It occurred to me that I had done a post about jazz but not yet one about blues as a genre. And so let me now rectify that. I mentioned in my first post that I discovered blues the same way so many of my peers did, through the British rockers.
Specifically the first blues I really got into was “Born Under a Bad Sign” by Cream. There was something about the sound of it, the purity of the tone and just the – words fail me – overall feeling and passion of the music that spoke to me. It wasn’t until several years later that I realized that Eric Clapton had heard the Albert King version of the song. (And while King recorded it, it was actually written with him in mind by R&B singer William Bell and legendary bandleader Booker T. Jones.)
It’s generally accepted that blues came out of the black experience of slavery in the American South. Slaves working in the cotton fields would sing to relieve the tedium and oppression of their lives. Sometimes they’d be singing about the master and the call-and-response form of singing appears to have come from “conversations” they’d have with each other.
Much of this sound is associated with the Mississippi Delta, which according to Wikipedia “is strongly associated as the place where several genres of popular music originated, including the Delta blues and rock and roll. The mostly black sharecroppers and tenant farmers had lives marked by poverty and hardship but they expressed their struggles in music that became the beat, rhythm and songs of cities and a nation.” (The dry prose kinda takes the sting out of the hard life and passion out of the music, yes?)
And while he didn’t invent the blues, I don’t think there is much argument that singer/writer/guitarist Robert Johnson was one of the most influential recording artists ever. Everyone from B.B. King to Clapton has covered his songs, of which there are only a relative handful. There were earlier bluesmen such as Charlie Patton and Leadbelly. But Robert Johnson is the guy that most modern blues artist go back to most frequently. (Clapton has an album of Johnson covers called “Me and Mr. Johnson.”)
Johnson died at 27 – which coincidentally has become a notorious age for rockers to die – under mysterious circumstances. The mythology says that he “went down to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil” to play the way he did. I’m not a big subscriber to such things but well, ok.
In the early part of the twentieth century, there was a great migration of blacks from the South to other parts of the country. Chicago turned out to be a magnet for a lot of people who felt they could escape Southern Jim Crow laws and find a better life. The results of that particular social experiment can safely be deemed a mixed bag at best. But what interests me here is that Chicago in particular became a hotbed of (now-electric) blues. (And even to this day. I always hit a blues club when I’m in Chicago).
And no one had more impact on electric blues than one McKinley Morganfield, also known as Muddy Waters. Himself a transplant from the Mississippi delta, he helped develop a style and sound that changed the blues from acoustic songs and “field hollers” to a more urgent, often upbeat sound. You could dance to it! And people did. But alas given the times, this form of music was only readily available to an African-American audience. (That would change years later when guys like Paul Butterfield and Johnny Winter started sneaking into all-black clubs).
I don’t know if there’s a more iconic song than “Got My Mojo Workin'” which has not only been covered by everyone, but also traffics in the voodoo that had been part of the Southern black lore.
In my next post I’ll talk about how blues went from America to Europe to the rest of the world.