This is not meant to be a complete history of every aspect of this great art form, because the story of the blues is too big even for a book - and you'll find more information on one page of a good blues book than you'll find on any website. However I have noticed that a lot of web-histories of the blues are pretty short, or I don't agree with their ratings of importance of the various artists or whatever so I decided to make a bit of a longer version, maybe halfway towards a short book! (I'll put up a bibliography and discography soon).
Also I've limited the brief biographies of artists to those who's complete recordings I have, so I'm sure of what I write about - if I've left out any that you feel are more important than the one's I've included it's because I haven't had time yet or I don't have all their recordings and I don't want to copy someone else's opinion of stuff I haven't heard.
I should also say that I'm adding bit's all over the place - not just at the end - which may be frustrating if you're checking back - but I hope, if you're checking back, you're interested enough in the blues to read some bit's again! Also, all the quotes are in bold and their spelling, grammar and punctuation are exactly as I found them - the spelling, grammar and punctuation that's not bold is all my own fault!
When I was a child and first heard Champion Jack Dupree I had to find out everything I could about the blues because it was so honest and understandable. It was about real life, not art or show-business which all other music is about. Itís just about relating your joys and sorrows to other people and having a good time regardless of your troubles.
So I went to the school library and read all the chapters on blues in the "musical dictionaries" and "histories of western music" that were there - much as millions of other young blues fans must have done. All these books described the blues this way -
As many as ten million Africans were kidnapped and brought to America as slaves, bringing their traditional instruments and music with them. Over the generations the music became less "African" and more "Western" because of the availability of western instruments and the dying out of African languages and customs - this primitive music was called blues and later it became more sophisticated and westernised and turned into jazz - which still exists to this day.
That type of history is where nearly all the misconceptions that still surround the blues come from - that it died out or was replaced by rock and roll or jazz - that it was a primitive, transitional art form - that it is less musically important, or less musical than jazz etc. etc.
These attitudes are understandable and make sense at first glance but they are not true. As always the truth is stranger!
Blues is not "African" music - it is uniquely American music. The roots and similarities to African music are obvious and well documented - especially the uniquely African tradition of the travelling solo performer accompanying his singing on a stringed instrument and the role music played in African society.
There has been a trend in Western music histories to ignore folk music styles and concentrate on "Art music" in which, with the occasional exception of opera, the composer is the star - the actual musicians are fairly irrelevant.
In most kinds of folk music the song is the important part - not the singer. In African music the musicians were very important, performing the role of a travelling poet or bard, commenting on the past and present and wording the feelings of the population - exactly the way blues musicians would in a few hundred years.
It could also be said that jazz already existed when blues was invented and that itís existence had little or no influence on the development of the blues - jazz was always urban music and blues was definitely rural music for the first fifty years of itís existence. A realistic analogy would be that jazz is Africanised Western music and blues is westernised African music (as useful as analogies ever are).
The really startling thing about all this is that the blues was invented by some person or persons unknown (probably) in Mississippi in the 1890's and was not known outside of Mississippi until at least the turn of the century. Not until the 1920ís was blues popular or even widely known in the whole of the African American community. (It should also be remembered that blues was never popular with the whole of the African American community at any time. It was very much frowned upon by the church and looked down on as primitive by many people.)
Blues is often thought of as the African-American music - as if jazz replaced blues, then rock n' roll replaced jazz and then soul replaced rock n' roll - there were many other types of African-American music before, during and after the heyday of the blues (which I see as being roughly 1920 - 1960). The first blues performers would have only had one or two blues songs in their repertoire and they would have started out by adding a blues sound to their existing material.
The oldest recorded bluesmen - that is, musicians that were older men already when they recorded in the 1920's - are often referred to as "songsters" rather than "bluesmen". There probably never has been a blues artist with only blues songs in their repertoire - at least until white people started playing blues - but it took until the late 1920's until there were real blues specialists, with large repertoires of both lyrics and licks.
Ma Rainey was already a professional touring singer when she first heard the blues in a "small town in Missouri" 1902. She told the story to folksong scholar John W. Work -
"She tells of a girl from the town who came to the tent one morning and began to sing about the "man" who had left her. The song was so strange and poignant that it attracted much attention. "Ma" Rainey became so interested that she learned the song from the visitor, and used it often in her "act" as an encore.
The song elicited such response from the audiences that it won a special place in her "act" as an encore. Many times she was asked what kind of song it was, and one day she replied, in a moment of inspiration, "Itís the Blues.""
Other early accounts include those of Charles Peabody in 1901 and 1902 who made notes on the songs of the workers excavating an archaeological site near Stovall. I canít find the notes right now but (Iíll quote them when I do) but he described strange tones, rhythm and harmonies that sound very much like they might have been blues.
What struck him was that after a few days he noticed his own name mentioned in some of the songs which made him realise the improvisational aspects of the music.
The most famous account of course is from the composer W. C. Handy in 1903, after which 2003 was named the Year Of The Blues -
"One night at Tutweiler as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train, life suddenly took me by the shoulder and wakened me with a start. A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept....As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly.
ĎGoiní where the Southern crossí the Dog.í
The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard."
Handy later published the song as "Yellow Dog Blues". "Yellow Dog" was the nickname given to the Yazoo Delta Railroad, reportedly because of the "Y.D." stencilled on the boxcar sides.
Alan Lomax recorded another fascinating story from Stack Maugham, who knew Handy well and played in his (pre-blues) brass band -
"I didnít pay much attention to the blues and that music until Handy came here. He didnít either at first. I remember when we first became conscious of it. We were playing down at Cleveland for a dance and the people had been dancing, but they had gotten tired and sleepy and nobody was dancing much except a few couples on the floor. We took intermission and three fellows came in there with a guitar, a mandolin, and a bass violin, and started to play and the people began to get wild. Everybody woke up and got interested and began to dance. Handy got the idea. He went back in the corner and took his pencil and a piece of paper and copied a part of what they were playing. When Handy went from here to Memphis, he finished the piece after working on it for a couple of years and called it Mr. Crump, and later the Memphis Blues. Itís the same thing we heard that night in Cleveland."
Handy himself wrote of this occasion -
"A rain of silver dollars began to fall around the outlandish, stomping feet. The dancers went wild. Dollars, quarters, halves - the shower grew heavier and continued so long I strained my neck to get a better look. There before the boys lay more money than my nine musicians were being paid for the entire engagement. Then I saw the beauty of primitive music."
In fact, both W. C. Handy's and Ma Rainey's accounts are very important in another way, other than being amongst the earliest written descriptions of the blues, they also illustrate the difference between "rural" or "country blues" and "urban blues" (sometimes nowadays described as "classic blues"). These professional musicians saw the commercial potential of the country blues, as played by country people well outside of the "music industry". I have skimmed over the early "urban blues" history because I feel that the blues performed by W.C. Handy, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith etc. is an imitation or adaption of the blues invented by rural people in the 1880's - 90's. It's a wonderful music and very important as the genesis of jazz and commercial African-American music in general, but it has little bearing on the history of the country blues (which became electric blues and then rock n' roll).
The two main elements that that were blended into "blues" were the field holler and the African tradition of stringed instrument playing, which is where the banjo comes from. The banjo was really the first American instrument. The first generation of slaves brought with them an instrument known as the Halam which we would describe as a five stringed banjo made of a gourd with animal skin stretched over it. It's sound and use were more akin to a guitar than to a modern banjo.
The various improvements made to the Halam in order to make it louder and more easily tuned also made it less useful as an accompanying instrument to a solo singer - it became too high pitched and didn't have enough sustain. This led to African American musicians turning from the banjo to the guitar - bringing banjo techniques and tunings to the new instrument.
It's ironic that the banjo is seen as being synonymous with the "whitest" of "white music", but the playing techniques used by hillbilly banjo players are possibly the closest living links to African music in North America. Poor white musicians were initially taught the banjo by their black neighbours who later transferred to the guitar, leaving the tradition of the Halam to be passed down to the current bluegrass players. A dramatic illustration of this is that some of the early recorded (white) hillbilly songs actually contain "nonsense verses" with some discernible African words in them.
The style of the African griots - the solo singers - was to sing improvised melodies with intricate answering lines on the Halam. This format was was applied to the guitar with early blues singers being much less precise or standardised in their timing and chord changes (but more virtuosic in their picking) than the later. Blind Lemon Jefferson typifies this style of playing - he'll often wait a few beats to finish his guitar line before going to the next chord.
The other important element was the field holler or "Arhoolie" which was especially common in Mississippi due to the high Black population and the intensive farming of the fertile Delta. The field hollers and work songs are often quite complex in their harmony, rhythm and purpose. Alan Lomax recorded many work songs in the prison farms and found that there were different types of songs for different tasks - their purpose was to synchronise many men in situations where dis-unity could be fatal.
Often large gangs would be wielding axes, picks or hoes in very close proximity and the various rhythms of the songs were carefully controlled by an experienced leader who may not have been the best or loudest singer, but who had the most experience with the work at hand. Alan Lomax interviewed singers who were actually employed - as singers - by railroad companies because of the increased efficiency of the gangs when led by an experienced singer.
The lyrics were generally made up of simple rhyming couplets that could be interchanged and elaborated on for hours, many of which ended up in later blues songs. Lyrics were also improvised to keep the gangs amused and inform them of how far they had to go or when to lift a sleeper or rail - even to inform the boss when they needed a rest.
The mechanization of agriculture greatly diminished the use of, and necessity for the field holler and it largely died out as an form of it's own - except on the prison farms, where by the 1940's they had reached a pinnacle of complexity and beauty - very much akin to those great African choirs. Alan Lomax extensively recorded work songs and field hollers and anyone who hasn't heard them should really check them out. Especially beautiful, eerie and heartbreaking are some of the individual hollers he recorded.
The prison farm system attempted to remove all kinds of individuality in order to run the men like a great harvesting machine - the cotton crops they grew and picked were sold so it was largely about money making - not rehabilitation. Everyone went by a nickname - even on Alan Lomax's liner notes - and the only expression of individuality left to each man was his own holler. They're a kind of musical signature that could be heard across the fields - typically with a highly embellished (and usually indescribably sad and lonely sounding) melody. It is from these types of hollers that the blues derived it's melodies, phrasing, and vocal techniques.
While itís easy to say that work songs, field hollers, western and African folk songs and hillbilly music just blended themselves together, none of those elements contain any reason why the particular blues format would come out - particularly the almost universal twelve bar format.
I think one of the reasons people think of the blues as having grown rather than than having been made is the universality of this format - typically two rhymed lines, the first one repeated, usually with five accented syllables (ie five accents, not five syllables) and the chord pattern I,I,I,I,IV,IV,I,I,V,IV,I,I (or a close variation of that). But the important thing to remember is that this format did not exist before the blues was invented. Neither does a natural blending of styles explain why the blues was so surprising, strange and memorable when professional black musicians, singers and composers first heard it.
I think the invention of the blues is similar to that of the limerick - it's a slight re-arrangement of literary forms that were already around, but adjusted in such a catchy way that people are still adding and improvising on that same format hundreds of years later. It's so commonplace that we don't think of the fact that one person must have invented it.
