Depending on how he felt or what day it was or whether the moon was full, Lightnin’ was just totally unpredictable,” recalled Chris Strachwitz, who recorded Hopkins for his Arhoolie label in the sixties. Many of Hopkins’ songs were autobiographical; humor was an element that could often be found in his music. In the end, Lightnin’ Hopkins was a blues machine, producing one good blues record after another.
In the 1950s the blues went international. From its inception, jazz was viewed by Europeans, particularly the British and French, as something exotically American and therefore, alluring. Beginning as early as the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured England and parts of Europe, African-American music began to be embraced by European and British art crowds. In the early twentieth century, bandleaders such as James Reese Europe and, later, singer Josephine Baker, made their marks overseas. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and other jazz artists toured there in the 1930s. After World War II, the appetite for American recordings broadened. Merchant seamen would trade or sell records in ports such as Liverpool and London before distribution agreements with American record companies were in place. Collectors and American music fans there treasured rare copies of Chess recordings and knew well the excitement created by the blues, even if it was experienced only on vinyl.
The first country-blues singer to perform overseas was Lead Belly, in France in 1949, shortly before his death, and then Josh White and Lonnie Johnson the following year. In 1951, and then again a year later, Big Bill Broonzy played Great Britain and France. Knowledge of Broonzy and other African-American folk-blues artists came from musicologist Alan Lomax and his frequent music shows on BBC radio and television. Adventures in Folk Song and Patterns in American Song were two of Lomax’s most popular radio shows that aired on the BBC. They cultivated a small but growing audience for American folk and blues music in England. Thanks to the encouragement of Lomax and Hugues Panassie, a French jazz fanatic and the editor of the publication Jazz Hot, Broonzy played a series of dates that introduced live American folk blues from the concert stage to French and British audiences.
Broonzy had had trouble maintaining his popularity with African-American blues fans in the years just after World War II. Smartly, Broonzy had seen how young white intellectuals, especially in New York City, had embraced the blues as a treasured folk music from a disenfranchised people. Lead Belly, Josh White, and others had done well with whites by playing folk blues. Broonzy decided he would do the same. He began playing college coffeehouses and small folk-music clubs in the States; his success there gave him the courage to try Europe with its equally white audiences. The trip paid off, as Broonzy in the 1950s became one of the best-known American blues artists outside America.
Other artists followed in Broonzy’s path, most notably Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, followed by Muddy Waters in 1958, Champion Jack Dupree in 1959, and Memphis Slim, Roosevelt Sykes, James Cotton, Little Brother Montgomery, Willie Dixon, and Jesse Fuller in 1960. The arrival of the new decade saw interest in electric Chicago blues recede in the American black community. Record sales stopped growing. Waters’ near-decade run of hits had slowed down; there was little in the way of new ideas or energy coming from Waters and Wolf, though they continued to make exemplary recordings. The sound was somewhat stale, if the songs weren’t.
But there was something else happening in the black community in the mid-1950s: a new determination to gain self-respect and equality in white-dominated America. A young preacher from Atlanta, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., pushed for reform through nonviolence. On December 1, 1955, a tired housewoman, Rosa Parks, refused to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, prompting a boycott of the city’s transit system by blacks. Suddenly, it seemed as if African-Americans all over had gained the courage to speak out, step out, cry out in frustration—and do something about it. For a growing number of young black activists, the blues was music from another era.
The African-American civil rights movement caused monumental change, not just in black culture but in all America. The blues stood by while African-Americans, mostly young, took to the streets and demanded justice. A new music form suddenly seemed to appear out of nowhere. It was called soul music.
Soul counted blues and rhythm & blues among its roots, but it also drew heavily from gospel and pop. There was more melodic freedom in soul; the traditional A-A-B blues form was only acknowledged, not followed as if it were the main musical source. Improvised vocalizing, the kind that made gospel so dynamic, was an important soul ingredient, as was the call-and-response delivery, a standard strategy in most forms of gospel. And where in blues the guitar was a primary means of expression, in soul the human voice knew no competition.
Ray Charles is often considered to be the author of the first big-selling soul song. In 1959 his “What’d I Say” topped the Billboard rhythm & blues charts. Though the song had as many R&B roots as it did prototype soul sounds, it did mark a change in black music. By the time a young, ambitious assembly line worker from the automotive factories of Detroit started a record company called Motown, soul was on its way to redefining black music, much the way Muddy Waters and Chess Records did a generation earlier. To young black ears, soul sounded in sync with the times. People were moving forward in their thinking and actions, dreams suddenly seemed possible, the world could be changed, things could happen. For many young African-Americans, soul music reflected all of these feelings.
