the blues

 

Andrew's blues talks normally last at least 6 hours. Not only that, but there are thousands of excellent publications on the History of Blues Music. So it seems a bit of a cheek trying to condense it all into a page on a website!

What follows is therefore no more than a "lightning tour" of a subject whose seriousness, importance and fascination deserve much better. Hopefully, though, it will give you a taste.

African Roots

There can be absolutely no doubt that the roots of blues music go back to Africa. Even if the social history didn't confirm this, you only have to listen to West African tribal music, and compare it to - say - early John Lee Hooker recordings, to hear clear similarities in both the sound and the spirit. There's a relatively young Mississippi bluesman called Corey Harris, who plays Delta Blues alongside musicians from Mali, and you could imagine they'd played together all their lives. 

Between the 17th century and abolition in 1865, over 30 million Africans were "bought" and shipped to the United States. Only about half of those survived the journeys. The slaves were "needed" by European settlers in the Southern States, to clear the trees from the incredibly fertile land, and build up the levees to make sure that rivers like the Mississippi didn't flood too often. European demand for cotton and tobacco ensured an extremely lucrative market for the new settlers - particuarly if they didn't have to pay for labour!

The slaves were kept in appalling conditions, and were punished or killed if they tried to escape, or refused to work.

But work they did - often accompanying themselves with a rhythmical, wailing style of singing they brought with them from Africa. Far from discouraging this, the planters and their foremen realised that the work was carried out more efficiently when the workers were singing, so what are now known as "worksongs" and "field hollers"  were allowed to survive, and form a key element of blues music.

The landowners were constantly in fear of slave revolt, and eventually began a campaign of "de-Africanising" them, in the belief that they would become more settled and compliant. One manifestation of this was the encouragement of music: albeit on "western" terms. They were given instruments to play, and even made them put on little concerts in the "big house", where they would be made to dress up in white man's finery and stage exaggerated "genteel" dances. 

This is where the minstrel tradition started. As well as learning how to play instruments like the fiddle, the concertina and - of course - the guitar, the slaves learned the disciplines of European-based folk songs and ballads, and it is this which eventually gave blues songs their shape, and made them more palatable to white-American and European ears.

The other way plantation owners tried to "tame" the slaves was to impose their own religions on them, and they even brought in preachers from the homeland, to re-educate the wild heathens! Hymns and chants turned out to be a key part of this process, and formed the beginnings of what we now recognise as gospel music.

What happened with both these attempts to introduce European culture to the Africans was that - whilst they appeared to accept and learn these manifestations of white-man's music - they were in fact interpreting them in their own way. The wild wailings which were already a familiar sound while they were working in the fields and the forests were applied to both the religious songs and the folk songs, dance tunes and ballads the planters imposed on them.

And so - by the time slavery was finally abolished in 1876 - the music of the Southern black population must have consisted mainly of folk songs, ballads, religious songs  and dance/entertainment songs, but with the characteristic call-and-response form, with its sliding notes and flattened 7th and 3rd notes (very much associated with African music). But above all, with an immediately recognisable underlying feeling of emotion (whether high- or low-spirited!) and tension.

After slavery

The  official abolition of slavery had a staggering effect (not all good) on Southern black people, and had the side-effect of bringing their music very much to the fore. With the removal of the "avuncular" social structure on the plantations (or so the white planters saw it), the freed blacks became just a part of a huge labour pool, having to learn how to find work, accommodation, food and money for themselves. 

Many of the farms/plantations simply kept their slaves on as hired hands. Then they were made - through legislation - to allow them to farm small strips of land for themselves, under a scheme known as "sharecropping". This resulted - as often as not - in the landowner presenting a deduction for facilities such as mules, tools and seed, which then nullified the agreed share of the annual crop sale proceeds.

In the 1930s -  after The Depression - the over-productive South suffered as much as any of the USA, with added problems for black farm workers. They were now in competition with many poor whites, and Roosevelt's admirable efforts to try to improve the lot of (particularly) black people in The South, had the unfortunate side-effect of making white workers more resentful and prejudiced. Hostility, prejudice, and finally racial legislation followed.

So what about the music?

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Blues musicians

This environment was, nonetheless, the perfect one to develop the kind of music these people had started to mould as their own: a mixture of their African-roots-based hollers and shouts; the passion of religious songs imposed on them; the disciplined shape of European folk songs, and the skills they had picked up on European instruments  like the guitar and piano. Then - of course - their own emotional experiences and need for release and escape!

Travelling musicians were very much in demand: whether on street-corners, or onstage at the often raucous barrelhouses and juke-joints. Also on the many work-camps in the woods which were being worked for timber and turpentine. Many of the players had no choice of occupation: their disabilities made them completely out of the market for farm labour: hence the number of blues singers referred to as "blind", "peg-leg", "crippled" and so on.

It's when set against this background that the myth about blues songs being all about sadness and sorrow gets blown. These musicians were hired to play to people whose lives couldn't get much worse, and you could forgive those audiences for wanting to go out and have a good time  and be entertained! The songs therefore had to be good to dance to, laugh at, listen to - and maybe just occasionally - cry to. The songs were therefore quite often filthy!

