Got rambling, rambling on my mind,
Hate to leave you, pretty baby, but you treats me so unkind..
The USA was less built upon the shoulders of brave pioneers than on the backs of the millions of slaves imported from Africa. In the 18th century the famous ‘Triangle Trade’ between West Africa, The Southern US States and England planted the seeds of geo-political power as we now know it. Puppet kings in Africa hunted nearby populations and dragged them into slavery.
They were then exported by the British to America and conditions aboard were so miserable that most never died before they even saw the New World. Slaves were exchanged with Southern landowners for cotton and this was taken to England to be made into clothes in the mills of Liverpool and Manchester. These same clothes were then sold in Africa (and the rest of the Empire) for more slaves.
Every effort was made to stamp out any trace of African culture in the slaves that reached America alive. Slaves of the same tribes were divided so that English had to be learnt as a common tongue and any sign of practicing African religion or tradition was punished with the whip or worse. They were all forcibly converted to Christianity and given their own churches to worship in though few were inclined to imagine that God heard their prayers.
If their culture, language and tradition was more or less vanquished there was no denying their spirit. As the slaves worked in the fields they evolved work songs to help them pass the laborious work of picking cotton and harvesting fruit. These field hollers were sung in chorus and the slaves began to put their suffering into verse.
After the American Civil War ended blacks won their freedom in name in 1865 but conditions continued much as before. Now their previous owners were forced to pay them for their work but the wage was pretty miserable and some believe that living conditions initially got worse.
Some have speculated that prejudice and fear of the blacks even increased after Emancipation. With a free black population the white landowners were afraid of losing all they had and waking up with their throats slit. These reactionary bigots undertook to oppress the blacks as much as possible and lynchings, terrorism and arrests became commonplace. No black defendant ever won a court case against a white and the State jail used the prison population to build their roads.
The blacks worked on ‘chain gangs’, so named as all the workers were bound by the ankle on a long, heavy chain so that none could escape. They swung their pick axes at the ground in two facing rows, each side taking it’s turn to swing. They sang a two part chorus to ensure they kept the rhythm and thus made sure that no one lost their head.
This rhythm, combined with the wailing field hollers provided the musical foundation for the blues. The material was to be found in the day to day oppression the blacks faced everywhere. All they needed now was someone to put it to music.
Blues Culture and Prominent Artists
The Heineken commercial did it best. The old guy’s sitting on his porch with his guitar and each time he tries to play he comes out with “Row, row your boat”.
“That aint the blues!” He tells himself, disgusted. Then he opens up a can and in the same moment his wife discovers lipstick on his collar, she leaves him and the dog follows. A thunderstorm breaks out and suddenly he’s free to play:
“First name is sadness, second name is misery,
I’ve lost my woman and the rain is coming down on me..”
Sometimes the culture of the blues can be a little self-pitiful. You can’t help but feel that a lot of the troubles that early blues musicians experienced were brought upon themselves.
‘I treated my woman so bad and now she gone and left me’ – What did you expect?
‘I got drunk and spent all my money and now I’m hungry’ – So why did you blow all your cash?
Of course on the other hand there were huge social injustices to sing about and being black in the early 20th century can’t have been much fun. As Big Bill Broonzy sang:
“f you’re white, you’re alright,
If you’re brown, stick around,
But if you’re black, oh brother – Get back, get back, get back.”
Also the wit and poetry of blues lyrics cannot be denied as with lyrics like:
“I asked her for water, she gave me gasoline.” (Howling Wolf)
A lot of the white musicians that followed would have loved to have been blind, picked cotton or rode freight trains and they sounded a little ridiculous as they aped the lyrics of the early masters. Once they found their own style though they came into a field of their own.
Early Country Blues Guitarists
Son House – Powerful slide guitar and singing
Robert Johnson – A legend. The most haunting singer of all.