The blues, though, didn’t dry up and die. On the contrary: The music came to a crossroads and took a different turn. Along the way the music picked up a new audience—white people. In England in the early sixties interest in the blues and blues culture took off with young musicians absorbing every blues recording that came their way. Bands formed and dedicated themselves to replicating the blues. The early British blues advocates had also been fans of American folk music and jazz. They enjoyed skiffle, a homegrown hodgepodge of English and American folk and traditional music, with a nod toward pop. Lonnie Donegan, skiffle’s most popular recording artist, recorded Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line” in 1954 and turned it into a huge hit in England. Chris Barber and Alexis Korner collected jazz and blues records and played the music as well. It was Barber who organized the tour with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in the U.K. and who arranged for Muddy Waters to follow shortly thereafter. Together with Cyril Davies and John Mayall, Barber and Korner laid the foundation for the sixties British blues movement, inspiring young musicians such as Eric Burdon (the Animals); Eric Clapton (the Yardbirds); Jack Bruce (Cream); Graham Bond and Long John Baldry (Blues Incorporated); Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts (the Rolling Stones); Mick Fleetwood and Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac); and many others to form blues-based bands and give the music a new path.
The 1961 release of King of the Delta Blues Singers made Robert Johnson’s music available to blues fans and musicians. Aspiring guitarists on both sides of the Atlantic threw themselves into King of the Delta Blues Singers as if it unveiled the blues’ deepest secrets. Many tried, but few mastered Johnson’s guitar style. Eventually, the best of the young British blues players picked up enough riffs to acceptably interpret the blues. What they lacked, of course, was authenticity. Not being American, their life experiences did not have the cultural and racial underpinnings to express blues nuances. The blues evolved out of a distinctively black tradition that even many white Americans had trouble identifying with. Being British and white was a double disadvantage.
Still, bands like the Rolling Stones, who had formed around 1962, persevered. Named after “Rolling Stone,” a popular Muddy Waters song, each member of the band shared an adoration for the blues that seemed to know no bounds. An early sixties performance by the Stones might have included interpretations of such American blues gems as Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom,” Muddy Waters’ “I Want to Be Loved” and “Tiger in Your Tank,” and Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City.”
European blues fans were fortunate that two Germans, Horst Lippman and Fritz Rau, decided to launch an American blues tour of the Continent in 1962 that featured the likes of T-Bone Walker, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, and others. First calling their endeavor the American Negro Blues Festival, the promoters later changed it to the American Folk Blues Festival and kept it going annually through 1971. Attending the festival was like going to blues college for aspiring British and European blues musicians. Dozens of major blues artists toured with the American Folk Blues Festival during its tenure, giving bluesmen and blueswomen new audiences and enabling blues fans beyond the States to experience and enjoy the music firsthand.
The American Folk Blues Festival opened up other English and European possibilities for the blues. When Sonny Boy Williamson toured England in 1963, he wore an English bowler’s hat and a dapper pinstripe suit, and worked in front of the Yardbirds, with Eric Clapton on guitar. Williamson didn’t think much of the band or British blues audiences, but he didn’t mind the paycheck. It was considerably more than he could earn in America at the time. When bluesman Big Joe Williams received his money after the end of an English tour, he cried. It was much more than he had ever earned in his life.
Back home, however, black audiences, particularly young ones, continued to move away from the blues and closer to soul. All but abandoned was acoustic-driven country blues, which simply summed up too many painful memories of Jim Crow, sharecropping, and lynchings. The genre was saved, however, by young white kids, many of them in college, who had grown bored with the current crop of homogenized rock & rollers, or teen idols. Bobby Rydell, Fabian, and Bobby Vee eschewed the rebellious, sexually overt sounds and styles of such pioneering rockers as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and others for a teen sound that was as dangerous—and as exciting—as white bread.
On college campuses across America in the early sixties, folk music, with its heady lyrics and authentic sounds, attracted listeners eager for a more meaningful music experience. Country blues fit right in with the growing fascination with bluegrass, hillbilly, Cajun, and traditional music from Appalachia and the Ozarks. Suddenly, a full-fledged folk music revival was in swing in America.
The first major folk festival of the “folk revival,” a term most folkies hated since they believed folk music never went away in the first place, was in Newport, Rhode Island—on the surface, an unlikely setting since it was a vacation community for the rich. But with a jazz festival already in place there, music impresario George Wein used its infrastructure and introduced a prototype folk festival in 1959, the weekend after the Newport Jazz Festival.
