Beginning in the late 1800s, a major new musical style was taking shape. Although it seems to have its roots in the rural areas, particularly in the south, it quickly spread to the African-American neighborhoods of the nation's big cities. It would soon cause a cataclysmic revolution in popular music. It was called, quite simply, the blues.
The word "blues" is used here in three different, but interconnected, ways: to describe a psycho-emotional state of mind, to delineate a musical form, and to refer to a special musical culture.
BLUES AS A PSYCHOEMOTIONAL STATE
Elizabethan folks in the late 1500s said they had the "blue devils" when they felt unexplainably sad. They used the term to suggest that the sadness could not be traced to any particular event, so there was no real cure for it. They would just have to wait until the "blue devils" took flight.
It was not until the late 1800s in America, that the term "blues" came into common use. The first appearance in print may have been on December 14, 1862, when Charlotte Forten, a young black school teacher in South Carolina, returned from church, and wrote in her diary, "Nearly everybody was looking gay and happy, and yet I came home with the blues" (Oliver 1969, 8). By the late 1800s the term was common, and it is still used today to indicate a melancholy feeling of no specific origin, or, perhaps, of such a complex origin as to defy analysis and description.
BLUES AS A MUSICAL FORM
The 12-bar musical form (see p. 65) evolved from poetic declarations in the shape of a rhymed couplet, with the first line repeated. The repetition of the first line, and the musical space that follows each utterance of that first line, gives the second and final line a sense of closure. The couplet can be a complete episode in itself, or it can be a tiny chapter in an unfolding narrative.
The old timers were not conscious of this form, of course; they simply sang what felt right to them. It was often not a blues pattern at all. But, by the middle of the 1920s the 12-bar design was so common among bluesmen that mainstream jazz and Tin Pan Alley musicians took it as their model, and it fell into place as a permanent musical design in American popular music.
Blues topics seldom include the normal concerns of European poetry – trees, sunsets, bubbling brooks, birds, clouds, moonlight, rainbows, and such. Instead, blues lyrics address the deepest and most permanent of human circumstances in areas personal, financial, sexual, and social. The mixture of story-telling inclinations and musical instincts led quite naturally to the tradition now called the blues.
BLUES AS A MUSICAL CULTURE
The blues is essentially the secular half of the folk music of the American black community, the religious half being, of course, that great body of spirituals and gospel tunes. The entire field of American black music has its roots in African culture, to be sure, but it absorbed and reworked enough European traits as to become a unique art form separate from either parent.
Two major areas of blues activity arose in the early 1900s, one authentic and pure from the black culture, the other a New York pop-commercial blues from Tin Pan Alley.
The study of authentic blues challenges even the most determined scholars because of the overlapping historical periods and performance styles. For all the complexities, though, at least three distinct styles of authentic blues can be isolated: country blues, city (classic) blues, and urban blues in two forms – small band and solo keyboard (known as "boogie-woogie"). Many blues musicians have moved through a couple of the styles, and each style can still be found somewhere in America today. Vocals are nearly always part of the art form.
In 1895 near Cleveland, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta region, Will Dockery started a cotton plantation farm with hired hands and sharecroppers. By chance, many of his hired hands (who moved on to the land, family and all) turned out to be gifted musicians. One of the most important figures in the entire history of the blues, Charlie Patton (1887-1934), lived there from his teens until he left at age thirty-four. Often called the "Father of the Delta Blues", this "small, lean, wavy-haired young man with the powerful deep voice" began to record in his early 40s, and established a country blues style which inspired a great many followers (Oliver 1969, 31-32).
This country blues style favored spoken introductions and endings, strong "on the beat" phrasing, unamplified guitar, and much freedom in the formal structure of the songs and texts. Several regional schools arose. In Texas, Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897-1930) and Alger "Texas" Alexander (1880-1955) developed single-line guitar techniques, and were, generally, less guttural and heavy than the Delta-based Charlie Patton, Eddie James "Son" House, Jr. (1902-1988), and Robert Johnson (1911-1938) and later, Booker T. Washington "Bukka" White (1909-1977).
On the Eastern seaboard, certain white folk music traits came into the music of Blind Boy Fuller (born Fulton Allen (1907-1941)), Walter Brown "Brownie" McGhee (1915-1996), Sonny Terry (born Saunders Terrell (1911-1986)), and Joshua Barnes "Peg Leg" Howell (1988-1966). Working in medicine shows, house parties, and dance halls in Tennessee, Walter E. "Furry" Lewis (1893-1981) and John "Sleepy" Estes (1889-1977) laid down the roots of a Memphis style of country blues. In Louisiana, it was the albino Rufus Perryman (1892-1973), known as "Speckled Red", who established a regional style with his boogie piano.
