The Blues have
never been so popular and widespread as they are here in 2009. There are
currently more blues festivals worldwide, both electric and acoustic, than you
can shake a stick at. Everybody it seems, can quote the above main title of
this piece in connection with the Blues. Even if they know nothing or very
little about the genre. It is the latter section of the community this brief
survey is being aimed at.
The Blues evolved
from slavery times at the tail- end of the 19th. C. in the southern
states of the USA. The earliest candidates for its place of ‘birth’ are the
Mississippi Delta (in the northwestern part of the state!) and the East Texas
piney woods. It was sung and played BY working-class blacks FOR working-class
blacks. The Blues, most importantly, is primarily a
vocal music. More than just another genre, the Blues became a way of
life for many of the singers – and indeed their audiences. The latter would be
a live audience before the advent of recordings. Originating in the logging
camps, cotton fields, railroad and levee camps; the Blues soon gravitated to
urban centres in the South.
This process was
speeded up considerably in 1920 when the first genuine blues (i.e. black) singer
entered a recording studio. After a promising debut in January backed by a
white orchestra, Mamie Smith was brought back by the Okeh record company in
August. This time she was accompanied by a black band which included such jazz
luminaries as Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith. They cut a blues number: Crazy
Blues. A surprising and immediate success, financially for the record
company and Ms. Smith, this opened the flood gates for other black singers.
Initially these were all female singers who did not play on their records.
These included Edith Wilson, Lucille Hegamin and Alberta Hunter. By 1923 some
of the heaviest (aka the finest) of these made their disc debut. The ‘big four’
are Bessie Smith, Clara Smith (no relation), Ma Rainey and Ida Cox. Often
backed by some of the top jazz musicians of the day; Louis Armstrong, King
Oliver, James P. Johnson and Buster Bailey among them. Other singers of only
slightly less talent also made records around this time: Rosa Henderson, Sippie
Wallace and Viola McCoy, for example.
Therein lies the
irony. This was an early urban form of blues in various grades of
authenticity. Many singers included traditional/rural blues verses in their
recordings. The rural singers themselves only came into their own when the
record companies were seeing a decline in sales and started looking further
afield- often literally! By the end of 1925 and the start of 1926 the
rural/country/downhome blues entered centre stage.
Some of the giants
were captured on disc from this period on to the early 1930s. Names like Blind
Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, Son House, Bukka White and
Barbecue Bob hit the black record-buying public; with titles such as Lemon’s
Matchbox Blues in 1927. Nearly 30 years later rock-a-billy star Carl
Perkins would re-record it as Matchbox for Sun Records in Memphis,
Tennessee. A decade or so further on the Beatles would also cut a version.
These earlier blues artists, and many more, usually played solo featuring vocals
and a myriad of guitar sounds and styles. With few exceptions they did not read
music and drew on a strictly oral tradition. There were also some pioneering
harmonica (‘harp’) players who recorded solo: Jaybird Coleman, Noah Lewis,
DeFord Bailey and Alfred Lewis. The first two played in jug bands such as the
Birmingham Jug Band and Cannon’s Jug Stompers.
strand of the Blues. These groups were part of a strong black string band
tradition in the South. Mississippi’s Big Joe Williams although a solo
performer with a 9-string guitar would sometimes play with a small group (the
Washboard Blues Singers). At his debut on record in 1935 he was accompanied by
a one-string fiddle and a washboard: Dad Tracy and Chasey Collins respectively.
Their first track was the first version of Baby Please Don’t Go on
record. Many years later British blues and r ‘n b groups would perform this and
sometimes record it. The Animals from northeastern England and even later still
Van Morrison's band Them cut a very creditable performance – the fastest I’ve
ever heard. Other bands to cut versions were AC/DC, Aerosmith and even Bob
Dylan. A myriad of other examples of the Blues’ awesome influence on music
today, including jazz, could be cited. But limitation of space rules, OK.
The Blues has
always been a genre of music with a FEELING. Lacking this essential ingredient
cannot be compensated for by technical prowess alone. The earlier singers would
relate subjects and situations well-known to their original audiences and an
unassailable rapport and feeling of solidarity was forged; one that had
beginnings back in slavery days in the early 19th. C. and beyond.
One verse I recall from memory was put down by Buddy Moss from Georgia in 1933:
talk about money, but I haven’t got none. (x 2)
But I’m so glad that I ain’t the only one.