Among other roots music artists, the Newport Folk Festival featured Robert Pete Williams, a country-blues singer from Louisiana, found at Angola Prison Farm by Dr. Harry Oster, a folklorist in the Lomax mold. Lomax was still such a powerful figure in American folk music that it was only a matter of time before others would venture off in search of undiscovered music talent in the hills, bayous, fields, and prisons of America. Oster was a certified folklorist; he had the Ph.D. to prove it. Another roots music enthusiast and aspiring musician, Ralph Rinzler, worked for the Smithsonian. But others, amateurs, really, set out to do the work of folklorists in the early and mid-sixties based on their passion for the music. Young white country-blues fans, such as Dick Waterman, Phil Spiro, Nick Perls, guitarist John Fahey, and later Chris Strachwitz, bought tape recorders, hopped into cars, and headed south for Mississippi, Tennessee, and other southern states to mine music gold. And they did. Son House was rediscovered (in Rochester, New York, of all places); so were Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, Little Brother Montgomery, Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Mance Lipscomb, and others. Pulled from poverty and obscurity, many of them having given up performing and making records long ago, these country-blues artists were now playing the Newport festival in one of the wealthiest communities in America for northern white audiences who adored their authentic sounds. Few of these bluesmen minded, though it was obvious to them that the atmosphere was circuslike and their new fans viewed them curiously, like relics. House and James and a few others had their recording careers resuscitated by the folk revival. Many of the other blues artists who were invited to play Newport in the early sixties also found work on city concert stages and the college coffeehouse circuit, as well as the other folk festivals that were sprouting up all over the country.
“PRISONER’S TALKING BLUES”
By Robert Pete Williams
[Spoken:] Lord I feel so bad sometime,
Seem like that I’m weakenin’ every day
You know I begin to get gray since I got here
Well, a whole lot of worry cause that.
But I can feel myself weakenin’,
I don’t keep well no more
I keeps sickly.
I takes a lot of medicine, but it look like it don’t do no good.
All I have to do is pray, that’s the only thing that’ll help me here,
One foot in the grave look like
And the other one out.
Sometime it look like my best day
gotta be my last day Sometime I feel like I never see my little ole kids anymore
But if I don’t never see ‘em no more, leave ‘em in the hands of God.
You know, my sister, she like a mother to me
She do all in the world that she can
She went all the way along with me in this trouble ‘til the end.
In a way, I was glad my poor mother had [de]ceased
Because she suffered with heart trouble,
And trouble behind me sho’ woulda went hard with her.
But if she was livin’, I could call on her sometime.
But my old father’s dead, too,
That make me be motherless and fatherless.
It’s six of us sisters, three boys
Family done got smaller now, look like they’re dyin’ out fast.
I don’t know, but God been good to us in a way,
‘Cause ole death have stayed away a long time.
[Sung:] Lord, my worry sure carryin’ me down,
Lord, my worry sure is carryin’ me down.
Sometime I feel like, baby, committin’ suicide, [repeat]
I got the nerve if I just had somethin’ to do it with.
I’m goin’ down slow, somethin’ wrong with me [repeat]
I got to make a change whilst that I’m young,
If I don’t, I won’t never get old.
Electric blues would be thrown a life preserver by whites, too. In 1960 Muddy Waters brought his band to play the Newport Jazz Festival. As Robert Gordon remarked in Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, “The terms of Muddy’s personal acquaintance with white America were established at the Newport Jazz Festival … he dropped in on the folk scene like a museum exhibit from the wild—jungle music authenticated by jungle men.” Waters and his band ripped up Newport, demonstrating that the fervor and ferociousness of electric blues remained and proving that although electric blues might have lost its luster with young blacks, the music still owned a vitality that could match that of soul or rock.
Black Chicago didn’t abandon the blues the way other cities did; the music was just too embedded in the culture and day-to-day survival there. On the South Side, black clubs and joints like Pepper’s and Theresa’s continued to feature blues, giving older musicians a place to perform and socialize and younger players a place to learn. By the mid-sixties, the Chicago blues scene had produced a brand-new crop of musicians who guaranteed that electric blues would continue to thrive.
Guitarists Buddy Guy, Freddie King, Otis Rush, Earl Hooker, and Magic Sam forged a more modern blues guitar sound. Their talent was such that, on occasion, you’d never think there was any other black music but the blues attracting young black music talent. All five guitarists cut their blues teeth in Chicago clubs, learning from the Chess blues masters, yet creating a style of their own that had little to do with country blues save the inspiration that was a given. Guy, Rush, and company were the first generation of blues players who didn’t have much memory of the pre-World War II years, when the acoustic guitar still played the dominant role in the blues. To them, the blues was best electrified.
Oddly, the man who had inspired everyone to pick up the electric guitar, Muddy Waters, returned to his acoustic roots in the early sixties. Hoping to capitalize on the folk and country-blues revival, Waters recorded a convincing album, Folk Singer, in 1964, followed by The Real Folk Blues and More Real Folk Blues, both of which contained tracks recorded earlier in Muddy’s career. Chess released a pair of country-blues albums by Howlin’ Wolf with the same two latter titles. But live, both Wolf and Waters continued to play electric blues in Chicago clubs, prompting young white aspiring blues guitarists to begin to venture into the black ghetto to hear the masters, A few of them became all-absorbing students. Eventually, the studying began to pay off.
