Blues Music History

 

Mississippi Delta ShackjpgOur composer/producer Sherese Timeless maintains that the origins of what we call the Blues in America really began 10,000 years ago or more — and the where will suprise you!  (We’re anxiously awaiting the book she’s fervently working on — the suspense is killing us!  Stay tuned!)

Until then, we’ll trace the Blues in America.

The history of the Blues in America began as soon as Africans set foot on dry land in 1619, brought as slaves to work the plantations.  It was specifically Africans from areas of Northern Islamic Africa that brought the intact “sorrow songs,” as they were called, facing a life that inspired many more. 

 

The Mississippi Delta, where American Blues grew up, didn’t exist before 1870 — it was made out of a jungle swamp.  The Hills people moved in, trying to make a way in the debilitating Jim Crow maze. The Delta became thick with bluesmen, Blind Lemon Jefferson over

in Texas was copied by an imitator Lemon who taught Son House who then taught Robert Johnson who was with the wrong woman and ended up murdered by a jealous husband at 26.  Among bluesmen in the Delta, Johnson was considered a freak of nature when it came to playing the Blues.  He still is.  The way he made his guitar sound like several, and his “ornamental,” “Oriental” style of singing had never been heard before — or since — in America.  Some bluesmen wandered beyond the Delta and some stayed put, farming and playing the Blues. Living a hard life left no shortage of stories to tell and Blues songs to write.

Unless you were in the deep South hearing a lone, haunting voice accompanied by a guitar, or along the Appalachian Trail, where Celts and Africans were mixing their sorrow songs together, you had to wait until W.C. Handy brought the Blues to the rest of America.

W.C. Handy, cornetist/composer/arranger, was on the hunt for new music, hanging around saloons, railroads and docks, listening to black folk music.  It was the sorrow songs that drew him in.  In 1905 in Memphis, he formed the Pythian band integrating black folk music into his repertoire, composing two Blues songs, devising a method for notating Blues singers “suspended” tones.

Train tracks sepia

In 1912, after several unsuccessful attempts to get his Blues compositions published, he personally financed the publication of his composition “Memphis Blues,” which not only contained those “suspended” tones, but also was written in a tango rhythm.  The tango rhythm was originally an African rhythm called tangana, that came to Spain, then to Cuba as a basic Afro-Cuban rhythm, and on up to the South.  Without the money to promote his song, he sold all rights to the song for one hundred dollars.  Not long afterward, a simplified version of “Memphis Blues” was published in New York and became a best-seller.  He composed “St. Louis Blues” the same year, which would become a classic.

James Reese Europe, pianist/composer/arranger, also carried the torch for black folk music traditions, including the Blues.  In 1905, he was a member of the Memphis Students band, the first genuine black band to leave the minstrels behind to seriously focus exclusively on the black plantation music tradition.  The parodies were left behind to share the originals in all their wonder.  In 1913, it is likely that Europe’s bands were the first black bands to make recordings with the Victor Talking Machine Company.  During WWI, Europe left France in awe with his “Hellfighters” band.

Women sang the Blues, too.  In big city blues, women singers dominated the recordings of the 1920s, such as former vaudeville singers Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith.  Thinking back to that period, Alberta Hunter, co-writer of Bessie’s Smith’s first hit, “Down-Hearted Blues,”  said: “There was [also] Sara Martins, Ida Cox, Chippie Hill, Victoria Spivey, Trixie Smith, and Clara Smith.  Mamie Smith made it possible for all of us with her recording Crazy Blues, the first Blues record.”  Queen of Gospel Mahalia Jackson, though, agrees with Bessie being crowned Empress of the Blues.  “Bessie was my favorite but I never let people know I listened to her.  Mamie Smith, the other famous blues singer, had a pretty voice, but Bessie’s had more soul in it.  She dug right down and kept it in you.  Her music haunted you even when she stopped singing.”

Mississippi Delta rocking chair

When the big city recording companies ran out of vaudeville singers, a Blues rush began, heading South to the source.  Recording company talent scouts began scouring the South for bluesmen and women to record, inviting them North.  The early Delta blues (as well as other genres) were also extensively recorded in the 1930s and early 1940s by John Lomax with his son Alan Lomax, who crisscrossed the Southern US recording music played and sung by ordinary people helping establish the canon of genres we know today as American folk music. Their recordings number in the thousands, and now reside in the Smithsonian Institution.  Standout Blues musicians were found all over the South.  From the Mississippi Delta: Charley Patton (1887-1934), generally recognized as the Father of the Delta Blues,” (duets with Bertha Lee, his common-law wife, were also recorded), Son House, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Nehemiah Skip James, Bukka White, Willie Brown, Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy; St Louis: Edith North; Atlanta: Lucille Bogan, Fannie Goodsby, (recording the first “race” records outside of New York or Chicago in 1923 in a makeshift studio in an Atlanta loft on Nassau Street); Texas: Blind Lemon Jefferson,T-Bone Walker, Leadbelly, Texas Alexander, Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins; Tennessee: Memphis Minnie, Sonny Boy Williamson, Walter “Furry” Lewis, John Adams “Sleepy” Estes; and Louisiana, where Blues intersected with Jazz, Rufus Perryman, and Lonnie Johnson.

Though to the rest of a shocked America, the Blues seemed overtly sexual, placed in their context, they weren’t any more sexual than the children’s games, the beauty shop and barbershop stories, or everyday life among the African imports.  The two world views clashed in the Blues — one viewing sex as a sin and one celebrating fertility.  In fact, America’s traditionally prudish views of sex are an anomaly compared to the majority of cultures around the world and throughout time.  Africa considered sex as natural as eating and sleeping, and children traditionally were encouraged to become sexually active at 10 or 11-years-old.  Of course, once grown-ups are in love, you view the same voiced commitment and universal desire for fidelity — and the same failings.  A favorite topic of the Blues.

Blue Hands

The Blues span many topics, though.  It’s a feeling — and whenever you’ve got that feeling, you’ve got ingredients for the Blues.  One bluesman then in his 80s, Sam Chatmon, said “The blues ain’t nothing but a cow wanna see her calf.  That’s all the blues is.”

A longing, a yearning, a sadness  — yet always still a grain of hope tomorrow will be a better day.


Sources:

Haskins, James Black Music in America – A History Through It’s People, 1987

Kubrik, Gerhard Africa and the Blues, 2008

Lomax, Alan, The Land Where The Blues Began 1993

Shaw, Arnold Black Popular Music in America, 1986

Southern, Eileen The Music of Black Americans – A History, Third Edition, 1997

Eliyora Entertainment™LLC.  © Paradunai™LLC.  All international rights reserved.  All trademarks property of Paradunai™LLC.  All personas, concepts and original songs created and performed by Sherese Chrétien.