The Blues came out of the South with a leap and a howl. A wailing music that
bemoans oppression but sets the spirits free. And while moaning makes incisive
comments about the world, work and love. After being worked to the limit
all week, Blues is the one night a week you can let loose. It is the afternoon
picnic after Church, because every other day is chopping cotton, cutting
lumber, loading riverboats, or building the Mississippi levee. Blues came
out of a hard, hard world.
The earliest form is often called Delta Blues — actually from north
Mississippi , not the river delta — but the music erupted spontaneously
from Florida to California in the early twentieth century. It started with
just a song — a
field-holler, the levee muleteer coaxing his mule, or Sunday’s Baptist
Church call-and-response — out of which came the guitar Blues of the plantations.
Rough instruments from which callused hands wrested streams of silver and
gold. A different Blues appeared supported by Jazz piano players in the
Blues is a unique musical style, built solidly on complex African rhythms.
Fife and drum bands, and a long folk tradition gave it a strong base. A string
tied to the wall by kids and played percussively — the jitterbug — gave way
to the $2.50 Sears and Roebuck mail-order guitar at the end of the nineteenth
century, and the Blues had found its instrument.
In 1902, in Missouri, Ma Rainey heard a young girl singing a mesmerising
song and brought it into her own act. The next year, W.C. Handy transcribed
a tune called a blues for his travelling ragtime band, after hearing
a plaintive rendition by a slide guitar player at Tutwiler railway station,
Mississippi. But these were imitations, the real Blues was down on the
plantations, and found its centre in Charley Patton, down on Dockery Farms
on the Sunflower river, a hundred miles upriver of Vicksburg, near Cleveland,
Charley Patton slouches back there at the beginning of the Blues, a scowl
on his face. A brown-eyed man winking his offer to be some woman’s backdoor
man. They called him a workshy, womanising drunk, and they said he was
hellbound, but at the juke joints he brought the angels down to dance. He
was the founding influence of Blues. His own teacher, the mysterious Harry
Sloan, was one of the first guitarists in the Blues style. Like Jimi Hendrix
and Nina Simone, Charley Patton had both Indian and white blood.
Some major league bluesmen learned from Patton, including Tommy Johnson,
Willie Brown, Bukka White, Son House and Howlin’ Wolf. Charley Patton
was no virtuoso guitarist, but the pleading, soul-rending intensity is right
there, and his overlaying of rhythms is masterful.
Blues came to be known as the Devil’s music, and there are many stories
of God-fearing parents trying to stop their children from playing the guitar,
including Bill Patton, who even took a whip to his boy Charley. Blues musicians
did nothing to decrease this superstitious fear. Like Rock musicians, many
revelled in their hellraising image. Tommy Johnson said the Devil had tuned
his guitar one midnight at the cross roads, that sacred meeting place of
earthly travellers and spirit guides. Ever after
the Blues flowed out of him.
The Country Blues was played in juke joints, fuelled by moonshine whiskey
and canned heat — alcohol strained out of polish. Jubilant drunkenness was
the only way that many blacks could survive the back-breaking, soul-wrenching
realities of the working week. Coming off work at midday on Saturday, they
would drink until stupefied, and while they were drinking, they wanted to
dance. Most of Hendrix’s audience did not realize that his onstage antics — playing
the guitar behind his back, between his legs or with his teeth — were in the
tradition of the original Blues.
Chatmon brothers were cousins of Charley Patton, and at least one of them — violinist
Lonnie — belonged to the Mississippi Sheiks at any given time. They
had a huge hit with the wonderful Sitting on Top of the World
Babe Let the Deal Go Down
also features singer Texas Alexander on a
few tracks. Another Chatmon brother was the eminent Blues pianist, Memphis
White was around at the beginning, too, and has a distinctive feel. And
no collection would be complete without the piercing Blues of Skip James.