Harmonica player and Chicago native Paul Butterfield built his harp style and attitude toward the blues from the firsthand inspiration he drew from Little Walter and the other blues harp players heard in the South Side blues clubs he frequented. Not all of the white kids who came looking for blues authenticity were welcomed in these all-black clubs, but Butterfield was, and he took full advantage of it. Quickly, Butterfield became the best white blues harmonica player in the city. In 1963 he formed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The group included a young white Jewish guitar player, Mike Bloomfield, who played with the same kind of blues passion expressed by Butterfield and with at least the same amount of talent, and Elvin Bishop, a second guitarist. The group also featured a black rhythm section—Sam Lay on drums and Jerome Arnold on bass, two veterans from Howlin’ Wolf’s band—making the Butterfield band a fully integrated outfit when such a concept was rare, not just in Chicago blues but in any kind of black music. (In Memphis, Booker T. and the MGs also sported a black-white mix. Booker T. Jones on organ and Al Jackson on drums were black musicians; guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, white.)
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band released its first album in 1965 and proved that a mostly white band could play the blues—and play it well. Its success sparked the creation of other white blues bands and made Chicago a place to come to learn from the legends. Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller, two young guitarists who would make their mark in San Francisco later in the decade, came to Chicago hoping to hear the blues musicians they knew only from listening to records. Harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite had arrived in 1962 from Memphis and became as adept at playing his instrument as Butterfield, and equally accepted in the city’s blues community. From England came the Rolling Stones, whose dream it was to meet some of their Chicago blues heroes and to record at Chess Records, which they did.
With traditional country blues finding a new audience with young white kids in the early sixties, it was only a matter of time before electric blues had also made the shift from black audiences to white. The success of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band certainly helped, giving white blues fans a few white blues heroes of their own. But the real thrusts came from England and from San Francisco. In the former, not only was black blues, country and urban, embraced by the best young musicians in London and other cities, but experiments in blending blues with rock were becoming the most exciting sounds of the music scene there. The same interest in a blues-rock hybrid was occurring around 1966-67 in San Francisco with bands like the Steve Miller Blues Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company (which featured Janis Joplin, a rousing singer recently arrived from Austin, Texas). These groups used the blues form to engage in long, drug-laced jams that took the blues to a new psychedelic high.
By 1968, a second influx of British bands had arrived in America, the first having occurred four years earlier with the explosion of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In the late sixties, virtually all of the new British bands were, at least originally, blues based. Fleetwood Mac, Cream, Pink Floyd (the band took its name from American bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council), Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, Jethro Tull, and Led Zeppelin all began as British blues bands before they either became psychedelicized, drawing influence from the drug revolution going on in San Francisco rock thousands of miles away, or traveled into art-rock territory. In Texas, an albino, Johnny Winter, became the great white blues hope. Down in Georgia, the Allman Brothers Band whipped up a blues frenzy with their elongated versions of blues standards that gave the music a brand-new feel, courtesy of Gregg Allman’s wailing vocals and his brother Duane’s incredibly fluid slide guitar solos. In California, Canned Heat’s boogie blues was a welcomed sound. A black Seattle-born guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, had to go to London to be discovered, forming the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who were as bluesy as they were psychedelic.
With blues, rock, and blues-rock bands all vying for the same white audiences in the States, England, and Europe, it wasn’t surprising that touring blues acts sought to make the transition from black clubs and festival stages to rock halls like the Fillmore Auditorium and later the Fillmore West in San Francisco, the Fillmore East in New York, and the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. In the late sixties and early seventies, the lineups for concerts in these rock halls often included traditional black blues bands as well as white blues-rock bands. Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Howlin’ Wolf, along with Memphian Albert King, and Big Mama Thornton (who, in 1953, cut the original version of the Presley hit “Hound Dog”) all counted on playing white rock venues, making decent pay at the same time they were giving blues lessons to white kids anxious to hear the real thing. The Rolling Stones, eager to share the stage with their blues heroes, invited some to open their concerts, thus enabling Waters, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, and others to play to crowds that might otherwise have never seen them. The Stones even got Howlin’ Wolf on national television, when the band refused to perform on Shindig! unless Wolf was also on the program.
The late sixties were a high-water mark for the blues. For more than twenty years, the music enjoyed unprecedented artistic and commercial growth. The blues was remarkably resilient; it exchanged one fan base for another without missing a beat. Its most important artists, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, B.B. King, Albert King, and Big Mama Thornton, among them, had paved the way for a new generation of visionaries. The blues had been an essential part of perhaps the most creative period in rock history—the sixties—and had influenced virtually every major rock artist, British and American, of that period. The music had even made it to near the top of the pop charts; in 1970 B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” rose to Number Fifteen on the Billboard charts. In short, the future seemed big and bright for the blues.
It wasn’t. Although rock’s late-sixties love affair with the blues carried over into the first years of the 1970s, the rock world’s interest in the blues began to wane. By 1973, the blues-rock hybrid sounded stale; many rock bands that built their sound on the blues either broke up or moved on. Cream crashed after only a couple of studio albums. Quicksilver Messenger Service faded out. Steve Miller and Fleetwood Mac went in a pop direction. Led Zeppelin delved into heavy metal, as did a number of other sixties blues-rock bands. Drugs and booze took some of the best blues-rock performers and advocates: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones all died too young. Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, Mike Bloomfield, and Paul Butterfield also battled drug demons. Clapton and Winter survived; Bloomfield and Butterfield did not.