The blues must have caught on very quickly in the 1890ís, probably for the same reasons itís popular now, because within a decade or two it seems to have spread to all parts of the United States, contrary to another 1950ís myth that blues was only from the Mississippi Delta. There were great blues musicians probably in every state but the record companies would focus on Mississippi because there were certainly greater numbers of musicians in the one spot.
This leads to another tragic aspect of blues history - the fact that blues musicians were largely recorded by record companies with absolutely no idea or appreciation of what they were recording - which causes two great problems for historians.
One problem is that so many great artists were never recorded, and those that were recorded were not necessarily the best. This sounds like wishful thinking - that if these unknown musicians were so good why were they not recorded - but the methods of the record companies were so haphazard and un-thinking that it seems highly likely they would have missed some of the best.
I think Son House was one of the greatest musicians who ever lived but when Paramount records had the chance to record him in 1930 they recorded seven songs and although Alan Lomax made non-commercial recordings of him in 1941 and 1942 - no record company ever approached him again! (until the 1960ís)(Actually I just found out Paramount did approach both Son House and Skip James to do some follow up recordings but they both refused, Son House believing that he might lose his (farming) job if he took time off and he didn't get anything out of his previous recordings...) Likewise Willie Brown (whoís name is mentioned in the Robert Johnson song "Crossroads") was a great player who only recorded four songs for Paramount (only two of which have re-surfaced).
The other problem caused by 1920ís record company policies is that they give a distorted picture of the importance of the artists they did record in that they would record seven Son House songs and sixty eight Charley Patton songs. While Charley Patton was undoubtedly more influential or "important" than Son House - was he nine times more important!
In other words, when record companies found someone whoís first records sold well - they recorded them repeatedly and incessantly until they stopped selling (or died), they didnít go looking for unique and interesting artists. Also they would look for other people who sounded like their established, big selling artists, leaving the impression to history that the majority of blues players sounded alike. This impression is not backed up by people who were there and saw these other unrecorded artists.
Record companies were not charities or artistic institutions and they obviously haven't changed one iota in eighty years but the trouble is its our loss. Humanity is forever diminished for having missed those unrecorded gems of songs that no-one will ever write again...An horrific example of record company policy (and attitudes) comes from Frank Walker of Columbia records, recorded by Mike Seeger -
"We recorded in a little hotel in Atlanta, and we used to put singers up and pay a dollar a day for their food and a place to sleep in another little hotel. And then we would spend all night going from one room to another, and they kept the place hopping all night in all the different rooms that they were in. You would have to go from one room to another and keep your pen working and decide we wonít use this and pick out different songs that they knew, because you couldnít bring songs to them because they couldnít learn them. Their repertoire would consist of eight or ten things that they did well, and that was all they knew.
So, when you picked out the three or four that were the best in a manís so called repertoire you were through with that man as an artist. It was all. It was a culling job, taking the best that they had. You might come out with two selections or you might come out with six or eight, but you did it at that time. You said goodbye. They went back home. They had made a phonograph record and that was the next thing to being the President of the United States in their mind."
Itís understandable that these people didnít realise they were living in one of the most historically important times for music or that the mine of blues artists was actually finite, but accounts like that are sickeningly reminiscent of the purchasing of Manhattan Island and the various Indian treaties (not to mention events in this country's history).
As Big Bill Broonzy said -
"Sometimes I think I never will record no more. See, I never got a royalty till 1939 and Ď40, the year I made Just a Dream and Done Got Wise. And when I add it up, maybe altogether I drew $2,000 from all my two hundred sixty numbers. Those guys ainít never told me just how many records they sold, and if they do, how do I know they giving me the straight of it? I just canít figger that out. I canít understand it. If a man want me to sing and play and he like what I do, he should be glad to pay me something for it - not that I have to jump on him or cause trouble between us for me to collect a lousy dime - he getting his and I just go to hell! Iím the cause of his getting something, why donít he give me some? But a lousy guy that lets you work your head off and then gets on easy street and leaves you still where you were. I donít understand people like that. Itís just outrageous to me."
These kind of stories caused many blues musicians to refuse recording contracts, especially in the 1960ís when people were searching out these old artists to genuinely record them and pay them. A number of people like Mississippi John Hurt, Booker White and Skip James really had to be talked into re-entering what Skip James called the "music racket" - which is what it is.
It is also important to remember that virtually all we know about blues history has been pieced together largely by record collectors. The fact that "Skip James recorded 18 sides for Paramount" is derived from the fact that nine different Skip James records have been found so far by record collectors - James himself remembered recording twenty six sides (he was prone to exaggeration I know but you get my point).
In many cases the documentation was either non existent or has since been lost or destroyed. The same goes for the master recordings - any that exist today were kept by accident rather than for posterity. In most cases the recorded output of a blues artist of the 1920's has been re-issued from the best quality surviving records - that is, records that was sold and played, not archived, and very often only one copy of a record is known to exist (Son House's "Preaching Blues" for example). That copies of unknown or lost songs or even artists still exist somewhere is certain.
Another infuriating thing for researchers and music fans is that some of the record companies - most notoriously Paramount - deliberately recorded on low cost, low quality machines and materials because they were only "race records" and so many great artists now have to be listened to through a veil of scratchy surface noise and distortion. Tommy Johnsonís first recordings for Victor have a lovely clear, warm tone where some of his later Paramount recordings are almost unlistenable.
Paramount Records was a division of the Wisconsin Chair Company (true!) and was obviously run by chair makers rather than record company executives. The one thing the company had going for was it's unsurpassed stable of stars, assembled chiefly by talent scouts Mayo Williams and H.C. Speir.
The music was great but the technical quality was awful and the artists were poorly treated even compared to the other record companies of the day. In the liner notes to JSP's Blind Blake box, Drew Kent writes of the move to Paramount's first electric "studio" in 1929 -
"...it was a converted knitting factory in a secluded location on the edge of Grafton. Because most of the artists were Black, they had to stay in Milwaukee (even in the relatively enlightened North, no Grafton boarding house would accept African-American lodgers), and take a train to Grafton. At every turn, it seems, they were treated as a necessary evil, being given grudging help to find their way to the Grafton studio and treated with contempt when they got there."
As well as inferior recording methods and equipment, they used inferior metals to make the masters for pressing, so that if they had a hit, each successive disc would be poorer quality until they wore out the master. If the song was still in demand, they would call the artist or group in to record it again! If it was a guaranteed hit they would sometimes record a number of masters to anticipate their failure!
Also the shellac material used to make the records themselves was mixed with cheaper substances like rags and sawdust (no doubt from the chair-making arm of the company) which is the prime reason for the excessive surface noise on Paramount recordings.
Another sign of record company ignorance and uncaring was how many times they got the spelling of artists names or songs wrong. A famous "typo" by Paramount was Charley Patton's "Hammer Blues". Although released, advertised and eventually reissued under that title, the lyrics begin "Gonna buy myself a hammock, put it underneath the tree, So when the wind blows, the leaves may fall on me..." It's obvious to anyone who has listened to it that it's meant to be "Hammock Blues" - this is not only a proof of the respect they had for Charley Patton but also for their customers.
Paramount's notoriously bad sound quality undoubtedly contributed to it's demise in 1933. By that time the Wisconsin Chair Company just wanted out of the record business. The metal masters (including many alternate takes and unreleased records) were sold to scrap metal dealers and of the catalogue of records that were released (42 or so of which are still missing) Fred Boerner, who sold Paramount's records by mail order said - "The last ones we had in stock, we threw in the air and used them for target practice."
I read somewhere that there were divers looking for metal masters in the river near the factory but I don't know what came of it - also I do know that a couple of metal masters were found being used as the structural fabric of a chicken house...
However we must be grateful that blues was so popular and profitable or it never would have been recorded at all and what we do have is quite a large sample of a musical style captured quite close to itís inception. The period between the birth of the blues and itís transformation into the electric style we still hear every day on TV commercials and radio was really only fifty years - and it was being recorded for half of that time.
The influence blues records had on the development of the music cannot be overstated. Not only did they spread the blues to areas it hadnít yet reached and increase the number of blues players but they helped to focus the development of the music. It can be argued that this was a negative effect, making it less diverse and improvisational and smoothing the regional differences in the music. The earlier recordings were more idiosyncratic and impassioned and they are certainly my favourite blues - but I think the blues was going to spread anyway - it was always going to be recorded and a certain grooming or taming was inevitable and ultimately necessary to the survival of the style.
Another slightly confusing aspect of blues history, is the difference between rural and urban blues. The urban blues of the 1920ís is hard to distinguish from 1920ís jazz - this is where naming musical genres becomes very pedantic - itís necessary to name them but hard to define their borders.
Blues and jazz always have been and still are really two sides of the same music, but in the 1920ís they were perhaps at their closest. I see urban blues of that era as being the "blue" side of jazz, rather than the jazz side of blues. Singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith had as little in common with Charley Patton or Blind Lemon Jefferson as Miles Davis has with BB King. For that reason Iím not including 1920ís urban blues in this history (at the moment!).
But it was an urban blues record that really started the record companies interest in recording the country blues. Mamie Smithís "Crazy Blues" in 1920 was the first record by a black artist to have the world "blues" in the title and although W.C. Handyís "Memphis Blues" was published eight years previously and numerous artists from hillbilly to jazz were using the term on records, the process of seriously recording black music really began with "Crazy Blues".
It took until 1923 however for record companies to actually travel south looking for blues artists, recording Lucille Boganís "The Pawn Shop Blues" in Atlanta.
There had been hundreds of urban blues recorded by women singers, a couple by men, a couple of guitar blues, some jug bands and one man bands but in 1926 the history of the blues took a giant leap with the recording of Blind Lemon Jefferson.
It is believed he was born in 1897 in Couchman (or Wortham), Texas. He moved to Dallas sometime during the First World War where he met up with Leadbelly, on whom he made a lifelong impression, Leadbelly later recording a number of songs inspired by Jefferson. Jefferson later travelled widely, there are reported sightings from most of the Southern states.
He died in mysterious circumstances in Chicago in late December 1929. Part of the mystery surrounding his death probably stems from the fact that Paramount covered it up until they had released all of his records! He was buried in the Wortham Cemetery and his fans fave fulfilled the request of one of his most famous songs - "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean". Between 1926 and 1929 he recorded over a hundred songs and allegedly sold around 100,000 copies of each of his released titles.
The startling thing about Blind Lemon Jefferson's music is that, like Charley Patton's (but more so?), all his songs are different. He had a seemingly unlimited repertoire of licks and fills on the guitar and his vocal melodies are all original and quite "modern" sounding.
He was not the first blues guitarist, or the best but it is quite possible that he was the most influential. Even though few artists copied his particular style (itís quite deceptively complex to play), he influenced the whole course of the blues by selling so many records - he inspired generations of future blues stars and he started an explosion of recording activity.
Record companies stopped looking for the next Bessie Smith and rushed south to find the next Blind Lemon Jefferson. Blind Blake, Peg Leg Howell, Blind Willie McTell, Barbecue Bob, Big Bill Broonzy, Frank Stokes, Furry Lewis, Texas Alexander, Tommy Johnson, Ishman Bracey, Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, Mississippi John Hurt and Bo Carter to name a few, were all recorded within the next two years.
