Update on life and ambition

I am on a bus, going home. 9 pm, the daily commute. Throat dry, hungry, bitter with the day’s indignations. More immediate because Monday.

I have not written in a long time. I distinctly feel that I have forgotten to write, how it felt to write. I have frequently been too overwhelmed, or paralyzed to actually be able to write.

It is three years in advertising this month for me, a lifelong fascination, and these three years I have pursued it with a rigor I did not know about myself. Much of everything that used to be life has faded in the background and I believe I have become a different person in the deal. Bitter, for one. Unbelievably bitter. And depressed.

I need to write to hear myself. To mark the years. It is harrowing what is happening and I need to record my voice from the extinguished years.

I am not going to make it momentous. I am not going to craft it. I need to write.


Vinod Mehta died today. Was a footnote in the day’s news. I feel so very sad and dejected and pulled down under, and I am not even a fan of Mr. Mehta. Just, death, so impersonal, so quick.

I finished watching the fourth season of Mad Men. Two scenes. One, Don having a panic attack because the government men are on to him for the desertion. That panic, I felt it on Friday, which was Holi incidentally. Haven’t ever fallen seriously sick because of worrying. But there is always a first time.
The second scene is when Roger hears about Lucky Strike leaving, and he asks for a month, not to do anything but just to have that time.

A year back, or two years back or three for that matter. The number of things I have done, the number of times I have strayed, the number of times it felt, this is it, life ends here, in these surroundings. Every next step feels like much needed oxygen. But it dies down, to strangle. Am I thankful?

Life feels unmanageable. The only things I have in the world that are truly mine, my dogs, I have not been able to spend time with them, not able to feed them as regularly as I would like (they don’t eat when I am not around). And no amount of accepting that and wanting to change is working out. I am very tired.

I hope she knows that you only like the beginnings of things

Tom Wolfe And The Beautiful People

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test is a tough book to read. If you are in tune with how Wolfe is talking, on the bus so to say stylistically, one is inclined to be incensed with the sneering tone  used. A sneering tone towards a gentle experience they hold dear. Like someone making jokes on stage about how you fuck while you are in love. If one is with Wolfe however, in looking down at the entire experience as a bunch of nut cases, one is well and truly bewildered with the writing style. What the fuck is this motherfucker talking about. And rightly so.

 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a nonfiction book by Tom Wolfe that was published in 1968. The book is remembered today as an early – and arguably the most popular – example of the growing literary style called New Journalism. Wolfe presents an as-if-firsthand account of the experiences of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, who traveled across the country in a colourfully painted school bus named “Furthur“. Kesey and the Pranksters became famous for their use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs in hopes of achieving intersubjectivity. The book chronicles the Acid Tests (parties in which LSD-laced Kool-Aid was used to obtain a communal trip), the group’s encounters with (in)famous figures of the time, including famous authors, Hells Angels, and The Grateful Dead, and it also describes Kesey’s exile to Mexico and his arrests.

Context is central to absorbing the book, the content, the writer, the intention and the beautiful people. We are talking about a person who has written a literary non fiction memoir about a bunch of people out of their minds on LSD, without ever having smoked a joint. Without, some say, actually spending any time with his subjects. And who is scathing in his judgemental tone nevertheless. And has written a brilliant book for all of it. A special kind of asshole.


From the Goodreads description of the book:

They say if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. But, fortunately, Tom Wolfe was there, notebook in hand, politely declining LSD while Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters fomented revolution, turning America on to a dangerously playful way of thinking as their Day-Glo conveyance, Further, made the most influential bus ride since Rosa Parks’s. By taking On the Road’s hero Neal Cassady as his driver on the cross-country revival tour and drawing on his own training as a magician, Kesey made Further into a bully pulpit, and linked the beat epoch with hippiedom. Paul McCartney’s Many Years from Now cites Kesey as a key influence on his trippy Magical Mystery Tour film. Kesey temporarily renounced his literary magic for the cause of “tootling the multitudes”–making a spectacle of himself–and Prankster Robert Stone had to flee Kesey’s wild party to get his life’s work done. But in those years, Kesey’s life was his work, and Wolfe infinitely multiplied the multitudes who got tootled by writing this major literary-journalistic monument to a resonant pop-culture moment.

Kesey’s theatrical metamorphosis from the distinguished author of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the abominable shaman of the “Acid Test” soirees that launched The Grateful Dead required Wolfe’s Day-Glo prose account to endure (though Kesey’s own musings in Demon Box are no slouch either). Even now, Wolfe’s book gives what Wolfe clearly got from Kesey: a contact high.

Phew. I’ll give you an example. Here, from an excerpt from the book, Wolfe is talking about the BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE!


who were … yes; attuned. I used to think of them as the Beautiful People because of the Beautiful People letters they used to write their parents. They were chiefly in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City, these kids. They had a regular circuit they were on, and there was a lot of traffic from city to city. Most of them were from middle-class backgrounds, but not upper bourgeois, more petit bourgeois, if that old garbanzo can stand being written down again—homes with Culture but no money or money but no Culture. At least that was the way it struck me, judging by the Beautiful People I knew. Culture, Truth, and Beauty were important to them . .. “Art is a creed, not a craft,” as somebody said … Young! Immune! Christ, somehow there was enough money floating around in the air so that one could do this thing, live together with other kids—Our own thing!—from our own status sphere, without having to work at a job,and live on our own terms—Us! and people our age!—it was…beautiful, it was a… whole feeling, and the straight world never understood it, this thing of one’s status sphere and how one was only nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two or so and not starting out helpless at the bottom of the ladder, at all, because the hell with the ladder itself—one was already up on a … level that the straight world was freaking baffled by! Straight people were always trying to figure out what is wrong here—never having had this feeling themselves. Straight people called them beatniks. I suppose the Beautiful People identified with the Beat Generation excitement of the late 1950s, but in fact there was a whole new motif in their particular bohemian status sphere: namely, psychedelic drugs.

El… Es… Dee … se-cret-ly … Timothy Leary, Alpert, and a few chemists like Al Hubbard and the incognito “Dr. Spaulding” had been pumping LSD out into the hip circuit with a truly messianic conviction. LSD, peyote, mescaline, morning-glory seeds were becoming the secret new thing in the hip life. A lot of kids who were into it were already piled into amputated apartments, as I called them. The seats, the tables, the beds—none of them ever had legs. Communal living on the floor, you might say, although nobody used terms like “communal living” or “tribes” or any of that. They had no particular philosophy, just a little leftover Buddhism and Hinduism from the beat period, plus Huxley’s theory of opening 

doors in the mind, no distinct life style, except for the Legless look … They were … well, Beautiful People! —not “students,” “clerks,” “salesgirls,” “executive trainees”—Christ, don’t give me your occupation-game labels! we are Beautiful People, ascendent from your robot junkyard

:::::: and at this point they used to sit down and write home the Beautiful People letter.