Separate from any strong regional mannerisms, Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter (1885-1949) fought and drank his way into the history books on his own. Scholars John and Alan Lomax got him out of prison several times, presented him in concerts and clubs, and recorded his best material for the Library of Congress. Big and strong at an early age, Leadbelly (the result, myth has it, of a gun fight) served often as the lead singer for the prison gang work songs so essential for coordinated effort in breaking rocks, digging out tree stumps, driving steel spikes, etc. Leadbelly's recordings include a variety of work songs, blues, and folk songs. Many of these tunes were adapted by British groups in the 1950s (Logan and Woffinden 1977, 34).
Robert Johnson's 1936-1937 recordings show the country blues tradition at its best:
Despite their lack of technical polish, the songs come through with remarkable emotional intensity. Johnson's high nasal voice was made for the blues, and he drew wonderful qualities from his guitar. Through poetic lyrics he was able to speak of his buried longings, wanderlust, and torments. Through language unique to the blues, Johnson brought the imagery of the most basic human drives and fears to a height rarely achieved (Megill and Demory 1984, 16).
In groups, these country bluesmen appeared in string bands with fiddle, upright bass, occasionally mandolin or banjo, and, of course, guitar, but also with washboards, gutbuckets, kazoos, and harmonicas in what the Americans call a "jug band", and the British call a "skiffle band". Recordings of these blues patriarchs were well known all over Europe, especially in Great Britain.
In August 1920, a Cincinnati girl, Mamie Smith (1883-1946), recorded "Crazy Blues", originally known as "Harlem Blues", in the Okeh (pronounced "okay") studios in New York. To everyone's surprise, the tune opened up a big market for a whole field of singers who soon came to be known as the "Classic Blues Singers". Victoria Spivey (1906-1976), Sippie Wallace (1898-1986), and Sara Martin (1884-1955) followed at Okeh; Alberta Hunter (1895-1984), Ida Cox (1896-1967) and Ma Rainey (c. 1882-1939) came out on Paramount; Bessie Smith (1898-1937) and Clara Smith (c. 1894-1935) on Columbia; Trixie Smith (1895-1943) on the Black Swan label.
Of the five unrelated Smith women who sang the blues, Bessie Smith was the most powerful and original. She recorded 180 songs for Columbia between 1923 and 1933, backed by the likes of saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, clarinetist Benny Goodman, pianist Clarence Williams, trombonist Jack Teagarden, and other big league jazzmen. Highly theatrical, tall and brown-skinned, dripping buxom good looks just this side of voluptuous, shapely as an hourglass, with a high-voltage rhythmic delivery, Bessie took charge of any musical situation, and sang like a woman "cutting her heart open with a knife" (Shaw 1986, 97). She was justly called the "Empress of the Blues".
Smith's first professional job was with a small travelling troupe of entertainers, gaining an audition because her older brother, Clarence, had been a member of the same troupe for about eight years. She was hired as a dancer, though, not a singer, since another as yet unknown singer was already a member of the group – "Ma" Rainey (born Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett). Eventually, Rainey did become a star, performing on stage with a necklace of 20-dollar gold pieces to match the many flashy gold fillings in her smile. She toured the black vaudeville circuit, and recorded some 90 titles for Paramount between 1924 and 1928. Her recording of "See See Rider" was one of the first, and the best of the more than 100 versions since. A "rider" is a sexual partner, incidentally.
Ma Rainey earned her title, "Mother of the Blues". She taught Bessie many a lesson in how to control an audience and how to handle money, booze, and sex in the rough world of black show business. Ma Rainey was the original, earthy, raw blues singer, exploiting all the possibilities of double and hidden meanings in her songs. She spent most of her career under canvas in the South, backed by jug bands and blues guitarists. While equally raw and powerful, Bessie Smith played the theaters and clubs of the North, with professional jazzmen in accompaniment, and, perhaps because of her more complex and tortured nature, delivered a more intensely personal, yet universal blues message. Ma Rainey retired comfortably in the mid-1930s and died peacefully in 1939.
With huge appetites for food, liquor, and sex, Bessie Smith eventually destroyed herself and ended up in bawdy, third-rate blues clubs, and doing vaudeville mammy routines in costume (Shaw 1986, 98). She died as a result of an automobile accident in 1937.