In the 1930s Blues
was becoming more urbanized, yet again. In Chicago artists, who had migrated
from the South, such as Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Memphis Minnie, Tampa
Red, and Sonny Boy Williamson (No.1.) were increasingly using more
instrumentalisation. As well as piano, upright and imitation bass, 2nd.
and 3rd. guitars, harmonicas, drums and some jazzhorns like trumpet
and saxes featured on pre-war Chicago blues. Most of these of course had
featured in earlier rural blues. The piano in particular by 1929/1930 was often
the only accompaniment to such legends of boogie woogie/barrelhouse recordings
by the like of Roosevelt Sykes, Little Brother Montgomery, Will Ezell, et al.
But the rural
blues were still ‘speaking’. In 1936-37 Robert Johnson made a phenomenal set of
29 titles. The most famous being Crossroad Blues with urgent slide
guitar. Eric Clapton and Cream would re-make (in virtually every sense of the
word!) this in the UK some thirty years later.
Blues had been
labeled ‘race music’ in the early 20th. C. but was re-named Rhythm
and Blues (R n’ B) by the1940s. With the introduction of the electric guitar
into the Blues in early 1938 and added saxes, rocking bands led by Roy Milton,
Tiny Bradshaw, Amos Milburn, Louis Jordan, and Joe Liggins were just a few that
carried the Blues onwards. Professor Longhair, Smiley Lewis and Fats Domino
carried it on into the 1950s. Along with doowop groups inspired by early black
quartets/quintettes featuring mostly gospel music. Many whites would sneak
around the outside of places they were playing at (segregation was still in
force) and heard sounds they really dug. Rock-a-Billy artists such as Charlie
Feathers, Ray Smith, and Carl Perkins put their own stamp on the Blues mixed in
with old-timey/country roots. Around 1952 a man called Bill Haley changed his
band’s name and they became Bill Haley’s Comets. Soon Elvis Presley, Gene
Vincent, ;Little Richard, et al. would follow.
Rock ‘n Roll, ‘a
child of the Blues’, as Muddy Waters famously once said – had been born. "Long
may the Blues wake up this morning and every morning".
Haymes and Alan White
31st. July, 2009
Addendum - Reader’s Comment
A reader emailed a query
regarding reference made to Mamie Smith as the first blues recording
…. “by the time Mamie Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" in 1920, at
least half-a-dozen other blues recordings had been made starting in
1914 with the Victor Military Band's recording of Memphis Blues”.
This was the response from the essay’s author, Max Haymes, which
we thought would be of interest as an addendum to the essay:
Mamie Smith is still the
first African American to record a vocal blues. Earlier
recordings such as the example quoted were instrumentals of a very
jazzy-type brass band nature and a version of the W.C. Handy
composition in 1914, 'Memphis Blues'. Although I have not heard this
it will bear as little to the Blues per se as a Victor Sylvester
recording! US author, Tim Brooks, noted that this number was "given
a similarly intense treatment [as Handy's previous 'Hesitation
Blues'] dominated by cornets and trombones, with interjected
flutes, clarinet squeals, and even a little military bugle
flourish." (p.282. 'Lost Sounds-Blacks And The Birth of The
Recording Industry 1890-1919'. Tim Brooks. [University of Illinois
Press. Urbana & Chicago.] 2004.)
There were attempts to
cover blues songs before 1920 but all were white vaudeville singers
such as May Irvin, Annette Hanshaw and of course Sophie Tucker. Good
as some of these singers were, they pale (no pun intended) in
comparison to Mamie's historic 'Crazy Blues'. So said David Evans at
one point (cannot remember source). Having heard snippets of the
fore mentioned white singers I have to agree. If you listen to a
song made in 1919 by black baritone singer Edward H. Boatner on
'Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child' which contains no sacred
lyric he will hear the influence of Euro-centric classical/operatic
music. Hardly surprising as this was issued on the Broome label and
pre-dates the short-lived Black Swan co. by 2 years, as the first
black-owned independent record co. Produced by George Wellington
Broome who dedicated the label "to black concert music." (Ibid.
p.464.). Despite this, the song is much closer to the Blues, with
repeated phrase 'a long ways from home', delivered in a
somewhat lesser Paul Robeson style, than the instrumental Handy
pieces such as 'Memphis Blues'. The Brooks tome is a weighty one
but well-worth the consideration of the serious blues historian. And
the white vaudeville singers referred to above have CDs on the
Archeophone label, a record company based in Illinois, that also
produced reissues of earliest black music.
22nd January 2016