Usually the girls wrote these letters to their mothers. Mothers all over California, all over America, I guess, got to know the Beautiful People letter by heart. It went:

“Dear Mother,

“I meant to write to you before this and I hope you haven’t been worried. I am in [San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Arizona, a Hopi Indian Reservation!!!! New York, Ajijic, San Miguel de Allende, Mazatlán, Mexico! ! ! !] and it is really beautiful here. It is a beautiful scene. We’ve been here a week. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, how it happened, but I really tried, because I knew you wanted me to, but it just didn’t work out with [school, college, my job, me and Danny] and so I have come here and it a really beautiful scene. I don’t want you to worry about me. I have met some BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE and …”

… and in the heart of even the most unhip mamma in all the U.S. of A. instinctively goes up the adrenal shriek: beatniks, bums, spades—dope.


There’s a nicer way to encapsulate what Wolfe has done with his writing here, and the excellent editing folks over at wikipedia have done a wonderful job of getting it together in the Cultural Significance and Reception section, picked mainly from Bredahl, “An Exploration of Power: Tom Wolfe’s Acid Test”

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is remembered as an accurate and “essential” book depicting the roots and growth of the hippie movement. Additionally, the book is remembered because of its usage of New Journalism techniques. The book was widely read and attitudes towards its themes were polarized. Some saw the book as a testament to the downfall of American youth, while others read the book as gospel, seeing Kesey as a sort of Christ figure.

The use of New Journalism yielded two primary reviews, amazement or disagreement. While The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was not the original standard for New Journalism, it is the work most often cited as an example for the revolutionary style. Wolfe’s descriptions and accounts of Kesey’s travel managed to captivate readers and permitted them to read the book as a fiction piece rather than a news story. Those who saw the book as a literary work worthy of praise were amazed by the way Wolfe maintains control.[3] Despite being fully engulfed in the movement and aligned with the Prankster’s philosophy (Snip: Doubtful) Wolfe manages to distinguish between the realities of the Pranksters and Kesey’s experiences and the experiences triggered by their paranoia and acid trips.[3] Wolfe is unique from the Pranksters, because despite his appreciation for the spiritual experiences offered by the psychedelic, he also accepts the importance of the physical world. The Pranksters see their trips as a breach of their physical worlds and realities. Throughout the book Wolfe focuses on placing the Pranksters and Kesey within the context of their environment. Where the Pranksters see ideas, Wolfe sees objects.[4] Had this book been written by a Prankster it would not have the appeal that it does from Wolfe’s hand. Wolfe captures the essence of the Pranksters but tells the story in relation to the real world.

Let me give you another example. When they say Wolfe captures the essence of the Pranksters but tells the story in relation to the real world, this is what they mean. The Pranksters, they have a briefing every Friday night, a sort of a picnic where everyone is sitting around cozy discussing ideas. Here’s Wolfe writing about it.

A few joints are circulating around, saliva-liva-liva-liva-liva. 

The same sentence, splashed around multiple times. One can almost feel the distaste burbling over from the pen.

Kesey and Cassady, Barechested, 1968.

Kesey and Cassady, Barechested, 1968.


It isn’t to say that he doesn’t try. Try this (another excerpt from the book) where Wolfe is talking about….

The Unspoken Thing

HOW TO TELL IT! . . . THE CURRENT FANTASY … I NEVER heard any of the Pranksters use the word religious to describe the mental atmosphere they shared after the bus trip and the strange days in Big Sur. In fact, they avoided putting it into words. And yet—

They got on the bus and headed back to La Honda in the old Big Sur summertime, all frozen sunshine up here, and no one had to say it: they were all deep into some weird shit now, as they would just as soon call it by way of taking the curse . . . off the Unspoken Thing. Things were getting very psychic. It was like when Sandy drove 191 miles in South Dakota and then he had looked up at the map on the ceiling of the bus and precisely those 191 miles were marked in red … Sandy : : : : : back in Brain Scan country the White Smocks would never in a million years comprehend where he had actually been … which was where they all were now, also known as Edge City …

Back in Kesey’s log house in La Honda, all sitting around in the evening in the main room, it’s getting cool outside, and Page Browning: I think I’ll close the window—and in that very moment another Prankster gets up and closes it for him and smi-i-i-i-les and says nothing . .. The Unspoken Thing—and these things keep happening over and over. They take a trip up into the High Sierras and Cassady pulls the bus off the main road and starts driving up a little mountain road—see where she goes. The road is so old and deserted the pavement is half broken up and they keep climbing and twisting up into nowhere, but the air is nice, and up at the top of the grade the bus begins bucking and gulping and won’t pull any more. It just stops. It turns out they’re out of gas, which is a nice situation because it’s nightfall and they’re stranded totally hell west of nowhere with not a gas station within thirty, maybe fifty miles. Nothing to do but stroke themselves out on the bus and go to sleep … hmmmmmm … scorpions with boots on red TWA Royal Ambassador slumber slippers on his big Stinger Howard Hughes in a sleeping bag on the floor in a marble penthouse in the desert DAWN

All wake up to a considerable fetching and hauling and grinding up the grade below them and over the crest comes a


gasoline tanker, a huge monster of a tanker. Which just stops like they all met somewhere before and gives them a tankful of gas and without a word heads on into the Sierras toward absolutely


Babbs— Cosmic control, eh Hassler!

And Kesey— Where does it go? I don’t think man has ever been there. We’re under cosmic control and have been for a long long time, and each time it builds, it’s bigger, and it’s stronger. And then you find out… about Cosmo, and you discover that he’s running the show. ..