He was lost to the music for thirty years, before being rediscovered in
a hospital in the ’60s. Royalties from his 1930s recordings paid his
hospital bills, and he returned to the stage at the Newport Festival.
The new music emerged with the new century, less than four decades after
the abolition of slavery in the US. It displaced other forms of folk song
in the Southern Black communities, by the 1920s becoming the dominant music,
and always feeding the hunger of Jazz, as it does to this day. From very
near its beginnings, Jazz took contributions from eager whites, too, but Blues
remained a race music for nearly six decades.
Commercial artists copied the new music, and after the success of Mamie Smith’s Crazy
Blues, the record companies began to look for authentic Blues to take
advantage of the huge market among poor blacks. By the 1930s when the
economic depression hit, many original Blues performers had recorded.
Street entertainers began to pick up the new music. The first to really turn
a buck from his records was Blind Lemon Jefferson. He
recorded 94 tracks in the last four years of his life — 1925-1929 — for
a few dollars a side. Like so many bluesmen, Lemon Jefferson also pandered
to the religious market — as Deacon L.J. Bates. His career started before
the 1914-18 war, working alongside the great Leadbelly, in Texas. In the
apprenticeship tradition of the Blues, T-Bone Walker, later a pioneer of the
electric guitar, claimed that as a kid he led the almost blind musician around
the streets of Dallas, looking for likely corners on which to busk.
Blind Willie Johnson wasn’t pandering to anything. He was an inspired,
God-fearing Gospel Blues singer, and his recordings shine with a peerless
intensity. Ry Cooder took a phrase from Johnson’s amazing Dark was
the Ground, Cold was the Night
for his famous soundtrack to Paris, Texas.
His gruff voice compels, and Eric Clapton has said that his Nobody’s Fault
is the finest slide guitar on record. Led Zeppelin recorded
For decades, the most popular music among white Americans when the Blues
began was Minstrel music, in which whites with shoe-blacked faces aped
the antics of the underclass, ridiculing them. The first talking picture, The
Jazz Singer, made in 1929, starred the most famous of these minstrels,
Al Jolson. Into the 1960s BBC television hosted the prime-time Black and
White Minstrel Show. While whites made their puerile imitation, a new
art form came into being and flourished along the backroads of the American
Son House was a major influence on both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.
He had a genuinely spine-chilling delivery at times, and the darkest growl.
Film in the ’60s shows him hammering a steel guitar. It’s hard
to imagine a wooden soundboard lasting a single night under such a furious
assault. Son House was well-known in his day, but although such innovators
sometimes picked up a dollar or two more than the impoverished cotton sharecroppers,
not one of them became wealthy. A new redneck
law, named after a minstrel song, roamed the South. The Jim Crow law kept
the races apart in every public place. The New Orleans creoles made Jass
and the Mississippi river blacks made the Blues.
In the 1920s, a kid called Robert Johnson used to bug Charley Patton and
Willie Brown at the jukes, until Willie finally showed him how to make
chords. Son House chased the eager youngster away, until one day he wasn’t
a youngster any more, but an absolute master of the Blues. Some say that
he spent a year in jail with nothing but his guitar, others that he met his
voodoo Legba one midnight at the cross roads. The blues had visited this fatherless
sharecropper’s life — his sixteen-year-old wife died with their baby in childbirth.
He remarried, but found lodgings when travelling by eyeing the widow-women.
He recorded only twice, in 1936 and 1937, both times in Texas hotel rooms.
By the time the legendary impresario John Hammond wanted him to headline at
Carnegie Hall, Johnson was dead, poisoned by a jealous rival. He was 27 years
old. Because of his mark on the Blues revival in the ’60s, he is probably
the most influential bluesman in history, leaving a mark upon music like Louis
Armstrong, Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix. His haunting voice and dancing guitar
are a marvel.
