What is “The Blues?”
People use the word loosely and imprecisely. Some say blues is the music of black people, or rural black people, or ante-bellum rural black people. Some say it is a form of American folk music based on a 12-bar chord progression or a minor scale or a call-and-response lyrical pattern. For each of these, there are many affirming examples, but also many exceptions.
The word blues is attached freely to songs in a wide variety of styles. Many songs with “blues” in the name are rock or jazz or pop. The word describes an emotional state as well as a musical form, and often the singer or songwriter uses the word only in the emotional sense. If a song is a lament then the singer can claim to “have the blues.” Sometimes a song is called blues because it is a lament, and sometimes it is called blues because it conforms to the loose rules of the musical form, and sometimes both and sometimes neither.
Remark how wide a musical range attaches to the word blues. An extreme example of something called blues that isn’t is the modern classical piano composition Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues by Frederic Rzewski. (Check it out, though, it’s good! Frederic, do something, Ayyyyy!) Crooner Guy Mitchell’s Singing the Blues isn’t blues. (Check it out, thought. It’s funny!) Arcade Fire’s Antichrist Television Blues is alt rock, not blues. Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues is a folk song, and so is Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. Miles Davis’ “All Blues” is improvisational modern jazz. Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues is country proto-rock. (And the most egregious example of plagiarism in modern music.) And the Samsara Blues Experiment is sitar-based Euro prog. Led Zeppelin took songs that unquestionably were blues and turned them into something else. Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks” is pretty much straight-up Delta blues. Something (perhaps the heavy, heavy drumming) makes Led Zeppelin’s version not blues.
The exact range and scope of what can be called blues is a thing that matters to people. There was a famous incident at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival where Alan Lomax introduced the Paul Butterfield Blues Band by pretty much calling them posers who didn’t know blues at all. Butterfield’s manager punched Lomax as he stepped off the stage, and Lomax punched back.
Where Does the Blues Come From?
The usual answer to this question is that the blues comes from Africa. That is wrong. Certainly blues was created by black people. But it was created by black people in America. And it was created generations after they left Africa.
On YouTube you can find videos purporting to show the African Roots of the Blues. But anything recorded electronically in Africa in the 20th Century has been shaped by western music flowing back to Africa as well as by their own traditions. I guarantee you the guy playing the kora in that clip has heard Bob Marley and Louis Jordan. Nigeria, Togo and Benin are called the Slave Coast in old maps for a reason. That is where the slave ships docked to load more slaves. Few if any were taken from as far inland as Burkina Faso where the linked video was recorded. So Burkinabe music in 2007 is doubly irrelevant to the roots of the blues.
The Africa –> blues explanation is an oversimplification caused by prejudice. America’s official music history was shaped by people who listened only to the tamest, most refined and proper European music. (See early versions of Grove’s Dictionary of American Music for a sense of this aloof, chauvinistic and narrow perspective.) But the blues are not polyrhythmic as African music is. Blues uses a steady measure of four beats, with stress on the second and fourth. A consistent pattern like that is definitely not African. But do you know where you do find music with heavy accented, steady rhythm? In old hymns. In European ballads. These are more likely sources for blues than African polyrhythm. (And in saying hymns and ballads provided the source, I’m not taking anything away from the black rural creators of the blues. either way, THEY created a great new form of music.) Another thread leading to the blues is the field holler or work song. I think these are a separate thread that contributed to the blues, though they were no more important than the hymn connection.
This video clip, and this one, both by Alan Lomax, suggest the connection between a difficult life (in particular the difficulties of the southern black man) and the music that derives from it. I recommend this Youtube clip about The Origins and Evolution of the Blues. It is a decent summary in 10 minutes. I like the distinction it makes about blues coming from “the African-American experience,” rather than from Africa. But even as the narrator declares (at 00:42) that early slave music was characterized by a strong back beat, you can hear underneath a song with claps on 2 and 4, but the vocal emphasis on 1 and 3. So which is it? Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
The early part of the story is hard to follow, but it is much easier to piece together from WC Handy onward. There are plenty of recordings, sheet music, photographs, and written narratives about people from the ‘20s onward. You can get a good sense of how the blues came to be by following the story of one song from its earliest Dixieland version through its acoustic, electric and popular iterations.