The blues also lost its own key figures, more from hard living than heroin, which in the seventies ran rampant through the rock world. Little Walter was killed in a street brawl in 1968. Magic Sam died of a heart attack in 1969; he was just thirty-two years old. Skip James and Leonard Chess died that same year. Earl Hooker succumbed to tuberculosis in 1970 at age forty. Mississippi Fred McDowell died of cancer in 1972. Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and Freddie King passed on in 1976.
Chess Records was sold in 1968, and Phil Chess went into radio. Leonard’s son Marshall moved to another label, Rolling Stone Records. There was little profit left in turning out blues records. Without blues-rock bands continuing to produce exciting music, the white audience drifted and it too eventually abandoned the blues. Young black audiences, now tired of soul, moved on to a new sound, funk. The success of the civil rights movement in the sixties had brought significant change for African-Americans, and no one wanted to look back.
Despite its dire predicament in the 1970s, the blues hung on, and in some pockets even thrived. The southern chitlin’ circuit, that motley collection of black clubs, jukes, bars, and roadhouses, continued to feature blues bands doing one-night stands from Texas to Georgia. The audiences weren’t large, the money was barely enough, but black singers and musicians committed to the music played on, just scraping out a living, and longtime fans who still felt connected to the music’s emotional intensity turned out to hear them perform. Europe, with its seemingly endless fascination with American music, particularly black music, provided work for blues artists. But even that, too, was spotty, and available only for the biggest names. The blues and the business of the blues had come full circle by 1973. After enjoying a twenty-five-year period of unprecedented growth and popularity, the blues slid quietly out of the spotlight, finding refuge in the remaining blues clubs on the South Side of Chicago and in clubs in other cities where the aging black blues crowd continued to congregate, and in the occasional summer blues festival.
All was not lost, however. In Chicago, a young blues fanatic, Bruce Iglauer, started a blues record company, Alligator Records, and sold his music the old-fashioned way: out of the trunk of his car. Iglauer had worked with another Chicago blues and jazz label, Delmark, which, in the mid-sixties, had released one of the greatest Chicago blues albums of all time—Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues—along with Magic Sam’s classic effort West Side Soul. After hearing a six-fingered slide guitarist named Hound Dog Taylor in Florence’s, a small Chicago club, Iglauer pleaded with Delmark owner Bob Koester to record Taylor. Koester, a longtime advocate of black music, refused, figuring the venture was not a wise one, given the state of the blues record business. Iglauer, who dreamed of one day running his own label, recorded Taylor and his band the Houserockers with his own money, in 1971. The self-titled album became the very first release on the Alligator label.
Encouraged by his success with Taylor—the artist and his record received positive reviews in the music press and sold well enough—Iglauer decided to make Alligator a permanent entity and began looking for more blues talent to record. Iglauer moved slowly, careful not to overextend himself in the depressed blues market. By the end of 1977, he had released just nine albums. But his persistence paid off. In 1978 Alligator released Ice Pickin’, an album by veteran blues guitarist Albert Collins, who had begun his career in the early fifties, developing along the way a reputation for playing in a “cool” blues style. Collins had enjoyed some success in the late fifties with a record called “The Freeze,” followed by “Frosty,” “Frost-Bite,” and other similarly named songs. Although the Alligator album,Ice Pickin’, continued Collins’ familiar cool connection, the work featured freshly “chilling” guitar work and inspired vocals. Ice Pickin’ was just what Collins needed to resuscitate his career and just what Iglauer needed to take Alligator to the next level. The album was nominated for a Grammy, and another Alligator album, The Earthshaker, by longtime blues singer Koko Taylor, also garnered favorable attention. Taylor, who had been discovered by Willie Dixon in the early sixties, recorded a best-selling single for Chess in 1966, “Wang Dang Doodle,” written and produced by Dixon. A hard-working performer with a gritty blues growl for a voice, Taylor toured regularly in the seventies, gradually rebuilding her career, with lots of help from Iglauer.
The year 1978 was the turning point for Alligator. In addition to Ice Pickin’, the label garnered three other Grammy nominations, making Alligator the most important Chicago blues label since the sale of Chess nearly ten years earlier. Iglauer’s strategy was simple: sign up veteran blues talent with name recognition who still had exciting music in them. By the early eighties, Alligator had added to its roster Johnny Winter and James Cotton, along with zydeco king Clifton Chenier and Arkansas guitarists Roy Buchanan and Son Seals. Alligator’s success enabled Iglauer to search out and then cultivate new blues talent such as Lucky Peterson, William Clarke, and the female blues group Saffire, becoming the number one blues label in America.
