Story of The Blues
When African slaves were brought to the Americas, their new owners often tried to stamp out the culture and traditions they brought with them – from religion, to music, to family and societal traditions. This was the start of new cultures and traditions developing within the slave communities as their own roots were suppressed and blended with the cultures of slaves from other areas as they mingled, and with the customs of the land they now found themselves in. This melting pot created it’s own culture and traditions. Perhaps one of the most prominent and well-known products of this is Blues music, although its origins are poorly documented due to racial discrimination and low levels of literacy amongst rural African-Americans.
The Blues is first documented in 1860’s America, most prominently in the black communities of the deep south. The songs were usually spiritual songs, field hollers and work songs or chants. In 1908 “I Got the Blues” was published as sheet music in New Orleans by Antonio Maggio. This is the first known publication form known to link the condition of “having the blues” to what would later be known as blues music.
It wasn’t until the great depression that the Blues moved out of it’s home in the deep south, along with the many African Americans who were moving to the cities in search of work. This brought a new sound to the blues, which was usually played on an acoustic guitar using a knife, a glass bottle, or a piece of metal to slide on the strings over the fret board to create a wailing sound. Other instruments used included harmonicas and pianos. Fife and drum bands were included in the Country Hill Blues tradition, with Otha Turner being the most prominent musician. Ultimately, the guitar (or variants of the guitar) remained king. Variants included 1 string guitars, 3 string guitars, diddley bows and of course cigar box guitars.
In the 1920s the first blues recordings started to emerge, as did the fame of the first great blues virtuosos such as Charley Patton, Bessie Smith, and Blind Willie McTell. It wasn’t until the 1930s that blues gained more popularity and led to some of the most famous names in Blues music such as Son House, Big Bill Bronzy and Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson is now known as the most influential and most accomplished bluesman. Son House stated that Johnson was a terrible player when they first met, and that he was only allowed to play while the other bands were on break. This forced the bands to take shorter breaks as the audience would be getting impatient and leaving as they listened to Johnson’s bad playing! Six months later Son House and Robert Johnson met again and the latter asked if he could play while House was on a break to which Son House reluctantly agreed. However, this was not the same Robert Johnson he had known – this man could play, and play well. Son House and many of his peers theorised that Johnson surely must have sold his soul to the devil to get so good in such a short space of time. Johnson went on to inflate this legend with his ‘devil’ trilogy; “Crossroads Blues”, “Hell Hounds on my Trail” and “Me and the Devil”. Johnson died young, at only 27. History states that he was either stabbed, shot or poisoned by a jealous husband. It wasn’t until after his death that Robert Johnson gained the recognition that he has today and the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil, and his subsequent breathtaking musical ability, continues to this day.
In this period, Alan Lomax toured America to create an archive of recordings for the Library of Congress, aiming to document the different types of music present in the United States. Many blues musicians were found and had their works recorded during this project.
By the 1940s the blues had become electrified with the emergence of Chicago and Detroit Blues styles. With America’s entry into the Second World War the blues travelled with the African American GIs to Europe, where after the war it found a new following, spreading just as Jazz did after the First World War. Meanwhile, back in America new acts had begun to emerge. These men and women were the new driving force of what would become some of the most influential songs in blues music, and a new genre of music began to form, spearheaded by Chuck Berry. The new style, known as Rock’N’Roll, was essentially blues music played faster than ever before.
By the 1950s the blues was truly at its height in America with names such as Muddy Waters, BB King and Howlin Wolf bringing new tones and sounds. It was during this period that young boys and girls in Europe (most notably in the UK) had started developing their own brand of Blues, jazz and rock music. Due to racial segregation in America the blues (played by black musicians) was known as “race music” by the mainstream radio stations and record labels. The record labels prospered; paying only a pittance to the artist who would be stuck with the production and distribution costs to the record company and often received no royalties. Famously, the Chicago Bluesman Muddy Waters died owing a record label $50,000. Others had been more clever in this aspect – John Lee Hooker recorded the same song for an upfront fee several times under different aliases, with slight variations in the song’s lyrics and titles. For example, he recorded as John Hooker, Lee Hooker, John Lee and John Lee Booker. His hit single ‘Boom Boom’ had also been recorded as ‘Bang Bang’ and ‘Boom Boom Boom’ and of course ‘Boom Boom Bang Bang’. Sadly, it wasn’t until the 1980s that a lot of Blues artists started receiving their dues.