If the great migration from Africa is overemphasized, the last migration should get more credit than it does. Blues emerged in the 1930s just as many black people were moving north to find factory jobs. “Well I’m owna Detroit, gonna get myself a job. I’m tired of laying around on this starvation farm.” Northward movement usually involved a train ride: “You can take the Rock Island, baby. You can take it to the end of the line.” The song “Chicago Bound” is a precise itinerary of Jimmy Rogers’ actual journey from his birthplace in Georgia to “The greatest place around.”
Southward movement, by contrast, were resistant to change and properly occurred on river boats. In “She caught the Katy and left me a mule to ride,” the woman runs away on a boat, and the man swings up on a train. It isn’t clear whether he is chasing her or giving up and heading in the opposite direction. All we know is that he is still “Crazy about her, that hard-headed woman of mine.” The northward-on-a-train trope survives in “Fool for the City” by Foghat: “Breathing all the clean air, sitting in the sun, When I get my train fare, I’ll get up and run. I’m ready for the city, air pollution here I come! I’m tired of laying back, hanging around, I’m gonna catch that train, then I’ll be city bound.”
Life in the north didn’t always work out. Sometimes the work was too demanding and the singer had to “Take Christmas in my overalls.” Sometimes “You hears about a job, and you is on your way, But 20 mens after the same job, all on the same ol’ day.”
Arguably the great theme of American literature and mythology is that “Geography is destiny.” If the protagonist can just get to some place, things will be OK. And blues songs of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s exhibit a profound awareness of the map. Note the geographic sophistication of Robert Johnson’s lyrics. He mentions California, Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa in “Sweet Home Chicago,” and West Helena, Arkansas, East Monroe (Louisiana? Ohio?), China, the Philippine Islands and Ethiopia in “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” Throughout his repertoire, he expresses the idea that life will be better if he can get “Further on down the line.”
The move north was good for musicians. It doubled the audience and halved the likelihood of getting thrown into Parchman Farm prison. It coincided with electrification and urban congestion, the two ingredients that made Beall Street in Memphis and Rush Street in Chicago possible.
What are the Important Subgenres of Blues?
I’d suggest five.
The first is Delta Blues, which is the most vital source of blues sensibilities and blues history. Delta blues is typically a single man with an acoustic guitar, usually playing rapid arpeggios or a 2- or 3-string chord melody. Delta blues uses a lot of unusual scales and chords – probably because the people who created it didn’t have much formal training but had tremendous genius and creativity. Listen to “Ain’t You Sorry” by Mance Lipscomb. A remarkable share of great blues players were born in Mississippi, though many earned fame and developed their style in the cities. If you google “Delta blues artists” you’ll see many players who I would put in Chicago. Google also includes Taj Mahal as a Delta Blues artist, though he grew up in Massachusetts. Ridiculous.
The second important genre is Piedmont blues. (“Piedmont” means foothills and refers to a region of North Carolina.) Refer to Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry or Elizabeth Cotton or Blind Boy Fuller. This form is more traditionally folky than the Delta Blues, thanks perhaps to a bit more influence from European ballad singing. Piedmont blues tends to be steadier and brighter. The guitar player is more likely to hold down a 6-string chord and then do a complex fingerpick pattern. Listen to “Freight Train.”
Next is urban blues, which subdivides into Chicago and Memphis blues. Both these are electrified and likely to be performed by groups instead of individuals. Chicago Blues tends to use the harmonica for the lead instrument. Listen to Jimmy Rogers’ “Sloppy Drunk.” Memphis Blues prefers horns. Listen to BB King’s “So Excited.”
The fourth genre is British Blooz. Cream and the Yardbirds and other groups were sincere in their appreciation of blues. But their drawn-out, amplified stuff is incredibly flat. Clapton’s “Key to the Highway” almost gets off the ground in a couple of places.
Finally, there is the jazz cross-over into blues. Listen to “Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie” by Louis Jordan. The 16-bar form is there, and it feels like blues even if there’s no guitar. You would find this kind of blues being played in upscale nightclubs in New York and New Orleans. Many of the earliest WC Handy songs were of this sort.