The Unspoken Thing; Kesey’s role and the whole direction the Pranksters were taking—all the Pranksters were conscious of it, but none of them put it into words, as I say. They made a point of not putting it into words. That in itself was one of the unspoken rules. If you label it this, then it can’t be that… Kesey took great pains not to make his role explicit. He wasn’t the authority, somebody else was: “Babbs says…” “Page says…” He wasn’t the leader, he was the “non-navigator.” He was also the non-teacher. “Do you realize that you’re a teacher here?” Kesey says, “Too much, too much,” and walks away… Kesey’s explicit teachings were all cryptic, metaphorical; parables, aphorisms: “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” “Feed the hungry bee,” “Nothing lasts,” “See with your ears and hear with your eyes,” “Put your good where it will do the most,” “What did the mirror say? It’s done with people.” To that extent it was like Zen Buddhism, with the inscrutable koans, in which the novice says, “What is the secret of Zen?” and Hui-neng the master says, “What did your face look like before your parents begat you?” To put it into so many words, to define it, was to limit it. If it’s this, then it can’t be that… Yet there it was! Everyone had his own thing he was working out, but it all fit into the group thing, which was—”the Unspoken Thing,” said Page Browning, and that was as far as anyone wanted to go with words.

For that matter, there was no theology to it, no philosophy, at least not in the sense of an ism. There was no goal of an improved moral order in the world or an improved social order, nothing about salvation and certainly nothing about immortality or the life hereafter. Hereafter! That was a laugh. If there was ever a group devoted totally to the here and now it was the Pranksters. I remember puzzling over this. There was something so… religious in the air, in the very atmosphere of the Prankster life, and yet one couldn’t put one’s finger on it. On the face of it there was just a group of people who had shared an unusual psychological state, the LSD experience—But exactly! The experience—that was the word! and it began to fall into place. In fact, none of the great founded religions, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrian-ism, Hinduism, none of them began with a philosophical framework or even a main idea. They all began with an overwhelming new experience, what Joachim Wach called “the experience of the holy,” and Max Weber,”possession of the deity,” the sense of being a vessel of the divine, of the All-one. I remember I never truly understood what they were talking about when I first read of such things. I just took their weighty German word for it. Jesus, Mani, Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha—at the very outset the leader did not offer his circle of followers a better state hereafter or an improved social order or any reward other than a certain “psychological state in the here and now,” as Weber put it. I suppose what I never really comprehended was that he was talking about an actual mental experience they all went through, an ecstasy, in short.

In most cases, according to scriptures and legend, it happened in a flash. Mohammed fasting and meditating on a mountainside near Mecca and— -flash! —ecstasy, vast revelation and the beginning of Islam. Zoroaster hauling haoma water along the road and— -flash! —he runs into the flaming form of the Archangel Vohu Mano, messenger of Ahura Mazda, and the beginning of Zoroastrianism. Saul of Tarsus walking along the road to Damascus and— flash! —he hears the voice of the Lord and becomes a Christian. Plus God knows how many lesser figures in the 2,000 years since then, Christian Rosenkreuz and his “God-illuminated” brotherhood of Rosicrucians, Emanuel Swedenborg whose mind suddenly “opened” in 1743, Meister Eck-hart and his disciples Suso and Tauler, and in the twentieth-century Sadhu Sundar Singh—with— flash! —a vision at the age of 16 and many times thereafter; “.. . often when I come out of ecstasy I think the whole world must be blind not to see what I see, everything is so near and clear … there is no language which will express the things which I see and hear in the spiritual world …”

Sounds like an acid head, of course.


By nightfall the Pranksters are in the house and a few joints are circulating, saliva-liva-liva-liva-liva, and the whole thing is getting deeper into the moment, as it were, and people are working on tapes, tapes being played back, stopped, rewound, played again, a click on the plastic lever, stopped again … and a little speed making the rounds—such a lordly surge under the redwoods!—tablets of Benzedrine and Dexedrine, mainly, and you take off for a burst of work and rapping into the night. ..

Experiments of all sorts favored here, like putting contact microphones up against the bare belly and listening to the enzymes gurgling. Most Prankster bellies go gurgle-galumph-blub and so on, but Cassady’s goes ping! — dingaping! — ting! as if he were wired at 78 rpm and everyone else is at 33 rpm, which seems about right. And then they play a tape against a television show. That is, they turn on the picture on the TV, the Ed Sullivan Show, say, but they turn off the sound and play a tape of, say, Babbs and somebody rapping off each other’s words. The picture of the Ed Sullivan Show and the words on the tape suddenly force your mind to reach for connections between two vastly different orders of experience. On the TV screen, Ed Sullivan is holding Ella Fitzgerald’s hands with his hands sopped over her hands as if her hands were the first robins of spring, and his lips are moving, probably saying, “Ella, that was wonderful! Really wonderful! Ladies and gentlemen, another hand for a great, great lady!” But the voice that comes out is saying to Ella Fitzgerald— in perfect synch

“The lumps in your mattress are carnivore spores, venereal butterflies sent by theCombine to mothproof your brain, a pro-kit in every light socket— Ladies andgentlemen, Plug up the light sockets! Plug up the light sockets! The cougar microbesare marching in … “

Perfect! The true message!—

—although this kind of weird synchronization usually struck outsiders as mere coincidence or just whimsical, meaningless in any case. They couldn’t understand why the Pranksters grooved on it so. The inevitable confusion of the unattuned—like most of the Pranksters’ unique practices, it derived from the LSD experience and was incomprehensible without it. Under LSD, if it really went right,Ego and Non-Ego started to merge. Countless things that seemed separate started to merge, too: a sound became … a color! blue … colors became smells, walls began to breathe like the underside of a leaf, with one’s own breath. A curtain became a column of concrete and yet it began rippling, this incredible concrete mass rippling in harmonic waves like the Puget Sound bridge before the crash and you can feel it, the entire harmonics of the universe from the most massive to the smallest and most personal— presque vu! —all flowing together in this very moment…

This side of the LSD experience— the feeling! —tied in with Jung’s theory of synchronicity. Jung tried to explain the meaningful coincidences that occur in life and cannot be explained by cause-and-effect reasoning, such as ESP phenomena. He put forth the hypothesis that the unconscious perceives certain archetypical patterns that elude the conscious mind. These patterns, he suggested, are what unite subjective or psychic events with objective phenomena, the Ego with the Non-Ego, as in psychosomatic medicine or in the microphysical events of modern physics in which the eye of the beholder becomes an integral part of the experiment. Countless philosophers, prophets, early scientists, not to mention alchemists and occultists, had tried to present the same idea in the past, Plotinus, Lao-tse, Pico della Mirandola, Agrippa, Kepler, Leibniz. Every phenomenon, and every person, is a microcosm of the whole pattern of the universe, according to this idea. It is as if each man were an atom in a molecule in a fingernail of a giant being. Most men spend their lives trying to understand the workings of the molecule they’re born into and all they know for sure are the cause-and-effect workings of the atoms in it. A few brilliant men grasp the structure of the entire fingernail. A few geniuses, like Einstein, may even see that they’re all part of a finger of some ¡sort—So spaceequals time, hmmmmmm … All the while, however, many men get an occasional glimpse of another fingernail from another finger flashing by or even a whole finger or even the surface of the giant being’s face and they realize instinctively that this is a part of a pattern they’re all involved in, although they are totally powerless to explain it by cause and effect. And then—some visionary, through some accident—