In many ways, this was the "golden age" in the development of the blues in The South (the first 4 decades of the 20th century: far from a golden age though for the people who lived there). As well as street corner, barrelhouse and work camp gigs, blues players sometimes got to perform at the travelling tent shows and medicine shows. Which meant meeting up with musicians from places like New Orleans, with its jazzy influence. The influence went both ways, with jazz getting bluesy and blues getting jazzy (and some of the best musicians getting really good at both!).

It was from this pool that the emerging record companies from The North found their big stars in the form - initially - of showy singers like Ma Rainey (left), Mamie Smith and - of course - Bessie Smith. The black "Race Records" market boomed in the late 20s and 30s, and even wandering rural players like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton and Willie McTell got to make recordings, and became minor stars.

After a slump in record sales in the 40s (I read once that it was something to do with a shortage of Shellac during the war), local radio stations in The South became a platform for blues singers, with later stars like Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and a very young B.B. (for Blues Boy) King getting their names known. The programmes were often sponsored by food and agricultural companies, so some of the smutty lyrics had to be cleaned up or coded to keep them happy!).

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Blues on the move

As conditions for blacks in the South showed no signs of improvement after The Depression (despite Roosevelt's "New Deal" efforts to target specific help at the black communities), more and more of them decided to leave the Southern farmlands. This was often no further that the bigger towns and cities, like Shreveport, Memphis, East St Louis and Atlanta. But stories of plenty of factory work and established black communities in Northern cities like Detroit and Chicago tempted many of them to travel much further. 

To give an illustration of the extent of this migration; the African-American percentage of the total population of Detroit went from 4.1% in 1920 to 16.2% in 1950.

The musicians went too! Many pockets of blues and jazz musicians established themselves and settled in towns all over The States. They sometimes established local music characteristics - maybe as a result of other influences. And then again, their own blues style had a big effect on other genres: rock 'n' roll, for example, was a crazy mix of white hillbilly and black blues - due partly to black musicians settling in Memphis.

As Southern blacks settled in huge numbers in the Northern cities, they tended to occupy their own districts (probably not through choice!); often in run-down slum areas. Despite the conditions, most of them felt their travelling and uncertainty had ended, and they developed their own communities alongside a predominantly white population who could afford - for now -  to ignore them.

Blues evolution

The music in the cities started to take on new characteristics, for several reasons. Communities were more stable, as was some of the employment and income (regular hours in - for example - car factories). Groups were formed, and instruments like basses and drums could be stored and played. Then came the hugely important electric guitar! The guitarist could now play solos, as he could be heard above the piano, drums and bass.

Much of this music took place at apartment parties: some known as "rent parties", as money was collected to help the tenant raise money for this week's rent! But it wasn't long before blues players could get paid gigs (now more often in groups than as soloists) in Black bars and clubs.

The nature of the music was changing. Yes - you'd still hear street singers in places like Maxwell Street in Chicago; sitting down and playing old-style barrelhouse and street-corner blues songs from the old days in The South. But the fact that this style acquired the derogatory nickname "hokum" indicates how attitudes were changing amongst black city communities. People really didn't want to be reminded of those bad old days - they were slowly gaining a strong sense of identity, self-confidence, and - yes - anger! The new music was becoming more moody, sexy and aggressive in style. The electric guitar helped enormously!

If you had to pick one player who epitomised this transition from the old "country" blues to what inevitably became known as "city" blues (although it was also known in Chicago itself as "Southside Blues", it would have to be Muddy Waters (far left in this photo). He drove a tractor in Mississippi, and started to become well-known locally for his solo playing and singing. After hearing a "field" recording Alan Lomax made of him in 1941, Waters (real name McKinlay Morganfield) started to realise he had a bit of a talent, and in 1942 he moved to Chicago, where he started playing in the evenings - initially supporting Big Bill Broonzy at a rowdy club in the city. 

He bought an electric guitar in 1943, and shortly after that formed his own bands. Eventually, blues fans all over the world recognised him as one of the greatest exponents of this new "smouldering" electric blues style.

But It's very easy for guitarists like me to overlook the significance of the piano in all this blues development. Players like Cripple Clarence Lofton and Little Brother Montgomery were very much a part of the barrelhouse and workcamps scene back in The South. Many of them moved northwards too. Muddy Waters' early pianist and 

"city" blues pioneer Otis Spann moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1946. Players like Spann not only provided a solid rhythmic foundation for the blues virtuosi to strut their electric stuff, but were well capable of performing equally stunning and emotionally powerful solos.

As the Chicago night club scene became more sophisticated, piano players started to become more prominent, with Boogie-Woogie and jazz styles beginning to appeal to much wider audiences and record companies. Many, like the "famous three": Albert Ammonds, (left) Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis, eventually moved to New York.

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The 60s -The Blues is dead? ....