The city blues culture was dominated by women, but one man, Perry Bradford (1893-1970), caused a lot of good things to happen behind the scenes. Singer, dancer, songwriter, pianist, publisher, and astute manager, Bradford promoted Clara Smith, and wrote a dozen or so dance songs, "The Original Black Bottom" being the most famous. He was also very active in getting white record companies to hire professional jazzmen behind the blues singers.
What was recorded may not have been exactly characteristic of the field-at-large. The jazz professionals who backed up the female blues stars probably gave the music more of a "citified jazz" sound than what was the typical sound on the vaudeville circuit, in the medicine shows, at the fish fries, in the minstrel shows, and in the lower class blues clubs. Even without the professional jazzmen in back of them, however, the "city blues" women were carving out a new and different blues tradition.
In 1933, a blues contest was held in Chicago. The entrants included a little lady who had the face of a librarian but the musical muscle of a longshoreman. Minnie Douglas McCoy, known as Memphis Minnie, was part of a group of bluesmen exiles from the South, who had begun as down-home singers, settled in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, and developed a style that became known as Urban Blues (Shaw 1986, 115).
By age 15, Lizzie Douglas (1897-1973) was singing in the streets of Memphis under the name "Kid Douglas", and a year later she joined the Ringling Brothers Circus. In 1929, she was discovered by a Columbia talent scout who gave her the stage name "Memphis Minnie", and was recorded extensively with her husband, Joe McCoy (given the name "Kansas Joe" by the same scout), playing a bass line on a second guitar. Settling down, she took Chicago by storm, with her formidable guitar technique and powerful, expressive voice, "the best female blues singer outside the Classic idiom." Her legendary "Blue Monday parties" became a training ground for young aspirants and a positive influence in the growth and development of Chicago's urban blues community (Oliver 1969, 110).
Many forces were at work to make Chicago the 1930s blues hot spot of the nation. Two personalities stand out. Lester Melrose, manager of Bluebird Records, Victor's new subsidiary, made Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958) his resident guitarist and contractor of musicians. In addition to his own duties at Bluebird, Melrose nudged Vocalion and Decca to record a host of the blues artists newly arrived in Chicago – Georgia Tom (born Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993), later of gospel music fame), Jazz Gillum (born William McKinley Gillum (1904-1966)), Washboard Sam (born Robert Brown (1910-1966)), Sonny Boy Williamson (born John Lee Curtis Williamson (1914-1948)), Bumble Bee Slim (born Amos Easton (1905-1968)), Tampa Red (born Hudson Woodbridge, later Whittaker (1904-1981)), Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson (1899-1970), Memphis Slim (born John Len Chapman (1915-1988)), Memphis Minnie, and Bukka White.
While city blues recording sessions featured keyboard accompanists, recordings of urban blues highlighted the guitar and jug band instruments. Urban blues was a strange mixture.
A photograph of Washboard Sam (Robert Brown) epitomizes the ambivalence of outlook in urban blues. There he stands, attired in a neat, double-breasted suit, wearing a tie, and with spats on his feet – but he holds an ordinary washboard, mounted with two cowbells, and there are thimbles on the fingers of his right hand. The man has become a city slicker, but his instrument is a downhome contraption. He is a fusion of the rural and the urban, of country tradition and city sophistication. This ambivalence found expression in an early urban style known as "hokum" (Shaw 1986, 117).
Broonzy led a group called the Famous Hokum Boys, one of several groups which blended the old with the new – the Hokum Trio, Harum Scarum, and the Hokum Jug Band (ibid). "Hokum" was the "good-natured guying of simple folkways", and hokum bands were "comic, ribbing, good-time groups who used guitars, piano, kazoo, string bass, clarinet, even, in imitation of the country string bands, but with urban sophistication" (Oliver 1969, 100). Not all urban blues groups were tongue-in-cheek hokum groups, of course.
Boogie-Woogie. Another kind of urban blues grew up among piano players in the lumber and turpentine camps of Texas and Louisiana, and soon spread to the inner-city clubs of the Mid-West, especially Chicago. It was called boogie-woogie. Leadbelly said it was called "fast western" or "fast blues" when he heard it in Texas in 1899 (Megill and Demory 1984, 47).