Robert Johnson is hugely beloved of the likes of Eric Clapton, the Rolling
Stones and Led Zeppelin. Clapton has kept Standing at the Cross Roads in
his repertoire for decades, and the Stones did a heartfelt version of his Love
in Vain. But his songs and his influence runs throughout music from
the White Stripes through the Chili Peppers, from Steve Miller to Peter
Green — who
made two albums of covers in the ’90s. Clapton has recently followed
suit with Me and Mr Johnson. Jimi Hendrix and Robert Johnson are
bedrock, fundamental necessities for any guitarist.
Robert Johnson sometimes played alongside Rice Miller, also known as Little
Boy Blue, but more usually called Sonny Boy Williamson II. He
was almost twenty years older than Sonny Boy I. He came by his fellow bluesman’s
name when a radio show announcer, knowing that Sonny Boy Williamson was
the big star of race records, insisted that his new performer was that
same Sonny Boy. Anything to get more listeners. Although both were fine harmonica
players and great singers, neither could easily be mistaken for the other.
John Lee ‘Sonny
Boy’ Williamson never caught up with the man who had stolen his name.
In 1948, he was killed on the street in Chicago by a mugger.
John Lee — Sonny Boy I — was a splendid harp player who by the
1930s was the big seller of the Blues. He made
the Blues harp a solo instrument, rather than just an accompaniment, and
had an endearing vocal style. He was often accompanied by the great guitarist
Big Bill Broonzy. Of course, Blues was still very much the music of the
poor black community. Both Sonny Boys went on to become founders of the
new urban Blues, usually associated with Chicago. From the 1920s, there
was an enormous migration from the cotton fields and the docks of the South
to New York and Chicago. Before we travel north, though, witness some of the
horde of fine talent from the Country Blues.
say that Robert Johnson must have made a pact with the devil to achieve
his fine guitar technique, but he wasn’t the only virtuoso. Lonnie Johnson
was born in New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz. He
was at ease playing with Eddie Lang, the leading Jazz guitarist of the
Johnson was also a fine singer with real charm. His version of He’s
a Jelly-Roll Baker
is superb (compare it to John Martyn’s fine
remake on Solid Air
— though Martyn omits the verse about
the judge, and the free advert for Maxwell House coffee at the end). This
track, and many other fine Blues performances can be found on Blues
Collection — Fireworks
the French EPM label CAD465). If you
can find a copy, that is. The one Robert Johnson track has not had its
scratch removed — but the Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson
a necessity, and perhaps the best starting place for an appreciation of
the Country Blues. To widen that appreciation try The Essential Lonnie
Josh White was a continuing influence on Blues guitarists, as was his contemporary
Big Bill Broonzy. Both can be found, alongside Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind
Willie McTell and Blind Willie Johnson on the excellent Columbia release Great
Blues Guitarists — String Dazzlers
(though it will have to be
a second hand copy, as Sony, in its wisdom has withdrawn the whole fine
series. Blues collections come and go like ripples in the Mississippi). The
Essential Josh White
is a good compilation.
By the 1930s, southern blacks had realized that they could make something
closer to a living in the meat markets of Chicago (the killing floors,
immortalised by Howlin’ Wolf, Hendrix and Zeppelin). The musicians followed
on, and by the 1940s, the style called Urban Blues had developed. The Bluebird
Beat had transformed the downhome sound. Bluebird Records had a roster
of successful artists, including Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, John Lee Sonny
Boy Williamson, with his piping harmonica and his cheerful chat up lines,
and the filigree embroidery of guitarist Big Bill Broonzy.
Miller usurped Sonny Boy Williamson’s name in 1941, when he started
to host King Biscuit Time on the radio in Helena, Arkansas. He was a brilliant
harmonica player, and was accompanied by Robert Johnson’s only pupil,
the exceptional Robert Lockwood, called Robert junior because of his childhood
association with Johnson, who had often stayed with Lockwood’s mother
during his travels.