—through some quirk of metabolism, through some drug perhaps, has his doors of perception opened for an instant and he almost sees— presque vu! —the entire being and he knows for the first time that there is a whole . . . other pattern here .. . Each moment in his life is only minutely related to the cause-and-effect chain within his little molecular world. Each moment, if he could only analyze it, reveals the entire pattern of the motion of the giant being, and his life is minutely synched in with it—



The Pranksters never talked about synchronicity by name, but they were more and more attuned to the principle. Obviously, according to this principle, man does not have free will. There is no use in his indulging in a lifelong competition to change the structure of the little environment he seems to be trapped in. But one could see the larger pattern and move with it— Go with the flow! —and accept it and rise above one’s immediate environment and even alter it by accepting the larger pattern and grooving with it— Put your good where it will do the most!

Oh dear.

… these things



I suppose I shall be talking more about the book eventually. I haven’t even begun to talk about Kesey yet. I am still in the middle of the book.  Savouring it very slowly, over months.



Fuss and Feathers – Excerpt from Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

YOU WEREN’T BORN choking on no silver spoon, you know how it goes when you go looking for a job and you need one: You wait in the first indifferent room, ink in the forms, apply in another room with linoleum that’s waxy and squeaks and overhead lights that don’t miss a thing; then there’s the desk and the person behind it who thinks he’s an admiral, or it’s a she and she thinks she’s now in line for the throne to somewhere, and next you’re kissing ass and aw-shucksing toward the desk, telling how bad all your life you’ve been wanting to be night janitor in a chemical plant, or hog wrangler in a slaughterhouse, or pizza delivery boy, how you’ve laid awake in bed gettin’ goose bumps just from imagining how high and wide your life might someday be lived if ever you could average five dollars and forty cents an hour.

But there’re these questions, as always: Could you explain what you did from February of that one year until July of the next? And also that other year, from May to September?

Oh, did I not write that down? you say, then start spinning phantom jobs out your mouth, and they’re the best you ever did have, too: roller-coaster operator at Six Flags; Delta guide and driver for that two-part National Geographicarticle; day bartender at Silky O’Sullivan’s.

Your palms break sweat and you sit there, needy, while your work ethic and character are available for comment from strangers you wouldn’t share a joint with at a blues festival.

And you don’t get the job.

Those old failings showed through.

Not even lies helped.

Before all that long, you start telling those near to you that you went on interviews that turned out sorry when factually you never even made the phone call.


From the excellent Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

Did you start watching True Detective yet?

“I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, this accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody when, in fact, everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal.”
“What’s the point in getting out of bed in the morning then?”
“I tell myself I bear witness, but the real answer is that it’s obviously my programming, and I lack the constitution for suicide.”
– From Episode 1.

Quoting McLuhan


The following discussion is from the Introduction to the otherwise shallow non-fiction book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Pictures are not part of the book)

The Author is discussing the 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan, the book where the phrase “The medium is the message” originated.


Professor Marshall McLuhan

Professor Marshall McLuhan

Understanding Media prophesied the dissolution of the linear mind. McLuhan declared that the “electric media” of the twentieth century—telephone, radio, movies, television—were breaking the tyranny of text over our thoughts and senses. Our isolated, fragmented selves, locked for centuries in the private reading of printed pages, were becoming whole again, merging into the global equivalent of a tribal village. We were approaching “the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.”


However, McLuhan was not just acknowledging, and celebrating, the transformative power of new communication technologies. He was also sounding a warning about the threat the power poses—and the risk of being oblivious to that threat.


In the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it—and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society.


“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” wrote McLuhan. Rather, they alter “patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.” Media work their magic, or their mischief, on the nervous system itself.

Book is an extension

“Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot,” he wrote. The content of a medium is just “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”


In the middle of reading ‘Marching Powder’

I am reading this book called Marching Powder about a Bolivian Prison by an Australian backpacker called Rusty Young.

Rusty Young was backpacking in South America when he heard about Thomas McFadden, a convicted English drug trafficker who ran tours inside Bolivia’s notorious San Pedro prison. Intrigued, the young Australian journalisted went to La Paz and joined one of Thomas’s illegal tours. They formed an instant friendship and then became partners in an attempt to record Thomas’s experiences in the jail. Rusty bribed the guards to allow him to stay and for the next three months he lived inside the prison, sharing a cell with Thomas and recording one of the strangest and most compelling prison stories of all time. The memoir, Marching Powder, was released in 2003.

A film adaptation has been announced with the rights to the book with Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.

The prison itself is fascinating, the corruption and the drugs and lives inside a prison like this. The worst realization was the understanding that the prison has a better economy than the rest of Bolivia, which is why family members CHOOSE to stay in the prison. This, for example is a normal scene from the prison.

Scene inside of San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia

The book however grates on one’s nerves, the tone forever being “You Won’t Belieeeeve what happens in a South American Prison”. Much like the 2012 movie Argo. WOAH MAI GAWD THEY WENT INTO AN ARAB BAZAAR AND CAME OUT ALIVE NO INFECTIONS EITHER TAKE DECORATIONS, MEDAL, OSCAAAR.

The Wiki page is far better organized. Here are a few links.

San Pedro Prison: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Pedro_prison
Runnerup: Guardian Student Travel Writer of the Year 2009: http://www.girish-gupta.com/article.php?id=6
Photo Journal: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/picture_gallery/06/americas_inside_a_bolivian_jail/html/1.stm
Rusty Young has already made a documentary about this: http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/stories/s963744.htm

But that is not the reason I am posting this. I read a review on Goodreads, which pretty much knocked my wind off in that one line. This lady writes,

“Not amazed, as its a third world prison and they will never amaze me…”

Scares me that Brad Pitt is attempting this.

“Luther Allison’s guitar cries, and it’s tears are blue”

It has been a week since I discovered Luther Allison, it was last Sunday evening when I heard Bad News Is Coming (flac), his debut album on a big label from 1972. I have been progressively going CRAAAZY over that sound, but let me back up. It is difficult to describe that first listen. I guess everyone has to experience it their own way. For some it would take a little getting used to. But there is no way you wouldn’t have a reaction.