Alligator wasn’t the only small, independent label releasing blues records in the seventies and early eighties. Delmark continued its steady flow of quality blues releases. Hightone, Testament, and Tomato released blues albums with some success. And the major record companies continued to release the occasional blues and blues-influenced album. Warner Bros, kept the blues alive on its roster by issuing records made by the Texas boogie band ZZ Top and the talented, red-headed slide guitarist Bonnie Raitt. Warners also signed Taj Mahal, who began his career in the late sixties with Columbia, making some of the most innovative blues of the period; in the seventies he continued his quest for new blues sounds by blending, among other things, Caribbean music with the blues. A Columbia subsidiary, Blue Sky, permitted Johnny Winter (before his exodus to Alligator) to produce a series of critically acclaimed Muddy Waters albums that represented the best work Waters had done since his fifties heyday with Chess.
Nonetheless, the business of the blues continued to suffer throughout the seventies and early eighties. A commercially successful blues album was the exception, not the rule. The music needed more than the small but dedicated core of record buyers to support it and foster growth. The blues also needed a brand-new artist who could garner the kind of excitement and media attention normally owned by rock and pop artists, as well as a new scene to complement Chicago. The blues got what it needed in the mid-eighties, and then some.
Texas had always been a state blessed with blues talent. In the music’s formative years, Dallas, particularly the Deep Ellum section of the city, fostered a busy blues scene with the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson playing on street corners. Later on, Houston became an important blues city with Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and others gigging at blues clubs there, and with Don Robey’s Peacock and Duke Records recording both homegrown and outside blues talent in local studios. By the sixties, the blues scene in Austin, home to the University of Texas, heated up. But it wasn’t until the late seventies and early eighties that Austin truly came of age as an important blues city, one that could—and would—rival Chicago.
Because of a steady stream of college kids, there existed a vibrant music club scene in Austin, and more than a couple of them were not averse to featuring touring blues acts. Threadgill’s was where a young Janis Joplin sang. The Armadillo World Headquarters imitated the booking style of the old Fillmore venues, putting established blues artists on the same bill as featured rock bands. In the mid-seventies, Antone’s, a club owned by Clifford Antone, a music fan with an insatiable blues appetite, began booking Muddy Waters and other traveling blues greats, eventually starting a blues record label and touring company. Solid fan support enabled Antone to bring in local talent, in effect, cultivating an exciting homegrown blues scene that would soon break nationally.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds, led by guitarist Jimmie Vaughan and singer/harmonica player Kim Wilson, was the first blues-based band to graduate from the new Austin blues scene. The Thunderbirds formed in 1974 and released their self-titled debut album on the Takoma label in 1979. The following year they moved to Chrysalis Records and quickly issued three critically acclaimed but marginally successful albums, sales wise: What’s the Word, in 1980, Butt Rockin’, in 1981, andT-Bird Rhythm, in 1982. The band’s breakthrough occurred in 1986 with Tuff Enuff, its debut album for the Epic label. The title song made it as a single into the Top Ten of the Billboard pop charts, not only establishing the Fabulous Thunderbirds in blues and rock circles but also drawing important attention to Austin.
But it was Jimmie Vaughan’s kid brother who really put Austin on the blues map. Stevie Ray Vaughan followed his big brother to Austin from Dallas, their hometown, in 1972 and joined the Nightcrawlers, followed by the Cobras, before forming a blues-rock group, Triple Threat Revue, with singer Lou Ann Barton. In 1978 Barton left and Vaughan re-formed the group as Double Trouble. With Stevie Ray now doing all of the singing, and with his guitar blazing through blues standards and a growing batch of originals, the trio, which included former Johnny Winter bass player Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton, tore up the Austin music scene. At the invitation of legendary Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, scoring the same results registered nightly back home in Austin. Shortly thereafter, Vaughan and his band signed a recording contract with Epic. Vaughan was finally poised to make blues history.
Vaughan’s debut album for Epic, Texas Flood, was released in 1983, the same year the world lost the great Muddy Waters, who passed away in Chicago. Keeping the sound alive, Vaughan wowed critics with his scintillating guitar work and incredible blues command. He continued to garner fans via his live shows, which exploded with his potent interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” The Hendrix link attracted curious rock fans eager to find a new guitar god in the swamp of synth-pop and Michael Jackson/Madonna dance music that was filling up the charts in the mid-eighties.
Vaughan’s success brought new fans—and new meaning—to the blues. Suddenly, magazines like Rolling Stone and Musician began paying attention to the music form again. Vaughan followed the success of Texas Flood with the equally acclaimed and commercially successful Couldn’t Stand the Weather (1984), Soul to Soul(1985), Live Alive (1986), and In Step (1989). He toured endlessly, growing his audience as he went along and upping his guitar talent seemingly every time he took the stage. Vaughan was the first blues superstar of the postmodern blues period; that he was white made little difference to record buyers or even purists. He had given the music a long-awaited shot in the arm, without sacrificing integrity or a commitment to the music’s storied past.