When they arrived in Chicago, the Beatles were asked what they would like
to see. When they said ‘Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley’, their guide
looked puzzled and said he would have to consult a map. He had never heard
of either of these great men, who had actually put Chicago on the map for
a generation of ardent British fans. The Rolling Stones took their name
from a Muddy Waters’ hit. As a child, Jimi Hendrix heard Muddy Waters,
and said ‘It scared me to
death, because I heard all of those sounds... It was great.’
Blind Lemon Jefferson referred to muddy water
in his fine Wartime
, but Muddy said his name came from his infant fondness for mud.
His given name was McKinley Morganfield. He was born in Mississippi in
1915. Muddy Waters arrived in May 1943. He had already recorded for the
Library of Congrees, down on the plantation, but now he wanted to sell
records. He took up factory jobs, worked as a driver, and played whenever
he could. Big Bill Broonzy took him under his wing, but it took a few
years for him to break through.
The new stars were Louis Jordan with his jump blues, and the sophisticated
virtuoso pianist Nat King Cole. Muddy was told that his Country Blues was
finished, so he tried to adopt the new styles, but it was when he played
the downhome Blues that he had his first success, with the splendid I
. Label boss Leonard Chess complained that he couldn’t
understand what Muddy was singing about, and had to be talked into releasing
the record. It sold out on its first day. That was in April 1948. Muddy
Waters fronted one of the first successful electric bands, with the brilliant
Little Walter playing harmonica, but Leonard Chess wouldn’t let him
record this new style until 1951. The hits poured out, from Rollin’ Stone
a string of Willie Dixon songs including Hoochie Coochie Man
This is peak Blues, as fine as any ever made. No-one sang as openly about
voodoo themes — Muddy was a hoochie coochie man, and his mojo never
stopped working. His music is taut, smokey and sexual, with an obvious delight
This new style — electric Blues with a solid back-beat was being called
Rhythm and Blues. This styly somehow became Rock and Roll when it was recorded
by white artists. Muddy always let members of his band record, so Little
early recordings are actually that great harmonica player fronting Muddy’s
band. His Juke was the great success of 1952. He took over Junior
Wells’ band, and Wells joined Muddy. Muddy’s rhythm guitarist,
Jimmy Rogers, also had hits backed by the band, including That’s
All Right. His Chicago
Bound is a joy.
Meanwhile, a scene was developing in Memphis, partly because of the first
all-black radio station, WDIA, and partly because of Sun Records. A young
B.B. King played the station, and took a spot as a DJ. The great Howlin’ Wolf
finally gave up farming for a career in the Blues as he was about to turn
forty. His is one of the great voices. Just hear him bellowing Spoonful
He was perhaps the greatest vocal influence on Captain Beefheart, too.
His guitarists, first Willie Johnson and then Hubert Sumlin, were also
B.B. King is a living legend, his voice and smooth guitar style both instantly
recognisable. Like the Wolf, he started to record with Sam Phillips at
Sun, where Ike Turner became the house pianist. T-Bone Walker was the first
great Blues innovator of the electric guitar, linking the origins of the guitar
Blues to the new form. He began his
experiments in about 1940, alongside the brilliant Jazz innovator Charlie
Christian. There would be a stream of successors.
A host of fine guitarists jostled for work in the hey-day of the urban Blues — the
late forties through the fifties. B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins,
Freddie King, Albert King, and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, to name
but a few. John Lee Hooker was not so far away, in Detroit.
Collins is maybe best heard in his 1978 album Ice Pickin’.
Blues boom had come and gone, but Collins kept on polishing his style,
and with this album finally found the production he needed to show off
his enviable chops.
Albert King was an immediate inspiration to Clapton and his fellow British
guitarists. In the late-60s he recorded at Stax with the marvellous Booker
T and the MGs. Hear the results.
Riley ‘B.B.’ King has retained his star position for almost six decades and
deservedly so. His fluid, lyrical guitar style, and his fine voice have fronted
bands from each decade. He made an album with The Crusaders at about the time
they were discovering Randy Crawford. He has recorded with many fellow stars
including Eric Clapton and U2. He has a courtly manner and a reputation for
being sweet, too.