Some reviews from over at the Amazon page:

  • I don’t want to review this cd as much as I want to implore you, the person reading this, to treat yourself and buy it. Out of the 100’s of cd’s I’ve owned and listened to, this is the most soulfully smooth music I’ve heard. This album is an unknown classic. Allison’s voice rock’s, his guitar work stings, the piano is perfect. Track after track this cd is either perfectly sexy, painful, funky, or rocking. Why this guy wasn’t hugely popular is beyond me. Buy this cd and then buy it for your friends. They’ll love it too. Peace- Adam Milan.
  • Now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about, kids. This is gutbucket, soulfunk, dirty electric blues at its best. Chicago blues guitarist Luther Allison made his debut with this 1972 release on Motown’s Gordy label. Allison’s fiery guitar playing and his rough and tumble vocals bring life to a set of blues standards mixed with two songs he co-wrote. The first seven tracks make up the album as it was originally released, but this excellent remaster/reissue adds four more, including the potent “It’s Been a Long Time”.  – Jack Baker
  • “Bad News Is Coming” was Luther Allison’s debut album and from the first track, (his version of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster”), he EXPLODES with an intensity that is refreshing every time I hear it. He belted out his vocals in a raspy, impassioned wail, and his guitar playing was just as searing. This should have been a smash, although the blues market was drying up by the time this was released in 1972 and it ultimately didn’t sell in big numbers. Luther Allison himself is quoted in the liner notes as saying that he got lost in the shuffle when Motown moved from Detroit to L.A. Luther Allison was an amazing guitarist and unfortunately remains underrated. Songs like his own “Raggedy and Dirty” are perfect examples of how he could play the blues over a funky groove and just sound plain DIRTY. I don’t know how else to describe it. He didn’t hold anything back on this album. Also notable is the piano playing of Paul White, who has some great solos on this one. If you are a fan of the blues and haven’t heard Luther Allison, this CD serves as a good introduction to this unsung performer. – B. Bowman.

You get the idea.

Amazon’s own succinct ‘Product description’ is:

One of the greatest modern electric blues albums of the 1970’s.
I have not been able to listen to anything else, and I it seems to sear my brain every time I hit play. Early morning, afternoons, late night, on the highway, in bed, on the balcony. I feel my sperm count increasing steadily with every play through. Rise in happiness and an irresistible desire to stop people in their tracks and tell them, ‘You will thank me, your children will thank me, your grandchildren will thank me. Listen to this. Don’t make an immediate judgement. Just listen.’
When I feel like this, I remember this banter between Hound Dog Taylor and the audience, at the beginning of a song,
Hound Dog Taylor : I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve got it
Audience: WHAT?
Hound Dog Taylor: The Bluuues, man!
A Longer and more apt Description of the album we are talking about here:

Roots music wasn’t exactly a hot prospect in 1972, which might be why the blistering guitar-centered blues on Luther Allison’s debut record didn’t garner the respect it deserved at the time. Though it’s unfortunate that he’s no longer around to appreciate it, it’s good to see that Allison is finally being recognized for the Chicago West Side master that he was, as a single spin of Bad News Is Coming surely enough proves. Things get started with a hard-stompin’, guitar-squealin’ rendition of the classic Willie Dixon tune “Little Red Rooster,” followed up with the riff-rooted “Evil Is Going On,” also by Dixon. Another standout is the title track, a slow, moody piece with a perfectly bittersweet inflection. Then there’s the considerably upbeat version of “Dust My Broom,” which manages to dust off a hoary standard and make it sound brand-spanking-new, all while showing off guitar pyrotechnics worthy of Jimi Hendrix. This issue of Allison’s debut also includes some worthy tracks that weren’t on the original release. All four merit a listen, but particular attention should be paid to Allison’s take on Freddy King’s classic instrumental “The Stumble,” which also features some admirable piano courtesy of Paul White. –Genevieve Williams

See there are three main stages of Blues, the real early Blues with gospel, scratchy string, delta blues. Add the glam pre war 1920s diva Blues. Then there is the Chicago Blues. Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson. This is 1950s-60s. Lot happened in that late 60s era. Elvis came in around 1960 and sparked off Rock n Roll. The electric guitar sparked a whole new sound. English rockers started playing their versions of Chicago and Delta Blues. Blues Rock, a whole psychedelic world. But for discussion’s sake, let’s be back into the main stream of Blues. After the Chicago Blues were the modern interpreters – Freddie King, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Even if you have heard through  (cursorily, of course) the whole set of Blues evolution, Luther Allison’s guitar would still surprise you. As Jean Cabot of Rock and Folk magazine says, admittedly about a different Luther album,

The primary value of this recording, his first live album, is to make one feel Luther Allison’s musical abilities, as well as the intensity and generosity of his live performances. You can also find the memories of the privileged moments – maybe a few seconds when you feel, when you know, that Luther shuts his eyes and opens his soul… At that moment, his guitar no longer speaks to you, it cries . and it’s tears are blue.” — Jean Cabot, Rock and Folk

From over on the Wikipedia page:
Luther Allison (August 17, 1939 – August 12, 1997) was an American blues guitarist. He was born in Widener, Arkansas and moved with his family, at age twelve, to Chicago in 1951.He taught himself guitar and began listening to blues extensively. Three years later he began hanging outside blues nightclubs with the hopes of being invited to perform. He played with Howlin’ Wolf’s band and backed James Cotton.
His big break came in 1957 when Howlin’ Wolf invited Allison to the stage. Freddie King took him under his wing and after King got his big record deal, Allison took over King’s house-band gig on Chicago’s west side. A well-received set at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival resulted in his being asked to perform there each of the next three years.He also toured nationwide and, in 1972, was signed to Motown Records, one of the few blues artists to do so.
Bad News is Coming


On an aside, the more I thought in terms of the evolution of Blues, and where Luther Allison would be in the scheme of things, the more I was reminded of the below paragraph from the excellent Richard Dawkins book The Ancestor’s Tale,

I believe that there are senses in which evolution may be said to be directional, progressive and even predictable. But progress is emphatically not the same thing as progress towards humanity, and we must live with a weak and unflattering sense of the predictable. The historian must beware of stringing together a narrative that seems, even to the smallest degree, to be homing in on a human climax.