Women in the Blues
You would suppose that black women in the ’30s and ’40s would have it pretty rough. And so it comes a s a delightful surprise that black women’s blues of that era are saucy and liberated. You can imagine Bessie Smith singing in a proper music studio in Harlem with a 10-man combo of backing musicians while a thousand miles away Robert Johnson sits on a wooden chair alone in a hotel room singing into somebody’s can for a nickel a song (which he’ll promptly waste on an “evil-hearted woman”!). Listen to the following to get a sense of women’s blues.
- Red Hot Flo From Kokomo, by Eva Taylor
- One Hour Mama, by Victoria Spivey
- Fine and Mellow, Alberta Hunter
- Women be Wise, Sippie Wallace
Back in the 1980s I did a blues program on public radio station WIAN. I had the chance to interview Rosetta Reitz who was reviving and promoting interest in women’s blues. The Mean Mothers album was her first release. It was especially cool because the picture on the album cover was of Madame CJ Walker, an Indianapolis native and the first black woman millionaire. Listen to “St. Louis Blues,” by Bessie Smith, as one of the very earliest recordings. Then follow up with Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain,” and Koko Taylor’s “Wang. Dang. Doodle.” both of which are Chicago-style blues. Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller had Big Mama Thornton in mind when they wrote “Hound Dog.”
The blues songs sung by women seem to put them in a strong position. The blues songs sung by men about woman are another story. While there are some appreciative songs about “kind-hearted women, do anything in the world for me,” there are more that disrespect women’s virtue. Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man” implies that women are always available for assignations. “Fattening Frogs for Snakes” resolves not to spend money on a woman that another man is going to enjoy. Robert Johnson sings “You know, she a no-good doney. They shouldn’t allow her out on the streets.” The word “doney” is peculiarly derived from the Italian “donna.” And I invite you to ponder how an unschooled waif like Robert Johnson got to know opera Italian. This attitude is pervasive and shows up ion Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon song,” “Said, people worry I can’t keep you satisfied. Let me tell you baby, you ain’t nothin but a two-bit, no-good jive. Went to sleep last night, worked as hard as I can,
Bring home my money, you take my money, give it to another man. I should have quit you, baby, such a long time ago.”
To me the most appalling disrespect for women in any blues song is BB King’s “Don’t Answer the Door.” He’s a jealous husband, and he tells his wife he doesn’t want anybody coming to the house.
Now if you feel a little sick baby, and you know you’re home all alone
I don’t want the doctor in the house, baby
You just suffer ‘til I get home.
There is no such thing as Texas Blues. The heck with Texas. If you see reference to “Texas bluesmen” such as Mance Lipscomb, Bukka White, or even Robert Johnson, just put them back in the Delta where they belong. Admittedly Stevie Ray Vaughn belongs in Texas. Stevie Ray Vaughn has an important role in the blues. And that role is as the answer to the following two questions: 1) What if a merely competent guitarist stole a catalog of licks and hooks from Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon and Jimi Hendrix and played them really fast and really loud (but without much artistry) while singing in a grating mule-skinner’s tenor? 2) What if he wore a hat while doing all that stuff? And the answer, of course, is that some people will go for it. And the less they know about the subject, the more likely they’ll be to think Stevie Ray was the greatest. The heck with Stevie Ray Vaughn.
Names to Know
There are lots and lots of blues performers. Many of them are OK to pretty good. But it is not essential to know Peetie Wheatstraw or Washboard Sam or Clarence Gatemouth Brown particularly. No one is going to think less of you because you can’t tell Sleepy John Estes from Snooky Pryor. Here in no order are a handful of names I think are essential.
Robert Johnson – Known as “King of the Delta Blues.” Earliest member of the 27 Club. The fable that he sold his soul to the devil is explained by the fact that he rambled from place to place picking up techniques and musical ideas. When he returned to a place after several months he was much better than he’d been when he was last there. He was a genuine genius. Listen to “Love in Vain.”
John Hammond, Jr. – Son of a Columbia Records Company executive, he could have done anything in the music business. He chose to perform solo acoustic blues in small clubs throughout the country. His niche was as a high-energy, frenetic blues shouter. He performed sitting in a chair with a harmonica brace around his neck and when he got going he bounced and flailed like a marionette, with his face drawn and distorted as he coaxed more anguished sound from the harmonica. I saw him perform twice. Listen to “I Wish You Would.”