The 1960s and 70s saw a growing awareness and anger amongst American blacks, around the injustices of the past. That, plus their potential for self-fulfillment and equality in an increasingly liberal world. Starting with the Civil Rights marches and protests in The South, then the later Black Power movements in the big cities, black people in the USA had clearly had enough of the way they had been treated in the past, and wanted changes! 

As for their music, you can understand The Blues being a part of those bad memories. The "Chicago" electric blues was doing just fine in the cities for a certain generation, but the younger generation were looking for something that made more of a statement about self-confidence and their future. "Doo-wap" and R&B set the seeds in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and started also to arouse the interest of young white audiences and record producers/promoters.

And then - of course - there was Soul!

All this should really indicate the death of The Blues altogether, but - luckily - there were some who were determined that it should not happen: many of them white musicians and fans.

The rescue

There were two important strands to this: one in America and one in the UK.

At the height of the new folk music boom, the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 included blues acts Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and The Revd. Gary Davis. It caused a sensation, and over the next 7-8 years, big blues names like John Lee Hooker, Son House, Lightnin' Hopkins, Bukka White - even Muddy Waters and B.B. King - made a huge impression on a - mostly - young white audience.

The Blues had been rediscovered by a totally new audience. Some aspiring players and singers were inspired to do the same, and future blues stars like Mike Bloomfield, Canned Heat and Johnny Winter honed their skills. Even a young Bob Dylan - who also appeared at some of these festivals - included old-style blues songs on his first album!

The scene in the UK was much more low-key, but just as critical in reviving The Blues. In the second half of the 1950s, there was a very lively Trad Jazz scene, with live bands in smoky cellar bars full of young pipe-smoking and bearded "beatniks". One of the organisers was jazz musician Chris Barber. In 1959 there was a new kind of music played by young amateurs called skiffle - a sort of rough mix of rock 'n' roll and old country blues. Barber gave over a section of his jazz evenings to this music, which started to generate an interest in the source of many of the songs. 

Two of Barber's regular players and helpers were guitarist Alexis Korner and harmonica player Cyril Davis. They eventually split from Barber and formed their own club focussing on blues. They headed the house-band Blues Incorporated, and attracted many young blues hopefuls and future stars to join them on stage: such as  Jack Bruce, Long John Baldry, Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and - seen here - Mick Jagger. 

Every now and again there's a blues revival. That's in addition to bands like The Rolling Stones, Spencer Davis, Captain Beefheart, The Animals etc. including very good renditions of old country blues songs on some of their early albums.

Probably one of the most significant revivals started in 1966, when the album Blues Breakers came out in the UK. John Mayall was already a highly-respected blues pianist, singer and bandleader. Eric Clapton joined him for this album, having already gained huge admiration for his guitar technique when playing with blues band The Yardbirds. Within a couple of years, other experienced blues bands such as Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack had released popular and influential albums.

All of these bands and albums defined a style of presenting the blues which was started back in Chicago in the 1950s, and was pretty much defined by a powerful electric guitar providing the highlights to a driving but simple rhythm section, performing basic 12-bar blues songs. This electric guitar dominance would occasionally be shared with a highly-amplified harmonica. Players like T-Bone Walker, Buddy Guy and the "Three Kings" (B.B., Freddy and Albert), plus harmonica virtuosi Little Walter and James Cotton, had driven this style to the attention of white and European players right up to the sixties and beyond; alongside, of course, the passionate vocal delivery of Muddy Waters. And so people associated Blues Music with guitar heroes like Mike Bloomfield, Johnny Winter, Peter Green, Rory Gallagher, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton.

If you go to a blues gig or festival today, there's a pretty good chance that the acts you see will follow this electric-guitar solo-led format. But there are some notable and wonderful exceptions, like Eric Bibb, Corey Harris, Charley Parr and Otis Taylor, who all - in their very different ways - remind us of some of the older forms of blues

I'm pleased to be able to report that there's a growing interest in older blues styles. I personally know young guitarists who are keen to perform as soloists, on acoustic guitars - often playing in the old bottleneck style. My recent blues lectures have been very well-attended, and people are fascinated by this story.

The past few years have seen many books and TV programmes on the subject of The Blues; one of the best being Martin Scorcese's series "The Blues", which is available on DVD.

The Blues is very much alive and well. A couple of years ago I recorded that there were - in one year - 211 "blues" festivals in the USA, and 50 in the UK. It's probably a lot more by now. Sadly - in a way - black people have mostly moved away from it, and have found new forms of music to express themselves. This is probably only right and proper; but I hope there will always be someone - black or white - who will preserve the story of The Blues, as a way of acknowledging the spirit of a people to whom such gross injustices were committed over such a long time. There are many more recent atrocities which the world is rightly reminded to acknowledge and offer apologies for. We are rarely asked to acknowledge the injustices due to those 30 million Africans and their descendants, whose music continues to delight and amaze so many of us.

click on the picture for blind Willie Johnson's "Dark was the Night"

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copyright: Andrew Bazeley 2018