Until recording was slowed down by the Depression and stopped altogether by the second World War, thousands of country blues recordings were made by as many as two hundred different solo acts or small groups. Although Alan Lomax and others have noted that the record companies were selecting conservative artists, avoiding overly individualistic or eccentric musicians, the breadth of playing and singing styles is amazing. There is a much greater musical variation in the country blues than in the post-war, electric blues.
Some of these variations were regional, because of the oral nature of the blues, you can hear the influences of different cities in peopleís playing. Also, because most musicians were taught at least initially by their relatives, a number of amazing blues families sprang up, sometimes with four or five great blues stars in the one family.
Two of the most famous being the McCoys and the Chatmons. The Chatmons were also neighbours of Charley Pattonís family. Lonnie, Sam and Bo Chatmon recorded successfully as the "Mississippi Sheiks" as well as solo and accompanying other artists. Walter Vinson (another neighbor!) recorded with them as well as on his own, often under the name Walter Vincent (or Vinscon or Jacobs!). Bo Chatmon also recorded a great number of bawdy songs under the name Bo Carter, eventually appearing on over a hundred titles.
Bo Chatmon also recorded with Charlie McCoy who had earlier recorded with Tommy Johnson and Ishman Bracey. Charlie McCoyís brother Joe recorded as "Kansas Joe" with his then wife the great singer/guitarist Memphis Minnie. Charlie and Joeís cousin Robert Lee McCoy was later known as Robert Nighthawk.
Tommy Johnson (whoís character is loosely portrayed in the 2001 film "O Brother Where Art Thou") was the most influential guitarist of the Jackson area. Born around 1896 on George Millerís Plantation near Terry, Mississippi, his brother LeDell taught him to play guitar around 1910. LeDell later claimed Tommy had told him he sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in return for his musical ability, a legend that was later mistakenly applied to Robert Johnson (no relation).
In 1916 Tommy married Maggie Bidwell, (after whom he wrote the song "Maggie Campbell Blues") and moved near to Dockeryís Plantation which was a veritable blues community, Charley Patton being itís most famous resident. Tommy learned a lot from Charley Patton and his "gang" but his style was very much his own by the time he moved back to Crystal Springs and was "discovered" by H.C. Speir.
Unfortunately for us he only recorded 17 songs between February 1928 and December 1929 because they are some of the best Delta blues recorded. The first four of the eight sides he recorded for Victor feature Charlie McCoy on second guitar and they are the some of the greatest guitar duets of the blues. He sounds so relaxed and at home on the recordings that there is something very modern and fresh sounding about them. "Canned Heat Blues" (after which the band is named) was the most original (and autobiographical) song he recorded, about his addiction to cooking fuel, rubbing alcohol and shoe polish, which shortened his life and no doubt curtailed his career - although he was still playing in Jackson until the night before he died in November 1956.
While Blind Lemon Jefferson may have influenced the course of blues history more than any other individual, it could be said that Charley Patton was the most influential artist musically (or the most copied). He was born in April 1891 in southern Mississippi and his family moved north to Will Dockeryís Plantation in 1900 where he fell under the influence of guitarist Henry Sloan. Sloan unfortunately never recorded but he was one of the very few first generation blues musicians of whom we have at least a name and judging from accounts of his playing, he was instrumental in developing the very rhythmic Delta style, drumming on the guitar and sometimes playing very long dance tunes.
The young Charley Patton followed Sloan about and was playing and writing his own songs including "Down The Dirt Road Blues", "Banty Rooster Blues" and what would be his biggest hit (and maybe the single most influential blues song?) "Pony Blues" by 1910. Patton was highly sought after as a performer and his fame spread far and wide long before his first recordings for Paramount in 1929.
Bo Carter is thought to have told H.C. Speir of Charley Patton's talent and Speir travelled to Dockery's to audition him. Patton recorded 68 titles between 1929 and his death from a heart ailment in 1934. It is hard to overstate the influence of these records, as well as the live appearances of Patton himself but his most famous proteges were Booker White, who was inspired to take up the guitar by seeing Patton play "I always wanted to be the second behind big ole Charley Patton...he was a great boy." and Howliní Wolf.
Howliní Wolf (Chester Burnett) moved to Dockeryís in 1926 where he learnt guitar from Patton and if youíve never heard Charley Pattonís music just listen to Howliní Wolf. His vocal style, timing, delivery and much of his repertoire all come from Charley Patton. Bob Dylan, who has written songs about Charley Patton, as well as making innumerable references to and quotes from his songs said - "If I made records for my own pleasure, I would only record Charley Patton songs."
Listening to Charley Pattonís records now, you can hear the blues forming as he plays - the songs are often quite different by the end than when they started. You imagine if he did another take he would start where he left of and it would develop into something different again. There is a great variation of styles in his playing but they all have a great fluidity - the guitar follows his voice wherever it goes regardless of timing or chord structure. Some people sing to their guitar and others play guitar to their singing - Patton was obviously the latter and actually tuned his guitar to his voice, often playing in F. All of these things add up to making his songs a unified "sound" - and this is perhaps the main reason he was so popular - heís just great to listen to!
Patton's singing style and accent, coupled with Paramount's recording practices have led to his lyrics being notoriously hard to decipher - but it's certainly worth the effort (there are quite a few websites with blues lyrics should you run into trouble...which you will!). He paints wonderful pictures with creative and sometimes funny similes and clever phrasings.
Another unique lyrical quirk is that he often sang about local events and individuals from the small towns he played in, many of whom have been historically identified but would not have been known to the wider record buying public. "Tom Rushen Blues" for example describes a run in Patton's friend "Holloway" had with Marshall Tom Day and Deputy Sheriff Tom Rushing. The real Tom Rushing remembered Patton years later and was extremely proud to be mentioned on the record, comparing Patton's achievements and importance to that of Jesse Owens.
Whilst his mention of local people and places is quaint and fascinating, it brings up the much more intriguing question of who he was writing for - how he saw the purpose of his music - did he see the local population as his ultimate audience, was he using local characters where his listeners could substitute their own local characters, did the songs just come out like that, or did he not think about it at all?
An interesting chapter has been added to Charley Patton's history with the discovery of the photo on the left. For the past eighty years the only known photo of Charley Patton was a heavily enlarged, newsprint, head and shoulders shot from a Paramount Records advertisement. This photo has been used on every CD reissue, blues book, website etc. until the original print was discovered in 2002 (the previously known photo was cropped from this one). The whole story (along with various merchandise pertaining to the photos) can be found here - but basically it was found in (or near) a dumpster, along with many other blues related photos and advertisements that had been cleared out from the newspaper office that originally printed Paramount's publicity material in Wisconsin.
H.C. Speir was one of the most important white men in blues history - he was directly responsible for bringing Charlie Patton, Skip James, Tommy Johnson, Ishmon Bracey, Bo Carter, the Mississippi Shieks, William Harris, Blind Joe Reynolds, Blind Roosevelt Graves, Robert Wilkins and many more to recording studios, as well as referring artists onto other A&R men and recording demos of artists like Robert Johnson.
He opened a furniture store in the black business district of Jackson in 1925. In those days you bought records from furniture stores because they sold the Victrolas, Gramaphones etc. - indeed even the Beatles recording career began through a furniture/record store and H.C. Speir was akin to a 1920's Mississippi Brian Epstein.
It's hard to imagine the totality of the wall between black and white society in those days but this is why people like Speir were so important - all the record companies were based in the North and had absolutely no idea how to go about recording black music - where to start, how to find artists, how to find them again for follow up recordings.
A white business man selling records to a 90% black customer base was exactly what they needed and we are fortunate that it was someone who obviously liked blues - there weren't really white blues fans back then because it wasn't really proper but Speir is known to have travelled to Dockery's on occasion just to hear Charley Patton and Willie Brown play.
Speir began working in 1926 as what he termed a "talent broker" for various companies. Record companies would pay him $150 for each artist they accepted from him. Paramount, particularly, had an almost blind faith in Speir's talent spotting and accepted anyone he recommended. For companies that required more than just his word, he bought recording equipment and made acetates of artists as well as for "vanity recordings" for the public - much like a Sam Phillips of the 1920's.
Speir would audition the artists, sometimes giving them advice on their performance and repertoire, pay their travel costs and expenses and send them off to the Grafton studio to make the records. As well as musical ability his main concern was the number of original songs the artist had. He would make sure the artist had at least four good songs or he wouldn't recommend them. Notably he recalled Tommy Johnson only having two songs when he auditioned. Speir was impressed with Johnson's talent though and encouraged him to come up with two more songs.
The huge success of Speir discoveries like Charley Patton, Bo Carter and Tommy Johnson meant that his name travelled far and wide as the man to see if you wanted to get on records. After his initial footwork the artists came to him - Robert Johnson being the most famous. Robert Johnson apparently recorded an acetate at Speir's store and was recommended to ARC salesman Emie Oertle (Speir didn't remember recording Robert Johnson but he was the only guy around with the recording equipment and Johnson is said to have made a demo).
In 1930 Paramount actually offered to sell the entire recording company to Speir for $25,000, which, though he travelled to Grafton to discuss the sale and met with the Chamber of Commerce in Jackson, he was unable to raise the funds. If he had a record company in Mississippi he said "I could have made a million dollars."
As well as selling Victrolas, 78's and furniture, Speir also stocked Stella and National guitars. Stella's were the guitar of choice for the entire blues world - it would be very hard to identify a blues artist that never played a Stella - it's hard to find anyone who played anything else! They were cheap ($9.95) but sturdy instruments which had a tone that was probably better suited to 1920's recording processes than modern guitars would have been - they're quite loud but they don't have as much bass (or treble!) as a modern guitar. National guitars were the other blues guitar - if you could afford one (starting at $32.50 all the way up to $195) they had a similar tone to the Stella's (in terms of frequency range at least) but were a much higher quality guitar, were very attention grabbing and REALLY loud!
Possibly the most famous blues player to use a National guitar was Son House (though Tampa Red was the first - I'll get to him later). I've put off writing about Son House for so long because I don't know how to do him justice - he just kind of is! He seems not to exist in a specific time or place - it seems like he was around before the blues came about and is still playing somewhere - probably to be re-discovered again before too long!
Born Eddie James House Jr. in Riverton near Clarksdale, Mississippi possibly in 1902 he worked on cotton farms and horse and cattle ranches in Mississippi and Louisiana while he aspired to be a Baptist preacher. There is some evidence that he was actually born much earlier, possibly in 1886 - though this would have made him an incredible (but not impossible?) 102 years old at his death in 1988 - either way he is certainly among the very longest lived blues men.
Son House personified the struggle between the blues and the church more than any other artist - he was vehemently opposed to the blues as a young Baptist preacher, but irresistibly attracted to it when he heard local bluesmen Willie Wilson, James McCoy and Rubin Lacey and he obviously struggled with the issue his whole life. His performances are undoubtedly the most powerful of any country blues artist - he looks and sounds like he's exorcising and/or summoning demons as he plays.
Early in his musical career he shot and killed a man in self defence at a house party and served two years in Parchman Farm. On his release it was suggested that he avoid the Clarksdale area so he fortuitously settled in Lula, where Charley Patton was working at the time. When Paramount asked Patton to bring some other artists with him on his June 1930 session, he brought Son House, Willie Brown and Louise Johnson. The resulting sessions are legendary, with generations of blues fans wishing they could have been there!
