History of the Blues, Part 1
We examine the evolution of American blues from the start of the 20the century into the early 1940s. This is done in conjunction with the below video, which is part 1 of a 2-part 2013 BBC Documentary called Blues America: Woke Up This Morning.
While a common understanding is that the Blues is born strictly out of racial suffering and suppression, the blues actually started as a music of celebration. It proliferated in the Mississippi Delta, the Northwest corner of the state of Mississippi. This was a relatively “new” area due to the construction of levees on the Mississippi river, forming a flat former flood plain which had very fertile soil for cotton planting. Most of the occupants of this area in the earliest decade of the 20the century were young black men who were there to clear the land and ultimately work in the cotton fields. As such, the Delta took on the features of a “boom town” and the entertainment developed here was original and cutting edge.
In 1902, a vagrant slide guitar player at railroad station in Tutwiler, MS was overheard by a college educated black man named W.C. Handy, who was immediately inspired to go into the musical publishing business. Through the next decades, Handy, who became known as the “Father of the Blues”, traveled the south and learned the musical vernacular and styles of distinct regions, adapting it for his own compositions. By 1917, Handy had a publishing business headquartered on Times Square in New York City and had published “Memphis Blues”, “Beale Street Blues”, and “Saint Louis Blues”, the most popular blues songs in America. Handy also published some of the earliest jazz standards and, in 1926, he compiled Blues: An Anthology—Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs, cited as the attempt to record and describe the blues and its historical significance.
In the early 1920s, record companies began releasing “race records” – black artists recorded for black audiences. The first recorded stars were mainly women; “blues queens” who traveled the theater circuit. Starting in 1923, Bessie Smith became the first blues “superstar”, commanding up to $2000/week for live performances at her peak. Her 1925 recording of Handy’s “Saint Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong is considered by some to be the finest recording of the 1920s. Smith also became an early film star and a major influence on contemporary jazz singers before her untimely death in an auto accident in 1937.
Blind Lemon Jefferson developed a new style of self-accompanied solo performing in the mid 1920s. Jefferson incorporated replications of everyday life with skillful guitar playing and an impressive vocal range. This style caught fire and soon ushered in a new generation of solo blues performers. Charley Patton followed as “The Father of the Delta Blues” from Dockery Plantation, where he tutored later, more famous blues performers such as John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, and Robert Johnson,
Although he never reached any notable level of fame during his lifetime, Robert Johnson was notable on two fronts. He was the first to take influence from popular blues and swing records, such as the very successful recordings of Count Basie, which gave Johnson a depth of melody and style like no one before him. Then there was the popular “crossroads” legend, which intrigued later generations and helped Johnson become a major influence on later British artists decades after his untimely death in 1938. In 1961, Johnson’s compilation album King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961 was released a quarter century after the recordings were made and went on to spark a whole new revival of Delta-based modern blues rock.
Finally there is Muddy Waters, the link between the earlier Mississippi blues style and the later Chicago blues style. A plantation worker and student of Son House and Robert Johnson, Waters had a chance encounter with folklore-ist Alan Lomax who made a recording for the Library of Congress, sparking Muddy Waters to take a copy of that record and move to Chicago in 1943, with the hope of becoming a full-time professional musician.