A book in my possession (in the main a good book, so I shall not name and shame it) provides an example. It is comparing Homo habilis (a human species, probably ancestral to us) with its predecessors the australopithecines. What the book says is that Homo habilis was ‘considerably more evolved than the Australopithecines’. More evolved? What can this mean but that evolution is moving in some pre-specified direction? The book leaves us in no doubt of what the presumed direction is. ‘The first signs of a chin are apparent.’ ‘First’ encourages us to expect second and third signs, towards a ‘complete’ human chin. ‘The teeth start to resemble ours …’ As if those teeth were the way they were, not because it suited the habiline diet but because they were embarking upon the road towards becoming our teeth. The passage ends with a telltale remark about a later species of extinct human, Homo erectus:

Although their faces are still different from ours, they have a much more human look in their eyes. They are like sculptures in the making, ‘unfinished’ works.

In the making? Unfinished? Only with the unwisdom of hindsight. In excuse of that book it is probably true that, were we to meet a Homo erectus face to face, it might well look to our eyes like an unfinished sculpture in the making. But that is only because we are looking with human hindsight. A living creature is always in the business of surviving in its own environment. It is never unfinished – or, in another sense, it is always unfinished. So, presumably, are we.

The conceit of hindsight tempts us at other stages in our history. From our human point of view, the emergence of our remote fish ancestors from water to land was a momentous step, an evolutionary rite of passage. It was undertaken in the Devonian Period by lobe-finned fish a bit like modern lungfish. We look at fossils of the period with a pardonable yearning to gaze upon our forebears, and are seduced by a knowledge of what came later: drawn into seeing these Devonian fish as ‘half way’ towards becoming land animals; everything about them earnestly transitional, bound into an epic quest to invade the land and initiate the next big phase of evolution. That is not the way it was at the time. Those Devonian fish had a living to earn. They were not on a mission to evolve, not on a quest towards the distant future. An otherwise excellent book about vertebrate evolution contains the following sentence about fish which

ventured out of the water on to the land at the end of the Devonian Period and jumped the gap, so to speak, from one vertebrate class to another to become the first amphibians …

The ‘gap’ comes from hindsight. There was nothing resembling a gap at the time, and the ‘classes’ that we now recognise were no moreseparate, in those days, than two species. As we shall see again, jumping gaps is not what evolution does.

If you are interested, the rest of that fascinating introduction to the book is here – The Conceit of Hindsight.

‘A Century Of The Blues’ by Robert Santelli

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.


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.


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.

Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds

Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds

“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.

Ma Rainey was backed by the Georgia Band, led by “Georgia Tom” Dorsey (third from left).

Ma Rainey was backed by the Georgia Band, led by “Georgia Tom” Dorsey (third from left).

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.

Bessie Smith personified the blues diva.

Bessie Smith personified the blues diva.

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.

Ad for Rabbit Foot Blues - Paramount Race Records

Ad for Rabbit Foot Blues – Paramount Race Records

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.

Blind Blake was one of the blues’ most spectacular guitar players.

Blind Blake was one of the blues’ most spectacular guitar players.

 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.”

Early recordings by Patton spelled his first name both as Charley and Charlie

Early recordings by Patton spelled his first name both as Charley and Charlie

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.

With Son House, the blues possessed an emotional intensity that was not easily replicated

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.


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.

Robert Johnson

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.


By Langston Hughes

Good morning, daddy!
Ain’t you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?

Listen closely:
You’ll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—

You think
It’s a happy beat?

Listen to it closely:
Ain’t you heard
something underneath
like a—

What did I say?

I’m happy!
Take it away!

Hey, pop!


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.

Janis Joplin cited Lead Belly as a musical inspiration

Janis Joplin cited Lead Belly as a musical inspiration

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.

Muddy Waters Swag

Muddy Waters Swag

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.

Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy (from left) cut some sides in the Chess studio, 1964.

Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy (from left) cut some sides in the Chess studio, 1964.

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.

B.B. King Band and the tour bus

B.B. King (far left) and his  band spent endless days and nights on the road beginning in the late 1940s

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.


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.

Elvis recording for Sun Records

Elvis recording for Sun Records, 1954

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.

Chuck Berry - the polar opposite of Elvis Presley

Chuck Berry – the polar opposite of Elvis Presley

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.

Willie Dixon, the Blues chef

Willie Dixon, the Blues chef

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.

Slide guitar stylist Elmore James

Slide guitar stylist Elmore James

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.

Lightnin' Hopkins - Illustration by Robert Crumb

Lightnin’ Hopkins – Illustration by Robert Crumb

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.

Big Bill Broonzy found a new audience in coffeehouses in the 1950s

Big Bill Broonzy found a new audience in coffeehouses in the 1950s

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.

Ray Charles - the Soul man

Ray Charles – the Soul man

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.

Sunny Boy Williamson on his England tour

Sunny Boy Williamson on his England tour, 1963

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.


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.

Mississippi blues greats Skip James (left) and Son House were both rediscovered in 1964.

Mississippi blues greats Skip James (left) and Son House were both rediscovered in 1964.

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.

Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, 1968

Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, 1968

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.

Concert Poster: Big Brother & The Holding Company

Concert Poster: Big Brother & The Holding Company

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.

According to Chuck D, “Hendrix was able to take the blues and put it on steroids.”

According to Chuck D, “Hendrix was able to take the blues and put it on steroids.”

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.

Hound Dog Taylor's six fingered hand

Hound Dog Taylor’s six fingered hand

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.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

Stevie Ray Vaughan

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.

Robert Johnson won the acclaim of a rock star when this box set garnered a Grammy and went gold.

Robert Johnson won the acclaim of a rock star when this box set garnered a Grammy and went gold.

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.”

Defining the Blues

I have been reading a fascinating long essay on the Blues this past week. It is part of the book released along with the rest of the paraphernalia by Martin Scorsese for his Blues documentary. It is a beautiful, non academic intimate history of the Blues. One admires one’s emotional connections to one’s music, but writings that sum up the reality and the zeitgeist at a moment in time have their own beauty, and more usefulness too, for those coming later. I shall try to post the whole essay in a subsequent post (here it is, A Century of The Blues by Robert Santelli), and maybe talk about it too, but this post here is about another piece of writing from the same book, Martin Scorsese’s preface to the book. It is a non-assuming two pages of fan boy talk that Scorsese has written as an introduction to the book, and (sort of) to the series. I have read it multiple times during the past year, once long before I started watching the documentaries, and then a couple of times in between this manic period of absorbing the Blues. I had thought of excerpting it in some form on the blog for a long time, but couldn’t frame it with a fitting context.