Very little is known of Willie Brown, he only recorded three songs (two of them at this session), there are no known photographs of him and the dates of his birth and death are unknown. Also unknown is whether he originated or perfected the particular riff that pops up in the playing of Son House, Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton and many others - he's variously described as an innovative genius or an inspired copyist of others - what is certain is that he was a highly skilled guitarist, more so technically than Patton (and probably House) and that he was a wonderful singer and great accompanist (he is also thought to be the Willie Brown mentioned in Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues"). There is also a theory that he is the same person as "Kid Bailey" who (I believe) only released one record - Rowdy Blues/Mississippi Bottom Blues. It's an excellent record and it certainly sounds a bit like Willie Brown.
Son House recorded seven sides during the 1930 sessions, six of which were two part songs (in other words he recorded four songs over seven sides - the odd side being a test recording). (He may have recorded as many as ten songs at this session but all we know is from what records have turned up so far and that includes only one copy of "Preaching Blues") They are probably the most emotionally intense recordings of the era (or any era) but they didn't sell well - possibly they were too intense - but if you had to sum up the Delta blues with any one song it could be any one of those records.
Son House and Willie brown continued to work together throughout the 1930's and 40's when Alan Lomax caught up with them in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi in August 1941. Joined on some tracks by Fiddlin' Joe Martin on mandolin and Leroy Williams on harmonica, Son House also recorded on his own. These recordings show his style as having relaxed a little in intensity since the 1930 sides, but becoming much more precise and his picking, timing and phrasing. Many people believe that if he was recorded between these times he would have been found at his peak but still, blues doesn't come much better than this!
Alan Lomax recorded him once more in Robinsonville, Mississippi on July 17th 1942 and these are exceptional recordings as well. Unfortunately Son House's early material is among the most difficult to track down, especially considering his talent and importance, but if you can find them, the seven Paramount sides and nineteen Lomax sides are an incredible body of work.Actually I would recommend JSP's Charley Patton box because it has all the Son House and Willie Brown sides plus Edith Johnson, Son Sims, The Delta Big Four etc. as well as all of Patton's known recordings. You have to get Son House's Paramount recordings on some kind of compilation because there were only seven songs and for some strange reason the Lomax sides are hard to find as well but can be had here or on a Travelin' Man CD (The Complete Library Of Congress Sessions 1941-1942, TM CD 02) which has the alternate takes as well - you can probably order it in somewhere but it's made in Bexhill-On-Sea in England (isn't that where the Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler came from?).
Son House is unique among the Charley Patton crowd in that he had already formed his style when he met Patton - he didn't form his style at Dockery's. Seemingly no one who met Charley Patton came away unchanged but Son House had the most distinctly separate style of any of Patton's contemporaries.
Blues researcher and photographer Dick Waterman discovered Son House in 1964 and encouraged his return to the music scene. Thankfully we now have film footage of Son House playing because he never lost the incredible intensity and power of his performances, although he lost some of the precision of his earlier guitar playing. Likewise the albums he recorded in 1965 are fantastic but should not be used alone to judge his worth as an artist because he was between 60 and 80 years old when he made them!
Son House's most famous disciples were Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, both of whom learnt Son's style and incorporated it virtually unchanged into their repertoires. In this way Son House can be seen to be the single most influential blues artist of all - much of the 1950's blues material was built on the framework of Son House's playing and repertoire.
I was going to leave Robert Johnson out of this history because I feel there is enough written about him elsewhere and I don't really feel he's as important to blues history as some other people do. Largely because his material was available on LP in the early 1960's, people such as Kieth Richards and Eric Clapton heard him and made comments like he was "the most important bluesman who ever lived" -which is an understandable statement from a young musician who profoundly loves the blues - but it is not an accurate statement from a historical point of view.
Robert Johnson was born on the 8th of May, 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and recorded 41 songs (including alternate takes) before (allegedly) being poisoned on the 13th of August, 1938, dying on the 16th. Stylistically he was a disciple of the Son House, Willie Brown, Charley Patton school - he particularly used to follow Son House around.
Robert Johnson was a great guitarist and a clever songwriter, but he arrived very late in the history of country blues. T-Bone Walker and other first generation electric players were already touring when Robert Johnson was recording. His main importance (besides just being great to listen to!) lies in the fact that he illustrates, more than anyone else, the final evolution of the country blues - a more steady beat, standardized chord patterns and concise, thought out lyrics.
What made me decide to include Robert Johnson (if somewhat briefly) here is the theory which I've proven to myself to be fact, that Robert Johnson's recordings were sped up by the record company, either accidentally (which is easy to explain if you understand the equipment of the time) or deliberately.
If you've ever experimented much with recording and playing with tape speeds you'll know that there is a very definite and specific tone associated with changes in speed. So pronounced is the effect that the Beatles applied it to almost the entire "Revolver" album when they discovered it. When you listen to Robert Johnson with this in mind you'll hear that many of the songs (not all) have that "Revolver-ish" quality and if you have the software (or a reel to reel or cassette player with a speed control) you can lower the songs by one or two semitones and hear for yourself.
It shouldn't be too surprising really because "78's" were often quite far from being actually 78rpm - some were in the high 60's up to the low 80's. It is also believed that some of Tommy Johnson's sides were too slow and there are commercially available CD's of his recordings available at various speeds. It just seems to be a more emotive issue with Robert Johnson, probably because of his high profile in pop culture.
If you listen to them slowed down a little you'll find the vibrato on his voice and guitar is more natural, the tone of both is more realistic and the keys, tempos and rhythms make more sense. Possibly it was felt that his songs were simply too slow, as the more sprightly Blind Boy Fuller and his ilk were very popular at the time.
I receive more emails about this topic than anything else as people are often quite offended by the theory - but I see more evidence that they were sped up than that they weren't. The most common arguments against this theory are that they wouldn't have sped up all his songs (I don't think they did) or that someone who knew his playing at the time would have noticed the difference - to which I would say - not that many people did know his playing at the time - he wasn't as well known then as Son House or Charley Patton - probably even than Willie Brown, and the eleven of his records that were released during his lifetime weren't really big sellers.
One person who did know him at the time was guitarist Johnny Temple, who had learnt his playing style from Robert Johnson. Blues researcher Gayle Wardlow played Temple one of Johnson's records and he said that the voice didn't sound like him but the guitar definitely was.
Does it really matter? It's really a whole topic in itself - the preservation of music - are we trying to achieve an accurate reproduction of the original record or the original performance? I think in Robert Johnson's case his records were immeasurably more influential than his live performances and people were influenced by the sped up versions - it is important however in placing Robert Johnson in relation to his musical peers - there's quite a difference in the style of singing and playing when you slow them down. Anyway, true or not it's another bizarre twist to the incredible story of the blues.
Most websites and many books talk more about the Crossroads legend than they do about Johnson's music so I just want to comment briefly on it so we can move on! The myth that Robert Johnson sold his soul at "the Crossroads" in return for musical virtuosity comes chiefly from two things. One is a comment made by Son House that Robert Johnson disappeared for a year and could play much better when he came back and the other is that he recorded a song called "Crossroads" - that's all.
As Robert Lockwood (a great guitarist and Robert Johnson's stepson) said, the song "Crossroads" is just about hitching a ride out of town, not selling your soul. Neither Robert Johnson nor anyone else alive at the time ever claimed he had tried to sell his soul. Tommy Johnson's brother LeDell however claims that Tommy (no relation to Robert) had sold his soul at the crossroads and it is probably this story coupled with some of Robert Johnson's spooky material, his early death and their same surnames that started it all.
It seems pretty irrelevant I know but it's good to attribute facts to the right places, even if they are secondhand accounts of a rumour of a superstitious practice! There is however some very interesting and enlightening facts about the crossroads legend - and various other blues related legends and beliefs here.
Someone who sounded even more like he must have sold his soul (and who undoubtedly influenced many others like Peetie Wheatstraw and Robert Johnson with his "I'd rather be the devil" themes), the eeriest, spookiest sounds ever made by man - was Skip James. Born Nehemiah Curtis James in 1902, he was raised on the Whitehead plantation near Bentonia, Mississippi and started playing guitar around 1917 (he also played violin and piano). Henry "Son" Stuckey, a childhood friend of James, taught him the open E minor tuning he had learnt in France during WWI. Such was Skip James' mastery of this tuning and the guitar in general, that open E minor (or D minor) is often described as "Bentonia tuning".
He auditioned for H.C. Spier in 1931 and was sent to Paramount's "knitting factory" in Grafton, Wisconsin where he recorded at least 18 songs (he remembered 26 but they haven't turned up). These songs are probably the most individualistic and original works of any blues artist. They seem to have no precedent nor any obvious influences but they are all masterpieces.
He was very aware that he was creating music to be held in awe by future generations - he once described his musical intentions were to "deaden the mind" of listeners! As well as his virtuosic guitar playing, he was undoubtedly the most unique blues pianist ever recorded. At first listen his frantic fills and runs can sound random, almost senseless, but as you listen you realize that his piano playing is as free flowing as Blind Willie Johnson's slide playing (or John Coltrane's sax playing!).
His approach to music making was more like that of a classical or jazz composer than a typical blues man in that it was very considered, almost calculating and very unified in theme and execution. The fact that he wasn't greatly appreciated at the time added to his already great sense of (understandable) resentment and bitterness towards human kind in general.
An example of his attitude was his reaction to the success of The Cream's version of "I'm So Glad" - he was resentful that a white group could make so much money out of his music, but he was also fatalistically proud that his version would be judged greater by history - "That piece is absolutely gonna stand..." and it has.
Skip James received a total of $40 for the 18 songs he recorded in 1931. This was the travel expenses money to get to and from the Grafton studios. He apparently received some royalties from The Cream's version of "I'm So Glad" but he didn't die a rich man in 1969 (apparently Skip James was given the alternative of a cash payment or a royalties agreement - and, supremely confident in his musical abilities, it is natural that he would choose the royalties - however even at the standard cash payment of $5 a side, he would have made a total of $90 for some of the greatest Western music ever recorded). He was "discovered" in 1964 in time to get a bit of recognition but already after he had begun to succumb to cancer.
While the worlds of blues and jazz were largely separate, there was a definite blues side to jazz and a definite jazz side to blues. It's very difficult to dissect music like this but it's kind of necessary - it is understood that we all draw these lines in slightly different places though. The jazzy side of blues is often described as urban blues but if we dissect even further there was also a sort of country side to the urban blues.
Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy typify this blend between country and urban blues. Tampa red was born Hudson Woodbridge in Smithville Georgia in 1900 or 1903. He was orphaned as a child and brought up by his grandparents in Tampa, Florida. By the 1920's he had moved to Chicago and had developed a style of extremely precise slide playing, certainly the cleanest and technically accomplished slide playing of any country blues.
In 1928 he had a huge hit with the slightly bawdy "It's Tight Like That" - his own lyrics with a tune supplied by "Georgia" Tom Dorsey. Dorsey, an accomplished pianist and composer had been Ma Rainey's bandleader, was contemplating entering the world of sacred music when Tampa Red approached him to put music to his "little song".