Equally important to this blues revival was Robert Cray, a black Pacific Northwest blues artist who had a cameo in the 1978 comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House, which starred John Belushi. Cray had made a couple of R&B-influenced blues albums before participating in an Alligator project, Showdown!, which featured, in addition to Cray, guitarists Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland. Released in 1985, Showdown! was one of the most important blues albums of the decade. Not only did it showcase Cray to a broader audience, pump life into Copeland’s career, and further Alligator’s mission of remaking Collins’ career, this guitar summit sold nearly a quarter million units, an unheard-of number for a blues album, and earned a Grammy Award in the blues category.
Cray, who considered both Collins and Copeland blues mentors, gained the most from Showdown! The exposure from the album and the critical acclaim that went with it led to critics taking seriously his Strong Persuader album, which was released the following year. The record contained the hit single “Smoking Gun” and got Cray his second Grammy in as many years.
By the mid-eighties, these two new exciting and important blues artists, as well as a pair of veteran performers, Albert Collins and Koko Taylor (now dubbed Queen of the Blues), had spearheaded the music’s sudden revival. But there was one other element that needed to be added to the mix, something that would push record sales and reconnect sixties blues fans who had lost touch with the music. Technology came to the rescue in the form of the compact disc. By the late eighties, the CD had become the perfect alternative to the vinyl album and to the cassette. Music fans who got tired of playing their old blues albums—with all the scratches, pops, and crackles that accumulate on worn vinyl—began replacing them with CDs.
When record companies realized this new buying trend, most of them began to reissue old, long-out-of-print albums. It was easy money.
Nothing new needed to be recorded; it was simply a matter of transferring music from the master tape onto this new medium. Sometimes selling just a few thousand albums meant profit. Blues artists had been making records since the 1920s, so, as with jazz, there was a lot to reissue. Record companies both big and small began mining their vaults for old chestnuts. Beginning in the late 1980s and carrying on right through the next decade, thousands of old blues recordings saw the light of day again on compact disc. In addition to reissuing old albums, record companies created compilations and then a new concept, the box set, all of which sent very healthy revenue streams into the coffers of labels with any kind of back catalogue.
At Columbia Records, a persistent A&R man who loved the blues, Lawrence Cohn, persuaded the label to release all of Robert Johnson’s recordings in a special set. Despite the rise in CD reissue sales, label executives were skeptical that a full collection of recordings made nearly a half-century earlier would make sense to release. Who would be interested in such music, especially in the case of Johnson, where the master tapes of his recordings had never been found? Recording engineers would have to take Johnson’s music from the best 78s they could find, scratches and all. Cohn insisted that the box set’s release would make economical sense since Johnson was one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century, and that music fans wanted his recordings. Columbia executives hoped to sell ten thousand units, recoup the investment, and move on. Everyone at the label, even Cohn, was stunned when the set sold half a million units, garnered a Grammy, and inspired dozens of magazine pieces.
Such was the state of the blues in 1990. Interest in the music was part of a greater fascination in American roots music that would continue through the decade. There were more blues recordings available than ever before, thanks to CD reissue campaigns that just about every label participated in. Equally important, these same labels also began to search out new talent, something that hadn’t happened in earnest since the 1960s. Traditional country-blues artists such as Keb’ Mo’, Corey Harris, and Alvin Youngblood Hart made debut recordings in the mid-nineties and settled into careers that would have been impossible without the roots music revival in full swing. Young white blues guitarists—Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang, and Susan Tedeschi, among them—secured record deals and attracted not just blues but also roots-rock audiences. Lang even toured with the Rolling Stones as an opening act.
In 1991, Buddy Guy attained the kind of commercial heights and critical acclaim that had always eluded him in the past when he released the Grammy-winningDamn Right, I’ve Got the Blues. In the nineties, Guy’s elevated blues status meant he shared the same spotlight enjoyed by B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and other longtime stalwarts. After a decade and a half of pop and rock albums, Eric Clapton returned to the blues in 1994 with From the Cradle, his first full blues album since his mid-sixties days with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. An acclaimed tour followed. At the decade’s end, he collaborated with B.B. King on the Grammy-winning effort Riding With the King, released in 2000.
“All my early years I worked in the fields picking cotton with black people. We were the only white family sharecroppin’ on this one farm. I remember that late in the evening when the sun was getting low, you would hear these wonderful voices start to sing out. The music of these people would be flooding the air after a while. To this day, I can hear that music in my soul, the rhythm, the feeling it gave.”—Carl Perkins
By then, King’s stature was such that he had become blues music’s elder statesman and ambassador, its true spiritual leader. He had spent the nineties playing nearly two hundred dates a year, releasing album after album, and making television commercials with blues as the soundtrack, John Lee Hooker had not been left out of the blues revival either. In 1989 the small Chameleon label issued The Healer, a Hooker album that featured guest appearances from Carlos Santana, Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, and others. It won a Grammy and set in motion a 1991 followup, Mr. Lucky, that this time featured cameos by such fans as Van Morrison, Keith Richards, and Ry Cooder. Not as articulate as King, Hooker nonetheless enjoyed elder statesman status in the blues and American roots music in general until his death in 2000.