In his late seventies, John Lee Hooker became the elder statesman of Blues,
making a come back in 1995, to play with Santana. He had hooked up with Canned
Heat back when they were the
hippie bluesters, played with the Yardbirds,
and performed in a Pete Townsend musical. His songs have been recorded
by everyone from Donovan to the Doors. This
is a raw, unhurried music that harks back to the beginnings of the Blues.
Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson felt the wind change, and turned his coat
lining-side out to become a funkster. But in his first incarnation, he
was king of the west coast blues. He was the original gangster of love, long
before Steve Miller even learned how to whistle.
Bo Diddley took his name from a traditional African instrument — the
Diddley Bow — and as a teenager longed to write for Muddy Waters. Soon
enough he did, and Waters’ recording of his I’m a Man
is one of the best known songs in the Blues idiom. Diddley also gifted
the world with the African-inspired Bo Diddley-beat — the basis to many
of his songs, including the exceptional Who Do You Love?
by the Doors, and a hit single for Juicy Lucy in the 1970s). The
Beatles and the Stones loved him — hear that same Bo Diddley-beat
on the Stones’s Mona
Chuck Berry was one of the most important influences upon the original 1960s
Britpop. A fine song-writer and a great performer, he is known for his
wry wit and his wordly charm. His earlier Blues cuts are well-made and
original (for instance, Worried Blues
), but he is generally known
for his Rock and Roll songs. In fact, Chuck Berry probably contributed
more to the genre than any other artist, with songs like Lucille
Particular Place to Go
and Roll Over Beethoven
. The Beatles,
the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys were all fans from the outset of
their own careers. Beach Boy Brian Wilson has said that Chuck Berry wrote ‘all
of the great songs and came up with all the rock’n’roll beats.’ Keith
Richards liked him so much that he made a film about him — Hail,
Hail Rock n Roll
Of course, the Blues has boasted many fine singers. Ma Rainey is called the Mother
of the Blues
. In the 1920s, her young follower, Bessie Smith, would
soon outshine her, and everyone else around. Her work is a necessity
to any collection. When told that the Ku Klux Klan were about to set
upon her audience, she stormed out and single-handedly scared them off,
before returning to the bandstand. She
inspired Janis Joplin and many others. Georgia White, Etta James, Memphis
Minnie and Koko Taylor also carried the Blues torch forward.
In the black community, int the late 1950s, the Blues finally gave way to
the sweet harmonising of Doo-Wap; Ray Charles inaugurated Soul. After sixty
years, the popularity of the Blues had waned, and it seemed that it might
become museum music, a part of Afro-American cultural development. Then
a new, white audience appeared, mainly over the ocean, in Britain. Cream
exported Blues back to the US, and swelled the white audience for this
great music. It is ironic that Jimi Hendrix was ignored in his home country
for years, but became an overnight sensation in England. Through the likes
of Hendrix, Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck the Blues gained popularity — and
ever greater commercial success — in the States. My piece on guitarists goes into far too much detail about this inspired period.
Many artists spanned generations. Sonny Boy II played with Robert Johnson
in the ’30s, and with The Yardbirds and Jimmy Page in the ’60s.
Wolf was taught by Charley Patton as a teenager, spent time with Robert Johnson
and over thirty years later recorded with Clapton, Steve Winwood and the backline
of the Stones. Bo Diddley, who has toured with Ron Wood and B.B.King, continues
to make records, including more than one outing with Eric Clapton.