Blind Willie McTell – An innovator of the blues form and lyrics
Blind Willie Johnson – Lonesome gospel slide blues
Rev Gary Davis – Also blind and a 12 string guitar master
Skip James – Played in spooky minor keys, fine singer.
Muddy Waters – The man himself. One of the fore runners of rock and roll.
Howling Wolf – A giant of a man and a devastating performer.
B.B King – Godfather of modern blues. Slick electric guitar and great voice.
John Lee Hooker – A virtuoso riff player and singer.
Harmonica Blues Artists
Sonny Terry – Sounds like he rode a train his entire life.
Little Walter – One of the first to use amplified harp. A legend.
Big Walter Horton – Considered to be one of the best harp players of all time.
Sonny Boy Williamson I – Had teeth missing down one side of his mouth and could thus pay the harp with no hands.
Sonny Boy Williamson II – Great Chicago harp player and singer. Funny as hell.
White Blues Artists
John Mayall – Funky English blues
Eric Clapton – Needs no introduction.
The Rolling Stones – Early stuff very bluesy
The Beatles – They took the blues and made ballads.
The Animals – No one sings it like Joe Cocker.
Female Blues Singers
Ma Rainey – Sang the first recorded versions of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Stackolee”.
Bessie Smith – Brought blues to public attention in the 1920’s.
Billie Holiday – ‘Lady ‘Day’, adored by millions.
The Country Blues
However bad conditions still were for the black they at least now had the right to travel. Young footloose men began to get on the road to explore their country. They walked enormous distances, hitchhiked whenever they saw a black driver and, for the main part, hopped freight trains.
“When a woman gets the blues, she goes to her room and hides, (x2)
When a man gets the blues, he catches a freight train and rides.”
(Freight Train Blues, Trixie Smith)
The train had long been an important psychological symbol for blacks in the South as an escape route for runaway slaves to the North. Even after emancipation the train was the only way someone could travel to the North in search of work and a better life. No one had any money to buy tickets so they were reduced to hiding in the box cars or balancing on top of the brake rails – an incredibly dangerous manoeuvre that cost many their lives.
Spending days on the rails, dodging the engineers and railroad police the sounds of the trains entered their bones and many early blues songs attempt to recapture the wailing sounds of the train whistles and the rhythmic sound of the wheels.
Many of these men became musicians specialising in the guitar (a new instrument around the turn of the century) and the harmonica. Playing music was of the few sources of income open to these itinerants. They rolled into the black area of town and played on street corners or in bars, singing interpretations of social issues much like the medieval bards. For the most part these men were envied for their free, rolling life but they were often considered to be in league with the devil. Not least because they often left behind them a trail of drunken fights in bars and unwanted pregnancies.
The wailing field hollers, chain gang songs and train rhythms took root in their songs and they bent and perverted the musical scale until they found a sound of their own. A mournful, gutsy moan that expressed the sentiments of their generation.
Though it was almost entirely men who travelled and played the first blues songs to gain commercial success were sung by women; Bessie Smith and later Billie Holiday were loved even by white audiences and the term ‘blues’ entered the national psychology.
In the 20’s the first ‘hard’ blues was recorded by the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell and Charlie Patton. Then in the 30’s with the Great Depression Bukka White and Son House laid all the groundwork for one of the most influential bluesmen of all, Robert Johnson. These artists perfected the sound of the slide guitar using the end of a glass bottle on the strings to bend the tones.
The early blues men took classical instruments like the guitar (invented in Italy in 1780) and the harmonica (original models dating back to ancient China) and brought their own spirit to the instruments. They warped and modulated the sound until it became the sexy, soulful voice of the blues.
The Electric Chicago Blues
As more and more blacks grew tired of the segregation and oppression of the South and migrated north, so too the music changed. The sounds of the country were traded for the rush and upbeat tempo of the cities. After World War Two Chicago became an important setting for the evolution of the blues in electric sound. John Lee Hooker bean to make a name for himself around this time and no one had heard a guitar do that before.