Leadbelly – True name Huddy Ledbetter. He is one of the more popular roots guys, though I don’t think he was particularly good. Much of his playing was just straight strum-strum- strum-strum with none, and I mean none, of the inventive ornamentation of Robert Johnson. Listen to “Gallis Pole.” To begin with, it is stupid to call the song “Gallis Pole” rather than “Gallows Pole.” His version was not the one that inspired Led Zeppelin. Other people might suggest that Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Lemon Jefferson also belong in this niche.
BB King – BB is the greatest! He really did work in Mississippi cotton fields and play in juke joints on Saturday nights. He really did head north (to Memphis) when he was having hard times. (In his particular case, he damaged the tractor was was driving and, fearing he’d be fired, he lit out for the city with his guitar in hand and the rest is history.) The only blues touch cliché BB King failed to fulfill was spending time in prison. He mentored and respected other musicians and was reportedly a delight to work with. (Full disclosure: My affection for BBKing drew me like a compass. Last May I was driving south on Highway 61 through Mississippi, and then for some reason I got off the road and kept driving ’til I was in Indianola and then I turned right and drove a couple more blocks and there was the BB King Museum. I swear to you I never once looked at a map. I didn’t even know the museum was there, though I did know Indianola was his birthplace.) Listen to his duet with Bobby Blue Bland (“Funny How Times Slips Away”) as an example of his mellow side, and “Why I Sing the Blues” and “How Blue Can You Get” for a taste of BB in his prime. Remember that “The Thrill is Gone” is one of the rare instances of a blues song hitting the top of the pop music charts.
Willie Dixon – Songwriter and performer in Chicago. Since the Chicago style of blues involves bands and not solo performers, Willie Dixon is wrapped up in the success of several other big names. He wrote many important songs and played bass on many important recordings. He worked with Chess Records, which was the label that furthered Chicago Blues more than any other. Listen to “Spoonful.” And remember when you hear Cream do it that Willie Dixon wrote it. I met his son Bobby in 1983, when the Sons of the Blues performed in Indy. Bobby told me Willie was doing just fine.
Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton – Three important harmonica players. Or four: Sonny Boy Williamson is actually two different guys. One of them, I forget which, hosted the King Biscuit radio show, which was a big deal. Listen to “Good Morning School Girl” and “My Babe.”
Albert King – A huge man with a velvety voice. He was a Memphis blues guy, just like BB King. If there’s a distinction in their playing, BB tends to use more tremolo, and Albert tends to bend the strings more. Listen to “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
Buddy Guy – He’s nearest to where blues meets rock. On YouTube there is a very generous hour-long blues tutorial by him. He seems eager to give away everything he’s got technique wise. When we saw him perform at Purdue, he was kind of vulgar. Listen to “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues.”
Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann – three more Chicago players. They played their songs straight and let the riffs speak for themselves. Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnette) is distinguished by his gravelly voice. Listen to “I Asked Her For Water.” Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) was a very successful bandleader who brought players into his group for a while and then let them go on to successful careers of their own. Listen to “Mannish Boy.” Otis Spann is one of those Muddy Waters’ protégé’s who also recorded many of his own albums. Otis Spann is probably the number one Chicago piano player. Listen to “Brand New House.” I imagine it is either Jimmy Rogers or Muddy Waters himself playing guitar, with Willie Dixon on bass and Little Walter playing harmonica on that song.
John Lee Hooker – Notable for his extremely primitive and repetitive style. Listen to “Strike Blues.” He used a very limited number of hooks and riffs, and often talked his lyrics rather than singing them.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang – Two white guys who broke into the national music scene when they were teenagers. Kenny Wayne plays guitar and sings a little. Jonny Lang sings and plays guitar a little. Both are pretty serious talents, though each made it with the “prodigy” label, and that never lasts. Kenny’s big hit is “Blue on Black.” Jonny’s is “Lie to Me.”
Robert Cray – One of the more recently emerging blues men just to show that there are still newcomers. Listen to “Smoking Gun.” Billboard has an album of his in the #2 slot in Sept 2015. The #1 slot was held by Buddy Guy.
Rev Gary Davis – A pretty good blues man. But he is particularly noteworthy because he had a Boswell. A guy named Stefan Grossman worked with and studied under Rev Davis for many years, and meticulously transcribed all his songs and all his philosophy.
My three worst blues guys are: Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James and Stevie Ray Vaughn.