If you haven't heard it it's more cheeky than obscene and it's an insanely catchy tune which was copied and adapted by everyone - Big Joe Williams (probably the most widely travelled country blues artist!) said "'Tight Like That' went just about to the four corners of the United States. Went through both races, white and black. You'd hear little kids mumblin' it everywhere you went." Barbecue Bob's "Diddle-Da-Diddle" and Blind Boy Fuller's "Step It Up And Go" are good examples of "It's Tight Like That" descendants.
The song made Tampa Red and Georgia Tom $2400, which was more than enough to postpone Dorsey's sacred career for the next few years - he would go on (as Thomas A. Dorsey) to invent "Gospel" music, writing such beautiful pieces as "Take My Hand, Precious Lord", which Aretha Franklin sang at Martin Luther King Jnr's funeral.
Tampa Red was the first person to record blues on a National guitar and his use of the instrument was central to his style. Unlike his country contemporaries he mostly played single note melodies, with sparse accompanying bass notes. For some reason (and thankfully for us), his 1920's recordings are amongst the clearest and best recorded songs of the era - anyone would be happy to have a tone like that now, there is also a lot more bass than many contemporary recordings.
His clean picking technique and use of the National guitar were a winning combination, earning him the title "The Guitar Wizard". His other description as "The Man with the Gold Guitar" led to a long running belief that his Style 4 Tricone was actually gold plated - I very thankfully received an email from a visitor to the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle where Tampa Red's guitar currently resides and am assured that as gorgeous as it is it is not gold plated. (I've found a photo of it now on my National info page.)
Tampa Red's influence on blues history went far beyond the string of bawdy "Hokum" hits that followed throughout the 1920's. As one of the first to embrace the National guitar, he also leaped at the next new innovation, recording some of the first electric blues in the late 1930's. His electric style, as well as his band format and many of his songs formed the immediate basis for the electric Chicago blues.
Robert Nighthawk was his most direct musical heir, performing Tampa Red's "Cryin' Won't Help You" and "Black Angel Blues" (renamed "Sweet Little Angel" it was also a signature tune for B.B. King) and "Anna Lou Blues" renamed as Nighthawk's "Anna Lee".Other famous covers were Freddy King's version of "Love With A Feeling" and Elmore James' version of "It Hurts Me Too" - all virtually unchanged from Tampa Red's originals.
As well as setting the musical scene for what came to be known simply as "Chicago blues", he also fostered and encouraged the younger crowd of musicians, financially assisted by A&R man Lester Melrose, as Willie Dixon said "Tampa Red's house was a madhouse with old-time musicians. Lester Melrose would be drinking all the time and Tampa Red's wife would be cooking chicken and we'd be having a ball." In the 1920's and 30's he was really the "King of the Blues" and any of his recordings are well worth checking out.
Unfortunately though, the heavy drinking, party lifestyle that Tampa Red (and most of his contemporaries) was famous for caused him major health problems later in life. He recorded two albums for Prestige in 1960 and apparently died in 1981. Biographies of Tampa Red usually gloss over the last thirty years of his life and I don't know how how ill he was during this time but it seems a great tragedy that such a great and influential artist lived so long with so little recognition - I have never read an interview with him or seen any film of him - it seems to have taken blues fans a long time to come to terms with the "hokum" style and to accept that kazoo solos are a legitimate part of blues history too!
Because of the extreme variation of blues styles that existed in the early 20th century it is necessary to make broad generalizations. Every city (even small towns) had their own distinctive style, often because of the influence of one great player. Charley Patton at Dockery's, Tommy Johnson in Jackson, Blind Boy Fuller in Durham etc.
But because of this huge variation, and indeed each players individuality, I'm massively simplifying this history by differentiating simply between the "Delta style" and the "Piedmont style". It's a massive generalization I know but you could say these were the two basic styles of blues, with different shades and blends in between. If you look at it this way the Texas blues tradition is kind of musically in between the Delta style and the Piedmont style (though I'm not implying that it's any more derivative than any other style). You just have to bear in mind that, within these styles, there were many smaller sub-groups and spheres of influence, not all of which I am going to go into.
The Piedmont style is so unique and different to the Texas and Delta styles that you could define blues styles as being "Piedmont" or "other". Also often called the East Coast style, it is typified by artists such as Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Barbecue Bob (aka Robert Hicks). The Piedmont style is sometimes described as being more "white" sounding than the Delta style but this is now believed to be because so many white artists were influenced by it rather than the other way around (because of the "less segregated" environment there was more mixing of influences than in the Deep South).
It is believed that the Piedmont style developed later than the Delta style and consequently has more of the pre-blues influence in it such as the folk and ragtime aspects, also that it was recorded earlier in itís development so it had less time to standardise than the Delta style had.
It's tempting to think of the blues starting out primitive and simple and getting more complex later, but in some respects the reverse was true. It seems the earlier styles of reels, jigs and breakdowns had more rhythm changes and chords in them than the later style, typified by the Mississippi Delta blues. A typical Piedmont chord progression is the eight bar blues, found in songs like "Crow Jane", "In The Evening" and "Key To The Highway" (I,V,IV,IV,I,V,I,I for the musical people).
There is a great emphasis on instrumental virtuosity in the Piedmont style which is most evident in the playing of Blind Blake and Gary Davis. Blind Blake was probably the most virtuosic guitarist of the pre-war era and was also one of the earliest to record. His music typifies the Piedmont style in that it all seems quite jaunty and humorous - he does a fantastic tuneful laugh in many of his songs which is one of the most joyful sounds from any genre.
Many of his songs are based on "ragtime" chord progressions with wonderful, syncopated bass lines (which led to his publicity moniker "the man with the piano sounding guitar" which is wonderfully apt). He could really be described as the Django Reinhardt of the country blues.
It is believed that Blind Blake was born Arthur Blake (or Phelps?) in or near Jacksonville, Florida in around 1890. That much at least comes from Paramount Records publicity so itís probably not much better than a guess.
It has been argued that he may have been born or raised in the Georgia South Sea Islands because of his excellent rendition of a "geechee" accent on "Southern Rag", but he could have just been good at accents!
All that is really known of his life is from the accounts of other musicians and party goers in Atlanta and Chicago in the 1920s. We know that he drank a lot, fought over card games (a blind man!) and held raucous parties in his Chicago apartment. There were sightings of him in Charleston, West Virginia, Savannah, Atlanta and New York City.
Like his birth there is no actual evidence of his death but it is assumed that it was sometime shortly after 1932 (his last recording session) because, although Paramount Records folded in 1933, Blake was of such a high standard and popularity that he surely would have been signed by another label had he been around. It is mostly said he died by accident, some say he was murdered and others confuse his death with Blind Lemon Jefferson's. Big Bill Broonzy said he was so fat he couldn't get up when he fell and he froze to death in the snow (Big Bill was a colourful storyteller and here again he may have been thinking of Blind Lemon Jefferson who was fat and did freeze to death...)
There has been some suggestion that the quality of his work lessened from 1930 onwards as possible evidence of an illness but I think the change is more a stylistic one in line with other artists of the era - the music was getting simpler and losing it's ragtime and other early influences as more musicians learnt from records rather than from elders. There was a big difference between hundreds of musicians copying the same hit record or someone learning from their father or uncle or older sibling. Blind Blake's later work sounds to me like he was moving with the times rather than deteriorating.
His last session in June 1932 however is very unusual in that many people have suggested the first of the two songs recorded was not Blind Blake and that he was replaced due to bad health. It is often used as the final proof of the slow decline, long illness theory of his death. Why he should record one song after his substitute's recording is hard to explain - if he was unwell why didn't he record first and see how far he got?
I've listened to those two songs many times and believe that they are both the same person - and if it is Blind Blake then he definitely sounds terminally ill. The playing is very plain, often with simple strumming replacing the intricate fills typical of Blake and there are a number of obvious mistakes of the kind Blake would not normally have made.
It does sound like his guitar though - maybe he had died in the eight months since his previous session (in October 1931, which is very definitely him despite the somewhat dreary material) and a substitute musician recorded with his guitar? Maybe it's just another common Stella guitar. Also the voice is unlike Blake's but similar enough to suggest someone imitating him. My personal theory is that it is a healthy person with nowhere near Blake's talent imitating him - it doesn't sound like a great master guitarist in poor health. I could be wrong though!
Big Bill Broonzy said of Blind Blake -
"Blake was the best guitar picker on records. Well he took my guitar - my little dollar and a half guitar that I had at the time - and he set down and began to show me what a guitar could do. He made it sound like every instrument in the band - saxophone, trombone, clarinets, bass fiddles, pianos - everything. I never had seed then and I haven't to this day yet seed no one that could take his natural fingers and pick as much guitar as Blind Blake. He could make a guitar just speak the blues!"
The Reverend Blind Gary Davis, himself one of the Piedmont's greatest guitarists said of Blake -
"I ain't never heard anybody on a record yet beat Blind Blake on the guitar. I like Blake because he plays right sporty."
The Piedmont "gang" were an even closer knit community of musicians than their Delta counterparts, maybe because there were fewer of them, often playing on each others records and referring each other to their record companies.
Robert Hicks - aka Barbecue Bob - was a great singer and twelve string guitarist who recorded 68 sides between 1927 and his premature death from pneumonia (or "consumption") in 1931.
He was born in 1902 in Walnut Grove, Georgia about 50kms east of Atlanta. Sometime during the First World War he learnt the guitar from his elder brother Charley Hicks (or Charlie Lincoln) - who had learnt from Curley Weaver's mother Savannah "Dip" Weaver.
Curley Weaver's style had less in common with his mother's than the Hicks brothers did. Savannah Weaver must have been a fascinating individual - not only for the rarity of female blues guitarists - but for the eccentric and catchy style of playing displayed by the Hicks brothers.
Barbecue Bob had a deep clear voice, catchy, witty songs and a quirky, rhythmic guitar playing. His songs often have only one or two chords with a persistent, sometimes almost manic rhythm and quite often humorous and original lyrics.
He also recorded some of the greatest of all country blues combo numbers as the "Georgia Cotton Pickers" with Curley Weaver on second guitar and Buddy Moss on harmonica.
Despite the relative simplicity of his style, his songs are remarkable for their differences - he changes his whole playing style to suit the material - much like Blind Lemon Jefferson. One of his unique (amongst Piedmont artists) techniques was to snap the bass strings - much like the Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Son House school - but interestingly he must have removed the extra bass strings from his (12 string) guitar to facilitate this because you (seem to) only hear one string snap along with the double-stringed melodies.
Although his guitar playing had very little in common with the Piedmont greats like Blind Blake, Gary Davis or Blind Boy Fuller and his direct influence is hard to trace in that he didn't leave any copyists - the mood of his music is distinctly Georgian - catchy, quirky and easy to listen to.
Incidentally the use of the 12 string guitar in blues is almost universally a Piedmont practice (besides Leadbelly) - and I honestly don't know why! There are even photos of unknown East Coast blues artists playing 12 string guitars so it wasn't just Barbecue Bob and Blind Willie MacTell.