Buddy Guy has been a stalwart of the Blues since the ’50s, inheriting
Muddy Waters’ crown as King of the Chicago Blues, and leading the way
for a new generation. Taj Mahal came
through in the ’60s and is now an elder statesman, ever unafraid of
incorporating other musical forms into his Blues. Robert Cray is one of the
major exponents of the American Blues resurgence of the ’80s. Eric Bibb
is a great modern guitar Bluesman. Kelly Joe Phelps is an outstanding contemporary
white American bluesman. Of course, the origins of rap can be found in the
traditional talking Blues, and Jazz artists such as Cassandra Wilson have
deep roots in the old music and its deep feeling. Blues has always provided
home ground for critics of injustice and social comment — hear John
Lee Sonny Boy Williamson’s Welfare
, for instance.
Pop music smooths out the moans and snarls that signify emotion. If that’s
what you like, you surely won’t like this stuff. Blues is feeling:
raw and pure. There is nothing elegant or studied about Son House, but
he meant every word and every harsh growl. And he wasn’t the only Bluesman
to serve time for killing. Gradually, this original Blues became more refined,
but the masters, such as Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters, retained every
jot of feeling, losing nothing of the desperation and the joy from which
the music sprang. Blues wrenches, and Blues lifts. It isn’t a comment
about human feeling, some euphemism, this is the real thing: From the party
spirit of Wolf or Koko Taylor singing Wang, Dang Doodle (originally
Bull Dike’s Ball...), to the low-down shakin’ chill of Robert Johson’s Preaching
There is so much else to say, and so many more great artists who are well
worth listening to — Tampa Red, Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Slim,
Otis Span, J.B. Lenoir, Sleepy John Estes and a host of others, but the work
listed here will take you to the first few stations along the road. And from
the dark religious fervour of Blind Willie Johnson, or the cheeky jibes of
John Lee Williamson, you can probably chart your own course.
Palmer’s book Deep Blues
is an excellent introduction
to the music. To find out more about
its origins and development, read Alan Lomax’s Land Where the Blues
Lomax met Bluesmen back in the 1920s, because his father was making museum
recordings. Because of the Jim Crow laws, which separated the cultures,
this made Lomax highly unusual for a white man. He grew up with the Blues.
It was Lomax who first recorded Muddy Waters for the Library of Congress,
and in the 1960s put Mississippi Fred McDowell on the map — the last
of the Country Blues stars. The
Urban Blues is treated in more detail in The Chicago Blues
by Mike Rowe.
are many inexpensive samplers of the Urban Blues, among them Comin’ Home
to the Blues II
and Blues Classics Millennium Collection
. Nothin’ but
is a forty disc set priced at less than a pound a disc.
It covers a lot of ground (especially if you lay the discs end to end).
or a one album sampler of feet-wetting Country Blues try Dust My Broom:
Mississippi Delta Blues
, which includes cuts by many of the originators
of the Blues, including Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Son House, Willie
Brown, Bukka White and Skip James. This
is complemented by Guitar Blues Legends
after listening to one or both of these, you will then decide to dive
All of the mentioned artists are worth pursuing. Chess
issue good quality albums by artists who originally recorded with the Chess
brothers. Bluebird and Sun Records were also important race labels.
An essential, but simple, collection would include:
Recording techniques were dreadful back in the 1920s — a huge horn
connected to a needle that engraved the sound onto a disc. Modern copies
are usually taken from scratchy old shellac records. By the 1930s microphones
were in use, but the recordings are not necessarily great. This makes modern
remastering techniques extremely helpful (though they have to be carefully
applied, otherwise the top end can disappear with the scratches). If you
can, always listen to a disc before buying it. Some unscrupulous people
have simply taken old vinyl records and copied them onto CD. If you can’t
listen first, then check to see if the disc claims to have been digitally
remastered. The recordings I have recommended are the best that I know
of. If you know better, please email me at email@example.com.
You have perhaps noticed that I have avoided Martin Scorsese’s series
on the Blues. That’s because I feel that it does not entice the newcomer,
nor give a coherent history to the afficionado. Better to hunt out the
original clips that were raided in the making — many are available on
DVD — but
first listen to the discs recommended here, and read Robert Palmer. Enjoy!