By the time the 1960s came around the blues in America was declining. It was the so-called ‘British Invasion’ in 1964 that brought the blues much needed acknowledgement from British pop and rock bands such as the Animals, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, who were all influenced by the early blues recordings they grew up with thanks to American GIs stationed in Britain during and after WW2. Many of these famous names even recorded old blues hits. This brought new fame to the American Bluesmen who were now invited to tour in Europe. Thanks to the ‘British Invasion’, white Americans started playing the blues and songs such as ‘Canned Heat’ reached chart success.
The blues is steeped in tradition, and artists usually borrow from each other. This leads us to ask – when does borrowing stop and the theft begin? Many famous bands have been sued for copyright infringement and plagiarism. Led Zepplin were sued for their use of blues songs written by Willie Dixon. Another pure example is Eric Clapton’s gradual copyrighting of Robert Johnson’s hit ‘Crossroads Blues’ (which is now just listed as ‘Traditional Blues’ but at one point was credited as ‘Clapton/Johnson’, then just ‘Clapton’, and finally ‘Clapton/Traditional Robert Johnson’). These issues are due partly to the different copyright laws in Britain and America, but also to high illiteracy rates among Blues musicians at the time, as well as the fact that copyrights were owned by the record companies, and not the artists.
In the 1970s the blues continued to evolve, with many new bands appearing. In Britain, however, it went on a steady decline. Many rock bands were influenced greatly by the blues without realising but blues music started to drift back into obscurity with only a few acts emerging into the limelight. It isn’t until the 1990’s that we see a resurgence in Britain. Although the Blues had always been played in America, the British blues resurgence reignited many American blues musicians to release
their back catalogues and re-record old hits. Boogieman John Lee Hooker was one of these resurging bluesmen, now collaborating with the likes of Los Lobos and Carlos Santana. Hooker had always retained a level of popularity, and had also appeared in the 1980 film ‘The Blues Brothers’. His releases and collaborations in the 1990s gave him some moderate success.
Many of the big Bluesmen of the 1950s have now passed away, with only a few remaining. However, a new generation of Bluesmen and women are keeping the music alive to this day. Musicians such as Joe Bonamassa, Eric Gales, Gary Clark Jr, Samantha Fish, Seasick Steve and many more keep the legend alive and inspire audiences with their heartfelt playing. The blues has inspired musicians worldwide – whether directly or indirectly. Whether we know it or not, the musical revolution of the 1960s with British bands at the forefront was inspired by and featured blues music, and what they played inspired another generation. Every generation is inspired by the one before, and although it may now sound vastly different to those early African traditions that were forcibly dragged to the shores of America, the Blues thrives to this day and continues to influence and inspire modern music.
In Mali and other Sub-Saharan African countries you can hear the blues in a form that is more traditional to its roots, although they now often use electric guitars, the feeling and the spirit of the music is there still. After listening to traditional American blues songs, many of these African bluesmen have stated that “There’s a part of their soul missing” in this music – something that was stolen by slavery and the cruelty imposed on them.
Yet despite the efforts of early slaveowners to stamp out tradition and culture, it has survived to this day. Take the time to listen to the music of early blues artists, of these traditional players in Africa, or the modern bluesmen in the west, and you will understand why this music has stayed alive. In the words of one of the greatest bluesmen;
“The blues tells a story, and every line has a meaning.” – John Lee Hooker.