"Blind" Willie MacTell was one of the most distinctive, intriguing and endearing Piedmont artists. It is believed he was born in 1901, possibly on the fifth of May in Thomson, Georgia and attended schools for the blind in Macon, Georgia and New York. He was a very good at finding work, shrewd, confident and self-assured which is probably what kept him in and out of studios most of his life - even though he never had a hit!
Usually a record company would only re-record someone if their first record sold well - but somehow Blind Willie McTell managed to work for Victor, Columbia, Okeh, Vocalion and Decca. When he was recorded by John Lomax for the Library Of Congress on the fifth of November 1940 - he sounds, in both the songs and the interviews, like a guy who knows exactly how he wants to come across. He is respectful, polite and diplomatic but confident and assured of his answers and his performances.
He makes it very clear that he won't be drawn by Lomax on issues of racial tension - he says between the lines that he knows exactly what is meant by the question but he isn't going to answer it to a government official on record. And John Lomax knows he knows! It's a great meeting of two great minds.
He always played a twelve string guitar, but with an intricate, six string style - it sounds quite like a piano in his phrasing and technique - and he sang in a high, clear voice that would have endeared him to record engineers of the day. He was friends with Blind Willie Johnson, with whom he shares a very precise and tuneful slide technique with a heavy, fast vibrato.
It is believed he died in August 1959 (tragically close to the "blues revival" of the 1960's), either from a brain hemorrhage, after working three years as a preacher or having drunk himself to death from grief at the death of his partner Helen Edwards in 1958.
Probably the most famous and successful Piedmont artist of the 1930s was Blind Boy Fuller. Born Fulton Allen in North Carolina in 1907, he was forced to take up music for a living later in life due to his failing eyesight. He came under the influence of Reverend Gary Davis but quickly developed his own unique style.
His recording career began with his meeting James Baxter Long, the most important white man in the history of Piedmont blues. As manager of the United Dollar Store in Durham, North Carolina he became interested in black music when black farmers would sing him blues songs expecting him to recognize them so they could buy the record.
In listening to a lot of blues records so he could sell them better, he gained a genuine liking for the music and began to keep an ear out for local talent. When he came across Fulton Allen, he offered to manage him, suggesting he adopt "Blind Boy Fuller" as a pseudonym and organised a recording session with ARC in New York.
His biggest hit was "Step It Up And Go" which was to the 1930's what Tampa Red's "It's Tight Like That" was to the 1920's. Even into the 1960's every country blues artist had "Step It Up And Go" in their repertoire.
Fuller's songs are catchy and "hummable" and his guitar playing has come to be synonymous with the Piedmont style with nice chord phrasing, steady timing and a "jaunty" rhythm. This made him a big seller, eventually recording 130 titles before his untimely death in 1941 at 33 years of age (of a probably treatable kidney infection). (Possibly) unlike Blind Blake there are definite signs of his illness on his last recordings, his playing is less energetic and his voice sounds very strained - they are quite distressing to listen to really, very much like Big Bill Broonzy's last recordings where he coughs horribly before some of the songs, three months before he died of throat cancer.
On many of Blind Boy Fuller's recordings he was accompanied by Sonny Terry on harmonica. Born Saunders Terrell in North Carolina in 1911, he lost most of his eyesight in two accidents at ages five and eighteen and became the most virtuosic of all the country blues harmonica players. To this day no one has been able to fully emulate his technique, typified by alternating falsetto singing lines with notes on the harmonica, creating the illusion of at least two sounds at once.
With the death of Blind Boy Fuller, J.B. Long looked to Brownie McGhee as a replacement. Walter Brown McGhee was born in Tennessee in 1915 and he and his brother Granville "Stick" McGhee learnt guitar from their father. As is often the case, Brownie McGheeís phenomenal success in the 1960ís caused many historians to underrate his actual musical ability.There's an excellent article about him here and I'm working on a separate Brownie McGhee page which will be up soon.
Brownie McGhee was a great guitarist (one of my favourites) and a great singer, his voice often quite reminiscent of Ray Charles, but he has often been misunderstood. J.B. Long booked him because of his (superficial) similarity to Blind Boy Fullerís style and billed him on record as "Blind Boy Fuller #2". As Brownie said, "I had to fight this down for years." - heís still often described as derivative of Fuller but I donít think the similarities are that great and Brownie explains -
"Then I met Blind Boy Fuller and Sonny Terry, and we became friendly. Blind Boy told me, "Man, you can sing, but you sure canít play the guitar." It wasnít very encouraging to a young upstart like me when I found out he had records out and everybody was trying to play like him. I never had the impression that I played like him or sounded like him. Everybody thought so, but I had never heard any of his records Ďtil I met him. Where I was from, Blind Lemon and Lonnie Johnson and Tampa Red was the big sellers. Blind Boy Fuller hadnít caught on, and his records just didnít get into Tennessee that easy."
Many people have criticized J.B. Long for exploiting artists and for getting overly involved in molding and managing artists careers, he's often given songwriting credits on his artists material for example, but Brownie McGhee said -
The man who picked me up was J.B. Long. A lot of people give J.B. Long a hard time, but I don't give J.B. Long a hard time. I thought he was a marvelous fellow. He may not have given me every dime I was supposed to get, but how much did I know I was supposed to get? He saw some talent, he saw some quality involved and he used his ingenuity to get me on record, so automatically I owe him a vote of thanks for gettin' Brownie McGhee alive. Long made it possible for me to get on records, so what little money he did take from me, if any at all, he was entitled to it. He didn't take something from me. He made it possible for me to get something for myself if I was intelligent enough to go on and do it and not stop and sit down. And that's what I mean: Anybody blazes a path to a highway that never end, you should appreciate 'em some.
That highway was probably the longest and almost certainly the most profitable country blues career of all. Brownie recorded with Sonny Terry until his death in 1983 and was still playing occasionally up until his death on February 16th, 1996.
Even before the first commercial recordings of blues in the 1920's there began a long history of "field recordings" for non commercial purposes. They provide the greatest insights and some of the most fascinating stories in all of music history.
The obvious advantage of the field recording over the commercial recording is that it is made by someone who cares about the music - for whatever reason - they want to get the details right, record it properly, give proper writers credit etc. The various field recordists obviously had their particular biases which have to be born in mind, particularly in their choice of material, how they asked the artists for particular types of song etc.
But the greatest advantage to modern listeners is that they tried to put the artists at ease before the recordings - something commercial record companies didn't consider except to the extent of supplying whiskey for the sessions (Paramount recording engineer Harry Charles said - "I give 'em all whiskey: straight rye, straight bourbon. They were all cowards, you know...We had one woman outta St. Louis, and had her so drunk we had to put up a frame in fronta the mike for her to hold on to.").
Possibly the first field recordings of black music were made by sociologist Howard W. Odum before 1920. The focus of the early field recordings was to trace the origin and evolution of various folk songs in an attempt to prove that there was an "American folk song" rather than merely inherited European songs. Because of this intention, the primary focus was on the lyrics so the acoustic cylinder recorder was used more as a dictation aid than a means to preserve the actual audio. Therefore the actual recordings Odum made haven't survived but he started a trend which led to some of the most important and beautiful blues recordings of all.
Lawrence Gellert amassed a huge collection of recordings which he saw as a way (probably the only way at the time) to record feelings and attitudes towards racial injustice in the South. His recordings are unique because there is a surprising absence of this type of material in commercial recordings.
But the great importance of Gellert's work is that he collected together all the protest and social commentary songs he could find because music has the ability to comment on something you might get lynched for saying in actual words. He also documented the way in which commercial recordings were re-worked to fit a social commentary lyric, thus depicting the continuing oral tradition of the blues.
Another early field recordist was Robert W. Gordon who ran the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress from 1928 until 1933, when John A. Lomax came on the scene. John Lomax was arguably the single most important person in the documentation of the blues - certainly the most important and prolific field recordist.
John Avery Lomax was born in Goodman, Mississippi, on September 23, 1867 and grew up on his family's farm on the border of Texas where he developed an early interest in cowboy songs, writing them down in notebooks even as a child.
After spending several years teaching English Literature he co-founded the Texas Folklore Society with Professor Leonidas Payne of the University Of Texas and continued his collecting of cowboy songs. I'll put up some links to more complete biographies soon because his life story is too interesting to gloss over here.
In brief he made an arrangement with the Library of Congress that they would supply recording equipment and materials in exchange for his efforts in locating and recording folksongs from all over the country eventually running to over ten thousand recordings! Most (all?) of which are still available on CD (the Library of Congress only lent their name to his efforts and supplied the discs and recorder - the actual costs of the trips he had to fund himself).
It must be remembered that, at that time, country blues was a contemporary, commercial music and was generally avoided by field recordists, who felt (probably quite rightly) that you could buy enough commercial blues recordings but other song forms were dying out. It would have been hard to predict how fast blues would evolve and how soon the country blues would almost disappear.
Bearing in mind that the blues was not the target of these recording trips, a great many blues songs were recorded as well as folksongs, worksongs, hollers and spirituals often performed by great blues artists. There is often a misconception that these different styles were performed by different types of artist but many blues artists from the time would agree that "blues songs" made up a third, a quarter or less of their repertoire.
Of the commercially recorded blues artists, maybe much of their blues repertoire was recorded, the commercial companies skipping over their folk songs, cowboy songs, reels, jigs and hillbilly tunes. For example Robert Johnson (the archetypal "Bluesman") counted "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby", "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "My Blue Heaven" in his live repertoire.
John Lomax realised that prisons were a great fund of folksong material for many reasons. For one thing you had hundreds of people within easy reach, rather than dotted over the countryside, also that the poorer classes were more reliant on folksongs and singing for entertainment, and musicians were more likely to go to jail owing to the rowdy places they frequented in their line of work - and most importantly there were people in the prison farms who had not been exposed to popular culture for decades and were cultural time capsules (luckily for us but tragically for them). Also the prison farms were one of the only places, by the 1930's, where cotton was picked and land was cleared and planted by hand so that some of the ancient field hollers and work songs survived even into the 1970's.
John Lomax's most famous discovery was Leadbelly, recorded in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1933. Leadbelly was one of the most colourful characters of the blues and his life story is enough to make your hair go as white as his did! Heaps of excellent information can be found here.
On Leadbelly's release from this particular sentence, Alan Lomax employed him, somewhat cautiously (Leadbelly was a very big man with a temper, vicious scars and numerous convictions for murder, assault and "murder and assault to kill"!) but successfully as his assistant on his song collecting trips.
Leadbelly became a hit in New York where he became associated with the left wing folk movement. He claimed a repertoire of over 500 songs - he certainly recorded more than 500 songs (I haven't been able to add them all up yet!) but some were different takes or versions of the same song.
Before his death (of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, then known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) in December 1949, he starred in films, radio shows, books and was also the first country blues artist to tour overseas, travelling to France in 1949.
Leadbelly suffers from the same typecasting as Brownie McGhee and Big Bill Broonzy, in that his success with white folk music music fans has damaged his credibility as an "authentic" or important blues man. Obviously Leadbelly was not a typical blues man - the blues formed a small part of his repertoire - but his greatest importance lies in the fact that he was one of the most documented musicians who learnt and were playing professionally before the widespread popularity of the blues - blues was one of the types of songs that a musician would play - not the full time occupation or calling that it later became.