The blues had also suffered a loss ten years earlier with the tragic and shocking death of Stevie Ray Vaughan, in the early years of the blues revival. After successfully beating a debilitating drug and alcohol dependency and making Family Style, a much-anticipated album with his brother Jimmie, Stevie Ray died in a helicopter crash after a Wisconsin concert where he’d appeared with Jimmie, Clapton, Cray, and Guy. His death on August 27, 1990, stunned the music world. No one artist had done more to revitalize the blues and bring on its revival than Vaughan. Despite the strength of the music in the 1990s, Vaughan’s presence was missed at every turn.
With the blues approaching something of a centennial at the turn of the century, it seemed as if every inch of blues territory had been explored and mined for talent. Yet in the early part of the nineties, Fat Possum, a small independent blues label out of Oxford, Mississippi, issued recordings by local bluesmen R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Although Burnside had recorded much earlier, few others than the deepest blues enthusiasts had taken notice of his unique blues style. Like Kimbrough, Burnside hailed from the hill country of Mississippi, just east of the Delta lowlands. His and Kimbrough’s blues styles, although not really similar, nonetheless had some common elements, such as the influence of Mississippi Fred McDowell. The north Mississippi hill country became the final frontier of the blues. Kimbrough played an amazingly hypnotic, almost dronelike blues that could put both listeners and dancers in a trance, while Burnside’s bristling vocals and hyped rhythms recalled the best acoustic recordings of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Both Burnside and Kimbrough were featured in the Robert Mugge documentary Deep Blues, which introduced music fans to hill country blues. Musicologist, author, and musician Robert Palmer wrote and narrated the film, and his enthusiasm for the music resulted in the music’s release on Fat Possum.
Buoyed by the commercial and critical success enjoyed by Burnside and Kimbrough, Fat Possum dug deeper into the Mississippi blues scene and released a number of other long-undiscovered bluesmen in the 1990s. In effect, Fat Possum became the new Alligator Records, issuing consistently intriguing blues that was unschooled, raw, and riveting. None of the other artists Fat Possum recorded in the nineties matched the success of Burnside or Kimbrough, but artists such as T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour, and especially CeDell Davis brought new sounds to old blues styles. In the meantime, hill country bluesman Otha Turner kept alive the sound of centuries-old, African-born fife and drum music, performing on his fife at his annual picnic-cum-music festival. Young white musicians, such as local boys Luther and Cody Dickinson (sons of producer/sessionman Jim Dickinson), started bands inspired by the music. The Dickinsons’ North Mississippi All-Stars became one of the most compelling blues-rock bands of the late nineties.
As the millennium approached and the twentieth century—America’s music century—gave way to the twenty-first, the blues, along with virtually every other roots music form, had carved out an impressive piece of the pop music landscape for itself. Summer music festivals that featured blues, Cajun, zydeco, jazz, country, and bluegrass music were seemingly everywhere. The Delta Blues Museum had opened in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The Blues Foundation, a Memphis-based organization that supported blues education programs and advocated for the blues in general, each year featured the W.C. Handy Awards, the blues equivalent of the Grammys. Madison Avenue discovered the blues; the music helped sell beer, cars, blue jeans, and even medicine for diabetics.
There were three places, however, where the blues lacked. One was the hole left by the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Despite the influx of new artists in the nineties, none of them filled Vaughan’s shoes, leaving the music without a charismatic superstar other than the aging King. The second was the blues’ inability to bring back black audiences. Hip-hop was the most dominant pop music form of the last two decades of the twentieth century, and it completely consumed young black record buyers, leaving no room for the blues revival to touch them. It was a rare young black face at a blues concert in the 1990s. Finally, despite the decade-long success of the blues and its reestablishment with white baby boomers, the music still failed to reach young white music fans. Most of the blues CDs sold in the nineties were purchased by white blues consumers over thirty-five years old. Without new music-buying blood pumped into the business of the blues, it would be only a matter of time before sales figures for blues discs dropped, leaving the blues scene in a dangerous position in the early part of the twenty-first century.
Despite these weaknesses, the blues moves on. The oldest and most resilient of all American roots music forms, the blues has found a way to remain relevant, despite the endless changes that occur in pop music and the uncertainty of the business of music—the advent of downloading free songs from the Internet and the competition from other forms of entertainment (video games, DVDs). In 2002 Congress passed a resolution making 2003 the Year of the Blues, providing long-overdue official recognition of the blues. A century earlier, W.C. Handy had come across an itinerant musician playing blues music that at once captured Handy’s heart and soul. One hundred years later, the blues still possesses the power to touch people and impact the nation’s rich music heritage. As B.B. King once mused, “The blues? It’s the mother of American music. That’s what it is—the source.”