Listening to the music by any of these classic rockers it would be easy to say that the advent of using electric or amplified instruments in electric blues or Urban Blues was the reason. However, it all started long before with acoustic or Country Blues.
To really trace the origins of Blues, you have to go back to the days of the plantations in the South. The slaves that were ripped from their homeland were forced to work long and hard hours in the fields. The men who were the overseers encouraged the field workers to sing thinking that it would increase productivity. While the slaves were taken from Africa, the music they left behind was still in their hearts and soul. As a result, their work songs were filled with African rhythms and harmonies.
The traditional work songs or very early blues songs had lyrics that were filled with sorrow. It was, after all, the only outlet for complaints that the slaves had. Hence the terms singing the blues came to mean songs of loss or frustration.
It is thought that the form was developed in a style that always featured a lead line that is repeated, followed by a new line, because it gave the author of the song time to come up with a new thought. So the typical song would develop something like this… ”It is so hot pickin’ cotton in the Sun. Yes, it is so hot pickin’ cotton in the Sun. The heat don’t matter we still have to pick another ton.”
This style of repeating the first line became the standard for both Country and Urban Blues. Another development that was part of the early blues songs that was even more astonishing was the use of iambic pentameter. That is a term used to describe the common meter in Anglo Saxon poetry consisting of an unrhythmed line with five accents with each accent containing an accented syllable and an unaccented syllable. Why is this noteworthy?
Well, this form was common in English poetry. Read any of Shakespeare’s sonnets. They are all in iambic pentameter. One might think that the slaves got the idea for this form from reading Shakespeare except for one fact. The slaves didn’t read English. In fact, it was against the law to teach English or read to a slave. Yet, iambic pentameter became the standard meter for blues songs. Oddly, it works both ways. Can you imagine “The Merchant of Venice” being performed as one big blues song? It might be rather lengthy song, but it would fit the format.
It certainly gives credence to the notion that the blues and poetry in general are just part of the human spirit. It is a nature form of expression that doesn’t necessarily have to be taught. It is in our heart and soul.
The spread of Country blues grew through out the South in Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. However, the largest center was in the Delta and in northern Mississippi. After World War I, the music started moving north to Memphis and that created a much bigger audience.
It would be some time before many of the early country blues artists would even get a chance to be heard on records and not much is known about many of them. For the most part, the audiences and the performers remained black for a long time.
The music continued to expand from guitars to other instruments, like the boogie woogie piano and harmonica. One of the most exciting innovations was bottleneck or slide guitar. It was created by sliding a bottleneck or beef bone up and down the strings of a guitar.
Some of the early Country Blues performers who lead the way were: Son House, Leadbelly, Blind Willie McTell, Furry Lewis, Charlie Patton (considered by many to be the father of Delta Blues), Mance Lipsomb (a real Bob Dylan favorite), Mississippi John Hurt, Rev Gary Davis, Pinkney “Pink” Anderson (The Pink in Pink Floyd was a tribute to him), Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bukka White, Lightning Hopkins, Sleepy John Estes, Sippie Wallace (a big influence on Bonnie Raitt) and Lightnin’ Slim.
One of the very most important artists was Mississippi-born Robert Johnson. Despite the fact that his career was cut short at age 27 (an age which seems to be difficult to surpass for many musicians) by his murder, Robert Johnson is considered to the very best of the early blues singers. This is based on just 29 songs that he was able to record in 1936 and 37 before his death. During his time Johnson was never very famous despite the legend that he made a deal with the devil at the crossroads to be the best musician of all time. His songs have been covered by The Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when the country blues became amplified. Jazz and blues both started experimenting with plugged in instruments about the same time in the late thirties. The first blues performer to record with an electric guitar was probably T Bone Walker. Born in Texas in 1911, T Bone eventually and gradually moved north to Chicago where he had an enormous influence on the electric blues scene. His career spanned decades.
One of the real pleasant surprises of my life came during a WIBG radio station business trip to Chicago in 1972. The hotel I was staying in had a lounge where you could hear some live music playing and I decided to check it out. It was a small lounge and it wasn’t even filled, so you can imagine how stunned I was when an announcer said please welcome to the stage T Bone Walker. There wasn’t even a small sign telling people that he was playing that night. As the blues legend struggled with his labored walking to get to the small stage, there was some scattered almost just polite clapping. Despite having to sit during his performance, he was still sensational. How sad, I thought to myself, that such a great artist lived out his last years without a big audience or the recognition he was certainly entitled to. He died a little more than two years after that concert.
T Bone was typical of the blues artists of Chicago, Memphis and Detroit. After World War II many blacks moved North with hopes of a better life in the factories that were starting to make those cities prosper.
Many came from Mississippi which accounts for the Delta blues style being such a huge influence on Chicago Blues. The Chicago Blues greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed were all born in Mississippi.