It could also be argued that Leadbelly's extensive prison time isolated him from the current trends in music and gave him access to even more of the pre-blues songs from the other inmates. Leadbelly obviously had an uncontrollable temper but when you look into some of the cases that put him into prison there are some telling facts. For example, the event which put him in the prison where he met Lomax, while still shrouded in mystery and contradiction seems to have been this;
Leadbelly, possibly intoxicated to some degree or other, began tapping his feet (or possibly dancing) at a Salvation Army band recital - this was thought improper by a group of white men who told him to move on - he moved on but kept dancing, upon which the group attacked him, resulting in one Dick Ellet being slashed on the arm with Leadbelly's pocket knife.
Dick Ellet was described several times by Sheriff Tom Hughes as "a splendid white citizen of Mooringsport" and so the cut on the arm became a "murderous attack" and the merry Leadbelly became a "drunk-crazed negro" in the local papers and after a serious attempt at a lynching, the charges were that "Huddie Ledbetter in and upon Dick Ellet feloniously did make an assault, with the intent, then and there, him, the said Dick Ellet, wilfully, feloniously, and of his malice aforethought to kill and murder."(?!) - and the sentence "hard labour, for a period of not less than six years nor more than ten years..." - which we can all see is a ridiculous penalty for what could either be described as a drunken brawl or an attempt to defend himself against a racist attack.
As well as recording songs, John Lomax was an excellent interviewer. He sounds hesitant, almost bumbling on some of the recordings but as you listen you realise that he uses that impression to draw more information from his usually hesitant subjects. For an African American musician, talking to a government official in the 1930's was a matter for great caution and discretion - talking on record even more so.
A wonderful example of his interviewing technique comes from a session he recorded of Blind Willie McTell in Atlanta in 1940. He pushes the point a little but accepts McTell's obviously self-censored answers as the truth - he pushes to a point and then moves on, making the point he wanted without either of them having to actually say it.
(I've just transcribed this from the record - the question marks are just where I'm not entirely sure of the exact words.) It's hard to read between the lines on paper without hearing it but it's a wonderful interview and it's obvious that they both enjoyed the sessions - they are my favourite of all Blind Willie McTell's recordings.
Other great blues recorded by John Lomax include Booker White's "Sic 'Em Dogs On" and "Po' Boy" recorded in 1939 at Ramsey State Farm in Otey, Texas. Booker T. Washington White, also known as Washington "Barrelhouse" White or Bukka White had made successful commercial recordings before this time beginning with four sides for Victor in 1930. In 1937 he had a sizable hit on Vocalion with "Shake 'Em On Down/Pinebluff, Arkansas" before being jailed later that year.
Because he had made commercial recordings (for which he was paid $240 and a new National guitar) he only agreed to cut those two non-commercial sides for John Lomax. After his release in 1940 he recorded 12 more songs for Vocalion who had eagerly awaited his return, even trying to secure him an early release because his first record did so well.
The recording sessions that followed on the 7th and 8th of May 1940 are amongst the most legendary achievements of music history. On hearing his repertoire, Lester Melrose gave him two days to come up with something more original and Booker White took him at his word.
There is probably no more original body of work in the whole of the blues (except for Skip James). They are some of the most poignant, evocative, lucid, insightful and poetic of any blues songs - certainly more lyrically eloquent than almost any other. And the rhythm and format of the songs match the lyrics so perfectly it sounds like he'd been working on them his whole life instead of two days and nights!
Booker White described Lester Melrose's reaction -
"I never had a man, black or white, kiss me dead on the mouth before; but that's what he done. He say 'Lord, man, you done 100 percent. I've been on this job thirty-five years and I never seen a man do what you done in two days.' He said, 'Just how the hell did you get it? Where did it come from? When you came up here before, you had what all the other folks had. You was doin' Peetie Wheatstraw and Tampa Red and all the others. But this stuff is Booker White all the way!"
One of the songs recorded on the 8th of March 1940 was "Aberdeen Mississippi Blues", which led to his "re-discovery" in 1963. John Fahey sent a letter to "Bukka White, Old Blues Singer, General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi", which was received with some surprise and began another highly successful music career, touring the world and making wonderful albums.
Of all the blues "re-discoveries" of the 1960's, Booker White retained his early skills the best - his voice was rougher and more gravelly but he still played with the amazing force and sensitivity he had in 1940. He also recorded wonderful monologues between songs for Arhoolie in which he describes his childhood and his admiration for Charley Patton -
"In fact, to tell you the truth the first drink of whiskey I ever drink, Charley Patton give me a little, in a spoon, said 'You're too young to drink too much whiskey, but I'm gonna give you enough to know what it's about!' And I still think about that, I wish I'd asked him to give me the spoon!"
John Lomax's family accompanied him on many of these trips and his son Alan possibly influenced the course of popular music history more than any other single person. On the field trips with his father, Alan at a very young age gained a great love of the blues and he became one of the first people to study and document the origins of the blues in it's own right, rather than incidentally in the search for folk songs.
Alan Lomax's "The Land Where The Blues Began" is essential reading for anyone who likes music. It is the story of his various field trips throughout the South but it's not just a dry history - his enthusiasm and love of the music and people draws you into the world of the blues - it's one of those books you could read in a whole sitting because you can't put it down.
He's another one of those people who did so much in his 60 years of "song hunting" that I would do him a great disservice to try to outline it all here, but alan-lomax.com has got loads of great information on him and links to more.
Some of the most beautiful blues ever recorded were never seen as being "blues" at all but are variously described as spirituals, holy or sacred songs - this was some time before gospel came about. To all musical purposes the sacred songs recorded by Charley Patton, Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie MacTell and almost every other blues artist are "blues" - it could be said that the only difference is the chord changes (most of the time) and the melodies.
The influence of the church in the course of blues history should never be underestimated - almost every blues artist was taught to play sacred songs first, many tell of having to sneak off to play blues or being told they could learn the guitar if they only played spirituals. Many blues artists also retired from the blues to become preachers later in life - or switched back and forth between the two professions.
The Christian message, especially put across in a less formal style by the new "Holiness" and pentecostal churches, and by the various "Awakenings" that swept America, had an obvious appeal to slaves and the generations of ex-slaves. There was an obvious affinity with the slaves of Egypt or Babylon and the thought that God would set them free was comfort to many people. During the slavery days there was a strong connection between the Canaan of the Old Testament and Canada - the earthly promised land for escaped slaves. At many times in history the church was the only place were black people were able to (or were allowed to) gather in any numbers and it became the most important institution in social life.
Because of the almost impenetrable social divide between sacred and secular songs, many of the early bluesmen released sacred songs under assumed names. Record companies would often release a sacred song first and if it sold well they might try a blues under the artists real name. Charley Patton was "Elder J.J. Hadley" and Blind Lemon Jefferson was "Deacon L. J. Bates".
It could be said that every blues artist had sacred songs in their repertoire but there were also artists who played very much in the blues style (in every way except the lyrics) but who were strictly (or mostly) religious artists. Reverend Gary Davis was one who, though he recorded some fantastic Piedmont blues, was primarily a sacred artist and Blind Willie Johnson never recorded a secular song - nor is there any evidence he ever knew any.
Blind Willie Johnson must have been born around the turn of the century and his life was perhaps one of the saddest in blues history, especially considering his monstrous talents, he really should have received some kind of earthly rewards. His mother died when he was a baby and his father remarried. When his father found out about his new wife's affair he beat her and in revenge for the beating, she threw lye in seven year old Willie's face, permanently blinding him.
The rest of his life was spent singing spirituals on the streets for a living. He recorded 30 songs for Columbia between 1927 and 1930, his first records became Columbia's biggest selling "race" records, his last trickling out during the Depression. He died in the late 1940's of pneumonia, brought on by the leaky shack he and his wife lived in - he was apparently refused treatment at the local hospital. A sad end to a sad tale is that a con-man offering to make enlarged and retouched copies of old photos for five dollars stole the only copy of his wife's only photo of him in the mid 1950's. The little that we do know of his life comes from the researches of Sam Charters, without whom many more blues artists would have vanished in history.
The only photo we have of Blind Willie Johnson is a massively enlarged newsprint copy from a Columbia advertisement in the Chicago Defender - the cup he used for busking can be clearly seen wired to the headstock.
Blind Willie Johnson's music really defies written description, you just have to hear it. It is the most intense, powerful, terrifying sound I think any one person has ever made! He sang in what is often described as a "false bass", his growling, un-earthly tones sound lower than they actually are. Some people have commented that his style has many African influences and that his vocal techniques are similar to African voice disguises. Many African religious ceremonies required masked participants to disguise their voices to portray gods or spirits - this is also the origin of the kazoo - many of those big wooden masks had kazoos built into them!
He was also one of the greatest ever slide players and frequently used the technique of letting his slide finish vocal lines for him - the listeners generally knew the words to the hymns already and he would let the slide sing parts of the tune. This was quite common and has been linked to African talking instruments as well - I don't know how relevant these sort of links are but there is certainly no European precedent for these unfinished verses.
His most startling tune takes this technique to extremes in that all the lines are sung by the slide - but it's not really an "instrumental" either. "Dark Was The Night - Cold Was The Ground" is an incredible tune that has no precedent at all - it is impossible to classify it in any genre because there isn't anything else you could remotely compare it to. The hymn was so well known that it's full title ("Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground On Which Our Lord Was Laid") didn't need to be printed and Blind Willie Johnson allowed his guitar to fill in all the words for him. He accompanies his slide with hums, moans and groans that can not fail to make your hair stand on end.
It is a sort of trance like sound painting of pure sadness and despair which is neither strictly blues, gospel, folk or any other kind of human music. So unique and powerful is this recording that it has been sent on the Voyagers 1 and 2 and is now the furthest man made object from Earth - with the company of Bach, Mozart and Chuck Berry, "Dark Was The Night" was included for the listening pleasure of extra terrestrials to give them an idea of what humans are like. If they base their findings on "Dark Was The Night" I think they'll find us something of a disappointment in the flesh!
Another great blues artist who only played sacred music, but in a definite blues style, was Washington Phillips. Born (probably) in 1880 in Texas, very little is known of his life - in fact much of what is printed about him in liner notes, books and websites is actually a different Washington Phillips who died of tuberculosis in 1938. The "real" Washington Phillips died in 1954 (aged 74) from head injuries from falling down stairs.
He recorded 16 sides for Columbia Records between 1927 and 1929 and apparently spent most of his life either farming or as an itinerant preacher. I know I keep describing all these people as unique but Washington Phillips is undoubtedly in that category in a number of ways. Not least of which is the instrument he played. A Columbia Records executive told author Paul Oliver that the instrument was a "Dolceola". This instrument, often mis-spelled "Dulceola" was manufactured in the early 1900's by the Toledo Symphony Manufacturing Company of Toledo, Ohio and although it is not known how many were made, at least twenty six are known to exist now. They are based on the zither but have a tiny piano-like keyboard and action - they could be said to be a miniature grand piano rather than a zither.
It is not known where the Columbia executive got the name "Dolceola" from but I'm willing to bet my life that Washington Phillips didn't record with one! The Dolceola worked exactly like a piano, in that each string had a damper which stopped the note ringing when the key was released and even with tiny fingers (which judging by his photo, Phillips didn't have) it would be impossible to play the fast runs and many ringing notes that typify Phillips' recordings.