It certainly felt that I should be presenting it though. It is something to admire, the whole project. It sounds a little presumptuous, at first glance, the showman title of Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues. But once you delve in, one realizes the magnificence of what Scorsese has done here. Not just about the fact that he has put his money into something like this … comprehensive, one imagines that he has earned the right to indulge himself. He has the credentials, for sure. Apart from being Martin Scorsese, this is the guy that actually edited the original Woodstock ’69 film. At one point in this preface, he offhandedly mentions that while shooting The Last Waltz (I had to google it, and I was dumbfounded), he had the privilege to shoot Muddy Waters. Hold it. What? Martin Scorsese has shot Muddy Waters? Live? Woah, What?

Yes. That happened. Respect deepens for this loveable man.


Not to digress, but I was talking about the documentary, the set of 7 films that Scorsese helped produce, and his right to be indulgent about the way he looks at Blues.

No, more precisely, I was talking about the preface Scorsese has written for the book that was part of the series. Yesterday, early morning, I was out, sipping tea, listening to the Blues, thinking, when one of the lines from this preface jumped up in my head, and I got it. I understood what he had done, what he was saying, about the way he had so cooly and nicely, off handedly defined the Blues. In the preface! I had to come back home immediately, read his words again. I soon realized that he had taken the beautiful logic of that sentence to some other conclusion. Pertinent, but different than my nirvana moment. We will come back to it after you have read the whole preface below.

I had my initial frustrations with the series (some quite childish, as I feel now, with hindsight), of what some of the directors had done. Time and again through the series, there was this insistence to document a good definition of the Blues. I can understand why the search for an aesthetic, fitting, and perfect definition for the Blues could be an enticing approach for someone chronicling the story of the Blues. Every one feels it, but it is very difficult to voice it. What is it about the Blues that makes it so hypnotic, so personal? One almost comes to the Blues already loving the Blues – even if you have never heard it before. Is it a feeling? What is that secret?

And there is such a vast ocean of Blues to choose from. When I was young, I used to think the electric guitar going crazy was the Blues. For good reason, the first Blues song I had been obsessed with was Lucille by B.B. King. But then, there is the harmonica, there is the piano, there is the bass, there is the soulful singing, there is the knife being slid along the guitar strings. All of that is the Blues. Black slaves of a century ago in the delta are singing the Blues. But white boys in faraway London are also playing the Blues. The Blues is personal. But Blues is political.  New Orleans is Blues. Chicago is Blues. The Mississippi Delta is Blues. Woodstock is also Blues. Blues is jazzed up, jumped up, swing through, the Blues is Country, the Blues is Soul, the Blues is Rock, the Blues is Metal (A couple of months back, I reshuffled all of my music in my hard disks into two folders, Blues and Everything Else. True Story)

So what I am saying is I can understand the fascination of trying to document what Blues mean to the giants who made the Blues what it is. Through the documentaries, I heard Son House solemnly proclaim that “Blues is what is between a man and a woman. There ain’t no other kind of Blues.” There was Howlin’ Wolf pointing to his heart when saying “All Blues come from here. If it isn’t coming from here, it ain’t the Blues”. Hear Muddy Waters make his electric guitar cry out on the bassed up I AM THE BLUES, and you will swear it is him (It is a Willie Dixon song though, and for good reason. I am the Blues is the name of his autobiography as well).

Albert King takes a live masterclass in the song Blues Power with his audience defining the Blues as you go (toddler can’t get his milk bottle, girl can’t meet her squeeze, they got the blues. Some people call it the reds and the pinks, I call it the old fashioned Blues).

There was this line from that essay I was earlier talking about that stuck in my head. It was talking about the crippling effect of the 1930s depression on the record business,

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.

From the wiki page,

The blues takes many forms… It is variously a feeling, a mood, a nameless threat, a person, a lover, a boss man, a mob, and, of course, the Devil himself. It is often experienced as both cause and effect, action and reaction, and it can be used as both hex and counterhex, poison and antidote, pain and relief. Most importantly, the blues is both the cause of song, and song itself…

But here, come listen to what Martin Scorsese has to say in that preface to the book,


I’ll never forget the first time heard Lead Belly singing “See See Rider.” I was entranced. Like most people of my generation, I grew up listening to rock & roll. All of a sudden, in an instant, I could hear where it had all come from. And I could feel that the spirit behind the music, behind that voice and that guitar, came from somewhere much, much farther back in time.

Many people I know had the same shock of recognition. Rock & roll seemed to just come to us, on the radio and in the record stores. It became our music, a very important way of defining ourselves and separating from our parents. But then we uncovered another, deeper level, the history behind rock and R&B, the music behind our music. All roads led to the source, which was the blues.

We all like to imagine that art can come from out of nowhere and shock us like nothing we’ve ever seen or read or heard before. The greater truth is that everything—every painting, every movie, every play, every song—comes out of something that precedes it. It’s a chain of human responses. The beauty of art and the power of art is that it can never be standardized or mechanized. It has to be a human exchange, passed down hand to hand, or else it’s not art. It’s endlessly old and endlessly new at the same time, because there are always young artists hearing and seeing work that’s come before them, getting inspired and making something of their own out of what they’ve absorbed.

When you listen to Skip James singing “Devil Got My Woman” or Son House singing “Death Letter Blues” or John Lee Hooker laying down one of his snaking guitar figures, when you really listen—and believe me, it’s not hard, because this is music that grabs your full attention from the first note—you’re hearing something very precious being passed down. A precious secret. It’s there in all those echoes and borrowings, all those shared phrasings and guitar figures, all those songs that have passed down from singer to singer, player to player, sometimes changing along the way and becoming whole new songs in the process.

What is that secret? Recently, I was shooting a scene for the film I contributed to this series. I was in a studio with Corey Harris and Keb’ Mo’, two extraordinary young musicians, and we were talking about Robert Johnson. Corey made a very important point: Throughout the history of African-American music, right up through the present, there’s a distinction between the emotions of the singer and the words he or she is singing. The words of “Hellhound on My Trail” may be about a jealous woman sprinkling hot foot powder around her lover’s door, but Robert Johnson is singing something else, something mysterious, powerful, undefinable. The words don’t contain the emotion, they’re a vehicle for it. Corey called this a “language of exclusion,” which can be found in the poetry of Langston Hughes just as easily as it can be found in the music of Howlin’ Wolf or Lightnin’ Hopkins. It was and still is a way of maintaining dignity and identity, both individual and collective, through art; and as we all know (or should know), it originated as a response to the very worst forms of oppression: slavery, sharecropping, and the racism that’s never left American society. The precious secret is simply that part of the human soul which can never be trampled on or taken away. It’s brought more to our culture than any of us ever could have imagined. It’s tragic that racism continues to thrive in the western world, but it’s also utterly ridiculous, because there’s no one who hasn’t profited from the spirit that animates this music. Without it, this culture of ours, so rich and varied, would be nothing.