By 1947 In Chicago the blues players took electric blues to a new level. Their driving rhythms with guitar, bass, harmonica and drums made the music loud and exciting. Howlin’ Wolf had a voice that suited his name. Muddy Waters did a live show that was closest to the live shows that rock groups do today. His guitar player Hubert Sumlin can’t get enough credit for the sound the group had. He was a huge influence on the only real bridge between Chicago then and the Blues now, Buddy Guy. Eric Clapton once called Buddy the best guitar player alive and there were few who argued with him. The bass player, Willie Dixon wrote (songs like “Wang Dang Doodle”, “Back Door Man”, “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, “Spoonful” and Hoochie Coochie Man”) and produced most of the music. He once put out an album called I AM THE BLUES. Only he could get away with such a title.
The amplified harmonica became known as the harp and it played a major role in the music. Some of the best were: Little Walter (who did more than just about anyone else with the harp), Carey Bell, Junior Wells (who teamed up with Buddy Guy), James Cotton (still considered one of the best), Walter Horton, and Sonny Boy Williamson (both one and two).
The boogie piano as played by Johnnie Johnson, Otis Spann and “Pinetop” Perkins all made an impact on Rock. Jerry Lee Lewis, for example, made a career out of using some of the fingering he learned from standing outside of black clubs in the south so he could hear the music.
There were so many that labored hard and long to play the blues. Another Mississippi refugee, B B (stays for Blues Boy) King was a disc jockey in Memphis before he hit the road to play his music. In a conversation that I had with B B, he related that he spent years and years on the road playing almost every night and was barely able to make ends meet. B B at least eventually made it. Many did not have the same good fortune.
Elmore James (“Crossroads” done by Cream, & “Shake Your Money Maker” done by Paul Butterfield), Skip James (“I’m so Glad” done by Cream), Johnny Shines ,Big Bill Boonzy, Albert Collins, Freddy King (whose Texas style of guitar can be heard in Eric Clapton work), Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (wrote Elvis Presley’s first hit “That’s All Right”), Lowell Fulson, Slim Harpo, Smiley Lewis (wrote the hit “I Hear You Knocking”), Memphis Slim, Little Milton and Albert King all deserved a better fate.
Their records on smaller record labels like Chess, Sun, Federal, King, etc did very well on the R & B charts. The major labels and the major radio stations wouldn’t touch these outstanding artists. It was labeled as race music. That meant that the blues artists had play to only black audiences in small clubs. In Chicago there were many of these clubs, but for some of the other artists, they had to go on an almost endless tour of the South.
In England Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and many others young British lads didn’t have any idea of the record and radio politics of the US. All they knew was that they could buy records by all the blues greats in their local record shop. For all they knew, these blues performers were stars in the US. What they did know was they loved the music and it shaped their style. The Rolling Stones even took their name from a Muddy Waters song.
During the colonial period of the United States, the colonies were forced to send their raw goods back to England. England manufactured the goods and then sold them back to the US. In the 50’s and 60’s the US exported their Rock and Roll and Blues to England. The musical youths of England remade the sound and sold it back to the US.
The Rolling Stones were so excited to go to Chicago when they came to the US. Not only did they get a chance to meet some of their idols growing up, but actually were able to record in the historic Chess studios.
As a result of the new hybrid of rock and blues, not only did the UK rockers become superstars; but they were finally able to get some of the American youths to appreciate their own national treasure in the form of the blues. At least some the Blues greats got a chance to get out there and perform before a larger white audience.
The music did so much to help race relations in the US. Many bands were now mixed. The Paul Butterfield Band was one of the first to do a “white” interpretation of the blues. Their 1965 debut album is a classic. Black blues men Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay joined up with Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Mark Naftalin, and Elvin Bishop to give what was for many white music lovers, their first taste of the Blues. They do some great versions of standard Blues songs. The band was even asked by Bob Dylan to back him up when he first went electric at Newport.
Some Blues men like the deep voiced John Lee Hooker , had a bigger audience than ever before. The marriage of Blues and Rock was now complete. Blues and Rock artists got a chance to enjoy the honeymoon.
This short history is only part of the story. I am sure I left some important people out. I stayed away from the Blues that was more Jazz-like, but not because it wasn’t important. Much of it came out of Memphis and St; Louis and was more of an influence on Jazz, Pop and R & B. W C Handy (called the father of the Blues) Roy Brown (many consider his 1947 “Good Rockin’ Tonight” to be the real first rock hit) , Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Louis Jordon, Big Mama Thornton, Charlie Brown, Johnny Adams, Big Maceo, Big Maybelle, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy Witherspoon, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, and Buddy Johnson all made major contributions to the blues and to a slightly different brand Rock and Roll.