Muddy Waters was much influenced by Hooker and he became one of the first to make the blues into a big band affair. With electric guitars and amplified harmonicas the blues stepped up a gear and began to reach a wider audience. Muddy Waters allowed many up and coming musicians to front his band and rise to prominence. Instances include the devastating harmonica player, Little Walter, perhaps the first to really explore amplified harp; Otis Spann, a classic Chicago piano player; Jimmy Rogers, an almost telepathic guitarist; and, of course, Willie Dixon, a bass player and song writer who underpinned much of the Chicago blues boom.
“Gypsy woman told my mother
before I was born,
You got a boy child coming,
Gonna be a rolling stone.”
Chess Records were responsible for recording much of the blues artists at this time and the white owners had no prejudice in making a buck off the back of black artists. Yet however many musicians were ripped off during this period by white promoters, it cannot be denied that Chess in particular brought the blues to the world.
At the same time down south artists like Elmore James and in particular, B.B King were exploring smoother styles of electric blues guitar that would also earn them their place in blues history.
“The thrill is gone, thrill is gone away,
You done me wrong and you gonna be sorry some day.”
Can White People Sing the Blues?
When the Beatles arrived in America a reporter asked them what they wanted to do first in the USA.
“Oh, man. We’ve got to go and see Muddy Waters.” John Lennon told him.
“Oh really?” The reporter replied. “Where’s that?”
With the exception perhaps of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, black musicians were hardly known in their own country and were only followed by a specialised audience. What many of the artists came to discover was that they were greatly admired and listened to across the Atlantic in England and Europe.
The Beatles, the Rolling Stones (their name comes from a Muddy Waters song) and Eric Clapton all acknowledged their profound debt to the early bluesmen of the Mississippi and Chicago. Bluesmen like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Jesse Fuller were brought over to play and the experience was overwhelming for them.
“I done jumped on freight trains at 30mph with a guitar on my back but you fall out one of them airplanes you’d dead.” Jessie Fuller told a reporter. The American blues artists were loved and treated as celebrities for the first time. Then they returned home to become second-class citizens again.
However now that bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones started out copying the styles of artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, American audiences began to appreciate the music of the old blues masters. Artists like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters eventually gained wide-spread notoriety now that they had already reached middle age.
The blues exploded in the late 60’s and early 70’s as white artists like Eric Clapton, John Mayall and the Animals covered old blues classics like “House of the Rising Sun” and “Down at the Crossroads”. Some have suggested that it seemed a little foolish to hear middle class white boys singing about the hardships of picking cotton and hopping freight trains.
That’s true without a doubt and with the exception of maybe, Joe Cocker, few white people can sing like the blacks did. Yet the blues don’t belong to any race or nationality. They are a feeling of despair, pain and sorrow that’s common to people all across the world. You feel it, you can sing it.
As B.B King sang:
“Yeah, you know the company told me
Guess you’re born to lose
Everybody around me, people
It seems like everybody got the blues”
Where to Find Blues Culture Today
The blues came from America’s deep south and can still be found there. If you travel into blues meccas in the Mississippi Delta then there will still be blues joints with accomplished musicians. Most of the greats have now died but there are still a few coughing out their lyrics, perhaps with a long-suffering wife whispering them the words between lines.
Even if you don’t find the old blues master of your dreams on your travels, you will at least get the flavour of the country and origins of the blues.
Alternatively Chicago remains today a thriving blues scene.
Of course the best way to get to know the blues on your trip is to play them. If you’re too weighed down to carry a guitar with you then get slip a blues harmonica into your pocket before you leave. If you listen to enough of the old classics, this ten hole harp can be learnt on the road and you’ll find a way to put all your road-suffering into song.
“I’ve got the key to the highway,
You know I’ve got to go,
I’m going to leave here running
‘coz walking is much too slow…“