He often played runs that had more than ten notes ringing at once, immediately ruling out the Dolceola and the tone has a definite picking (rather than striking) sound to it. A great deal of debate and fascinating research has been done on this subject and can be found here and here - but to my mind he definitely played either one very uniquely tuned and strung zither or possibly two - one for accompaniment and one for melody. In fact the only argument for his use of the Dolceola is that one person said he played one (Incidentally there are later blues recordings that definitely do feature the Dolceola - session pianist Paul Howard played one on Leadbelly's 1944 Hollywood sessions as well as on recordings with Tennessee Ernie Ford - although this is also often described as a German Zither?!).
Does it matter? Well, yes it does because people (presumably non musicians) keep quoting he played a Dolceola which implies that he was a piano player simply playing a novelty piano but there's very much more to his music than that. The harmonies and octave runs that he does would be extremely complex to play on a full size piano and certainly impossible on a Dolceola and I think he deserves more credit for the ingenuity and creativity of modifying an existing instrument(s) to create incredibly beautiful music with no precedent.
Of the music itself, his accompaniment is a beautifully complex, music box type sound, almost harpsichord-like and his singing is wonderfully gentle and emotional. The songs are quite dreamy and lullaby-ish, sometimes humorous - Denomination Blues, probably his most famous song is a wonderfully witty piece that was covered (in modified form and re-named "That's All") by Sister Rosetta Tharpe (which was in turn covered, as "Denomination Blues" by Mark Knopfler!) and by Ry Cooder.
Unfortunately none of these versions retained Washington Phillips' lyrics in their entirety but he begins -
"I want to tell you the natural fact,
Every man don't understand the bible alike,
But that's all, I tell you that's all,
But you gotta have Jesus, I tell you that's all.
Well the denominations have no right to fight,
They ought to just treat each other right,
And that's all..."
Then he goes on to outline the differences between the many and various denominations -
"Now the Primitive Baptists they believe,
You can't get to Heaven 'less they wash your feet...
Now the Missionary Baptists they believe,
Go under the water, not to wash the feet...
Now the A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Methodists they
Sprinkle the head and not to wash the feet...
Now the African Methodists believe the same,
Cause you know the denomination's the same but the name,
And that's all...etc"
I love it, it's witty and pokes fun at the differences but it's not really harsh criticism. Many of his other songs deal with these sort of things, Deacons doing wrong and so on. If I've gone on a bit about the Dolceola it's just that I think Washington Phillips was a genius that should be more widely recognized - I just wanted to correct that he didn't play the Dolceola and he didn't die in 1938!
One of the most startling aspects of the blues when it first developed was that it was the first popular music in which the performer was integral to the composition - the singer was more important than the song. This is such an obvious aspect of music now that we donít even think about it - you donít buy an album because you like the songs on it - you buy it because you like the artist and you donít really care what songs are on it!
This is really still the great strength of blues, particularly the country blues - itís such a personal communication of emotions. Listening to Charley Patton, Son House or Skip James play is like hearing them philosophising over a beer late at night, telling their woes or things that they got a laugh out of - it doesnít sound like a commercial recording - it sounds like a personal confession. The feeling of being confided in or of someone telling you theyíve had the same troubles as you is what has kept the blues alive and relevant for over a hundred years.
Just as the recording industry helped to popularise and distribute country blues, it also helped it to disappear, at least from the public eye for a while. Basically the target audience for country blues records migrated to the cities and songs saying "hitch up my buggy, saddle up my black mare" were not really relevant anymore. In fact in many ways they became symbols of a past that people wanted to forget. Also styles just change and that music just wasnít hip anymore.
Itís another common myth however that electric, urban blues just sprang up and replaced the old timey country blues but it was more gradual than that. The country blues just evolved and adapted with the times to become electric blues - in many cases it was the same artists adapting their style.
Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red were two of the 1920ís and 30ís biggest country blues stars and they were also the first to start electric blues bands in Chicago. They did much to foster and encourage younger musicians like Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. Another great country blues star Booker White helped his nephew BB King to get his start in Memphis.
This was really what made the Chicago blues such a powerful style in the 1950ís, the relatively laid back urban blues of the 1940ís was given a new injection of the power and expressiveness of country blues by these new arrivals in town. Muddy Waters was playing guitar in the Son House, Robert Johnson vein and Howlin Wolf was a great disciple of Charley Patton both in his singing and playing.
It has often been written that the "Chicago blues" or "electric blues" is a direct descendant of the urban blues that began in the 1920's but, really, it's lineage is much more closely tied with the country blues. With the emergence of "jazz" as a separate style really marked the end of the 1920's urban or "classic" blues - the people who used to be in that scene all crossed over to jazz - as did much of their repertoire.
The Chicago blues was really born from a huge influx of country people into Northern cities - musically, Chicago blues is just amplified country blues - in fact many artists like Houston Stackhouse or J. B. Hutto didn't change their style or arrangements at all and just played the old Mississippi Sheiks or Tommy Johnson material on electric guitars with bass and drums. People like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, with the crucial talents of Willie Dixon however, took the country blues form and adapted and modernized it into what most people now simply refer to as "blues".
A good example of the evolution of blues comes from Brownie McGhee, a direct musical link to the country blues of the Ď20s and Ď30s through Blind Boy Fuller, during the 1940ís he had a very "modern" sounding electric blues band. After a couple of hits in that format, he switched back to the acoustic style as the 1950ís folk scene began to take off and had a long and fruitful career playing the music he started out on. As he says -
"Then this phase come up about rock Ďní roll, and we got placed in the category of "folk". Iíve never stopped playing the same thing. Rhythm and blues come out, country blues come out, rock Ďní roll come out, folk come out, Iím playing the same thing I always played. And now Iím more successful than when I started."
Which brings up the other most important developments of the 1950's - small numbers of white people in the 1940's and 50's began to become interested in the origins of jazz - as the first uniquely American artform, they began to wonder how, why and when it came into being.
People like Samuel Charters, Paul Oliver, Gayle Wardlow and many other eager, enthusiastic young music fans sought out records and information on the early blues stars - most of these researchers believed that these ancient originators of popular music must be long since dead but it is one of the greatest of all the tragedies of blues history that, in the 1940's and 50's, most of the first generation blues men were still alive, many still playing!
By the time many of these men were tracked down, they had just recently passed away or had lost the ability (or inclination) to play. However - we must be eternally grateful for the "re-discovery" of Son House, Skip James, Booker White, Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, Reverend Gary Davis and many others.
Of course there were a few artists who managed to skuffle through the intervening years, between the falling popularity of country blues and the "blues revival" - incidentally this "revival" is usually described as being a 1960's phenomenon, and while it certainly gained more public attention in the 1960's, it really began with the "folk movement" in the 1940's and 1950's. Leadbelly, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee being in the vanguard of this movement.
The "British Invasion" of the 1960's and the influence of bands like the Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Cream are often given the credit for starting the blues revival of the 1960's and whilst they undoubtedly turned a lot of people onto blues music, the credit really goes to those dedicated few record collectors, jazz fans and scholars of the 1940's and 1950's.
These early blues record collectors like Bernie Klatzo, Nick Perls, Gayle Wardlow, Bill Givens and many more are single-handedly responsible for making country blues recordings accessible to the general public - even today if you buy a CD of Charley Patton, Skip James, Robert Johnson etc. - the songs have been transferred to that CD from 78's owned, collected and collated by those people. In many instances there are only one, two or three copies of a record in existence (and that's not from obscure artists, that's the big names of country blues like Charley Patton and Son House) and those people have tracked almost all of them down now.Many people wonder why, if country blues was so popular, so few records survived and there are several answers. For one thing, 78 rpm shellac records are extremely fragile, you can only drop them once! And in the eighty years since the first country blues records (and the fifty years since their owners probably kept the Gramophone player) it's a fair bet that the boxes of records were moved about, dropped or thrown out. Also, as many of the original blues record buyers got older they turned away from the blues as being sinful, young people's music and many record collectors found people embarrassed or ashamed to have owned blues records.
Add to this the fact that the U.S. government collected shellac records to be recycled for the war effort in the 1940's - all through the South there were truckloads of blues records being melted down and turned into something...Anyone know what the wartime use for shellac was?
The demise of Paramount left no paper documentation whatsoever so the number of records issued has been guessed by the highest surviving serial numbers - from these we know that there are maybe twenty or thirty missing records, including one more Willie Brown record which was known to have been made but has yet to turn up - only in 2000 a test recording of Tommy Johnson turned up so who knows...
The blues records reissued by companies like the Origin Jazz Library, Yazoo and Arhoolie informed and inspired the British Invasion - which, I think was inevitable - this music is so inspirational, moving, intense and memorable that it's first appearance before a mass (white) audience was bound to inspire imitators and disciples. The British bands just got the music out to an even wider audience.
All this interest in 1920's - 1940's blues inspired a number of people (including many of the afore-mentioned record collectors) to seek out the original musicians themselves - after all, the initial interest in the origins of jazz began very shortly after the boom time of country blues ended. Or equally it could be said that the popularity of country blues never waned - it merely shifted from black audiences to white audiences. This caused some difficulty for the original blues artists (though they appreciated the interest) - they just weren't sure what white people wanted from the music - white people are still hard to play to!
Tragically however it took quite sometime before the (mostly) Northern, young, white blues fans were able to track down the old, Southern, black musicians and in many cases both parties, though well intentioned, were unable to capitalize on their discoveries in a way that would bring financial rewards to the musicians - there was great interest but not great amounts of money - at least not in time.
Most of them had sold a few records in their youth and enjoyed a bit of local fame and good times and then had to find regular day jobs for the rest of their lives - a large number of blues men (like Son House for example) never lived on the money they made from music - they always had a day job and played music on weekends.
But when the local market for country blues dried up, most musicians either stopped playing altogether or played occasionally to themselves and family at home. A very small number (like Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red) adapted their style and moved around to find markets for their talents but it was a precarious gamble.
So when young, white college students knocked on their doors in the 1960's claiming that they and all their friends (as well as many people in England, France, Germany etc.) were huge fans of the music they had made thirty years before - it must have been quite a shock.
A number of great blues artists of the 1920's refused to play when they were re-discovered (Ishmon Bracey for example) often because they had joined the church and wouldn't play blues any more (or even discuss it). But most were simply wary of being ripped of by white people again - they were happy to play if they were sure they were going to be paid properly for it.
The films of these blues legends are fascinating and indescribably valuable - the images of Son House or Mississippi John Hurt on 1960's television shows is where the typical image of a "blues man" comes from - but we have to remember that from the artist's point of view the situation was far from typical!
The old bluesmen in these films often seem shy and awkward, adding to the image of the country blues being an introspective, personal form of expression (rather than crowd pleasing, dancing music). But these men formed their style and repertoire in front of noisy crowds of hard working, hard drinking, partying black people and were now being asked (in their 70's!) to replicate that music under bright studio lights in front of an audience of serious looking folk music scholars, art students and historians!
It is a testament to the musical value of the blues that it more than stands up under these conditions - there aren't many (any?) other forms of popular (drinking, partying) music that can also be studied and appreciated as high art.