A few years ago, we initiated this project—these films and this book of essays to accompany them—as a celebration of a great American art form. It became many other things along the way a series of inquiries, tracing the different emotional and geographical paths the music took; a memorial to many great artists who have sadly passed away; a reflection on time and on the many ways the past can both haunt and enrich the present; and for all of us, for Wim Wenders, Charles Burnett, Richard Pearce, Marc Levin, Mike Figgis, Clint Eastwood, and myself, something deeply personal. For my own part, it became a reflection on an essential part of my creative process.

Music has played a key role in my life and my work. When I’m preparing a movie, it’s only when I hear the music in my head that the movie comes together for me, when I really start to see it. I could picture Gangs of New York’s opening scene only after I first heard Otha Turner’s hypnotic music. Even when the music doesn’t make it into the finished product, it’s there behind everything I do. When I look at the wonderful films made by the other directors who took part in this series, I know that it’s the same for them. And the blues has always held a special place for me. It’s the most physical music I know, with an emotional undertow that’s unlike absolutely anything else. When you listen to the otherworldly voice of Robert Johnson hitting those words “blues fallin’ down like hail,” or Howlin’ Wolf riding the rhythm of “Spoonful” with such amazing ease and more than living up to his name at the same time, or Skip James lamenting love, the worst of all human afflictions, in “Devil Got My Woman,” or Son House hugging the memory of his dead lover for dear life in the tightly coiled “Death Letter Blues,” you’re hearing something from way, way back, something eternal, elemental, something that defies rational thought, just like all the greatest art. You have to let it grab hold of you. You have no choice. When I made The Last Waltz, I had the privilege of filming Muddy Waters, and I still get an electric thrill just thinking about his amazing rendition of “Mannish Boy,” the pleasure he took in every word, every phrase, the authority he commanded. How many times had he sung that song before that night? And there he was, singing it again, like it was the first time, or the last. I realized that the blues could do that for you, and for us. It gets at the essential.

I hope you enjoy watching these films as much as we all enjoyed making them. And when you read these beautiful essays by all these terrific artists, historians, and writers, you’ll feel the passion that this music can arouse. We turned to some of the best writers we could think of—Elmore Leonard, Studs Terkel, David Halberstam, the great biographer and critic Chris Farley, and the wonderful historian Peter Guralnick, among them—and they all came through out of sheer love for the music.

Most of all, we want you to listen to the music. If you already know the blues, then maybe this will give you a reason to go back to it. And if you’ve never heard the blues, and you’re coming across it for the first time, I can promise you this: Your life is about to change for the better.


Beautiful, isn’t it? Parts of it, especially that last paragraph have been used in the advertising for this series.

The lines that jumped out to me yesterday were the ones I underlined above.

there’s a distinction between the emotions of the singer and the words he or she is singing

I had felt it instinctively when I was actively listening to this music (I doubt there is another way to listen to the Blues. It grabs your attention like no other music does).

That there are three parts to a Blues number (Rather common sensical, and yet).

  1. The song itself.
  2. Who is singing it.
  3. Which year/Where/What Album.

I have felt it personally. That knowing feeling all three increases the pleasure of the actual song. I have felt it in my vicarious pleasure in covers of Blues numbers over the years.


What Scorsese has quoted is what Hemingway has said in other words, while describing his Iceberg Theory,

If a writer of a prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.

In other words, a story can communicate by sub text far more powerfully.

What they are saying is that Blues is Gonzo.

Gonzo Blues

Gonzo Blues

Take a moment.

The words don’t contain the emotion, they’re a vehicle for it

Why Gonzo?

Gonzo journalism is a style of reporting based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism – and the best journalists have always known this. Which is not to say that fiction is necessarily ‘more true’ than journalism – or vice versa – but that both ‘fiction’ and ‘journalism’ are artificial categories; and that both forms, at their best, are only two different means to the same end.
~ Hunter S. Thompson

Let me illustrate with an example.

I have long been entranced by the way a Blues number sounds remarkably different and yet retains it’s soul through it’s numerous cover incarnations, to use the cliche. A Blues cover strips the original, changes it in a very human way.

Now these are criminal and generous generalisations, but for a cultural ignoramus like me, they provide helpful  signs along the road.

Appreciating the Blues

Appreciating the Blues

Take for example, the song I Put a Spell on You. Most people have heard it as the soulful Nina Simone version. Here, refresh your ears.

But the song was initially written and sung and performed by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. And it has a beautiful story.

Hawkins had originally intended to record “I Put a Spell on You” as a refined love song, a blues ballad. He reported, however, that the producer “brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk, and we came out with this weird version. I don’t even remember making the record. Before, I was just a normal blues singer. I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death.”

This is what came out.

Up to this time, Hawkins had been a blues performer; emotional, but not wild. Freed suggested a gimmick to capitalize on the “demented” sound of “I Put a Spell on You”: Hawkins wore a long cape, and appeared onstage by rising out of a coffin in the midst of smoke and fog.

Here’s a video of that performance.

The act was a sensation, later bolstered by tusks worn in Hawkins’ nose, on-stage snakes and fireworks, and a cigarette-smoking skull named “Henry”.

Here’s a later day video of the act.

The theatrical act was one of the first shock rock performances, and a basis for much that came later in rock and roll, including Dr. JohnAlice CooperEric BurdonScreaming Lord SutchWarren ZevonArthur BrownBlack SabbathTed NugentGeorge ClintonThe Butthole SurfersThe Cramps, and Marilyn Manson.

Look at those names! And they are influenced by the stage performance of the song.

At the same time, there are some 47 known cover versions of the song (According to the wiki page). But “Most of the covers treat the song seriously; few attempt to duplicate Hawkins’s bravura performance.”

( P.S. Someone has taken the trouble to assemble all the available versions and made a torrent of them all. I Put A Spell On You – Covers Collection.)

In that spirit, listen to this version by Creedence Clearwater Revival from the first self named 1968 album.

Don’t you feel it?



The Martin Scorsese documentary has an excellent website with sections introducing the films, a short biography of all the artists included in the show, a healthy bibliography section (including print, web, film and film societies) and most importantly, a section called Blues Classroom where there is a wealth of material to teach the Blues in a classroom course. There are downloadable lesson plans, and a teacher’s guide which can be downloaded here (as pdf). It is a beautiful document. Do indulge.

Everyone say Thank You to Marty Uncle

Everyone say Thank You to Marty Uncle