It's infectious music. Eighth-note ostinato patterns generate a hypnotic motor rhythm in the left hand, while the right hand embroiders a variety of highly ornamented melodies to "energize the already thick texture" (ibid.). A solo pianist can whip up an entire crowd of dancers with boogie-woogie, and he often did at the "rent parties" in Chicago. To raise enough cash to make their next rent payment, inner-city blacks would roll back the living room carpet, get a pianist, and invite everyone in the neighborhood for an evening of food, dancing, drinking, and socializing. At the end of the evening, the big glass jar on top of the piano would usually be filled with enough money to pay the pianist and most of the rent. Rent parties were sometimes called "boogies" (Shaw 1986, 119).
James Edwards Yancy (1894-1951) sang and danced on the vaudeville circuit from age 6 to 21, then worked in Chicago as a full-time groundsman at Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox, and as a part-time pianist at rent parties and small clubs. His home at 35th and State became a hangout for boogie-woogie pianists to whom he was a teacher and, in time, father figure. Among those young men were Meade "Lux" Lewis (1905-1964), Cripple Clarence Lofton (born Albert Clemens (1887-1958)), Pine Top Smith (born Clarence Smith (1904-1929)), and Albert Ammons (1907-1949) (Shaw 1986, 120). Since the 1920s, each generation of pop musicians seemed to discover boogie-woogie, and give its basic "shuffle rhythm" concept a fresh new treatment.
What Charlie Patton, "Father of the Delta Blues", had done for the black community, William C. Handy (1873-1958) did for the white. Although Handy himself was African-American, he created the conditions for a "white synthesis" of the black art form (Shaw 1986, 122).
Handy's father, an Alabama minister, permitted his son to study organ and theory, but was opposed to a career in music. The bright child could not resist the glamour of music, though, and behind his father's back, he began playing cornet in a local band. In 1892, Handy traveled to Birmingham to take an exam to obtain a teaching certificate, but he quit teaching shortly after he began because of the low wages, favoring instead a better paying job in a local ironworks.
In his off-hours, he started a travelling music group, called the Lauzetta Quartet. After traveling the Midwest for a short time, the quartet disbanded, and Handy ended up in Evansville, Indiana. A few years later, Handy became the bandleader of Mahara's Colored Minstrels, which traveled for three years around the country and, once, to Cuba.
He was a highly educated man and a superb musician. In no time at all he was a successful arranger, cornet soloist, and bandleader. One evening he had a quasi-conversion experience.
He was leading his dance orchestra in Cleveland, Mississippi, when he agreed to let a local "colored" band play a few numbers. It was a three-piece band, consisting, he wrote in his autobiography, "of a battered guitar, a mandolin, and a worn-out bass... They struck up one of those over-and-over strains that seems to have no very clear beginning and certainly no ending..."
But it drove the dancers wild, who responded with a steady shower of coins. "There before the boys lay more money than my musicians were being paid for the entire engagement. Then I saw the beauty of the primitive music" (Shaw 1986, 122-123).
By 1909, Handy had another band and had settled in Memphis, Tennessee. He began to orchestrate some of the local blues and pop tunes for his dance orchestra. He then wrote a campaign song for E. H. Crump's mayoralty race. Later, that tune became the famous "Memphis Blues". Several more blues compositions followed until 1914 when "St. Louis Blues" took the world by storm. In no time at all W. C. Handy was the darling of Tin Pan Alley. "St. Louis Blues" is, ironically, not in blues form, but rather in binary form consisting of an eight-measure A section (repeated) and a twelve-measure B section of blues chord progressions. It was seized upon as the real thing, however, and went all over the world. Before long, some 200 different blues titles appeared on Broadway, in sheet music and on recordings. It was a national craze, and everybody in the industry – composers, performers, producers, recording executives, and audiences – fell in love with the blues.
As a result, even the giants of Tin Pan Alley got into the act, writing a great many tunes that were either genuine blues or had a strong blues spirit: Jerome Kern, "Left All Alone Blues" and "Blue Danube Blues"; George Gershwin, "The Yankee Doodle Blues" and "Half of It Dearie Blues"; from London, Noel Coward, "Russian Blues"; Richard Rodgers, "Atlantic Blues"; Irving Berlin, "Shaking the Blues Away"; Jimmy McHugh, "Out Where the Blues Begin"; and DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson, "The Birth of The Blues".
W. C. Handy's many other blues compositions turned a profit and he formed a publishing house to take advantage of his growing skills. But it was "The St. Louis Blues" that brought him the most lasting fame. King Edward VIII asked the pipers of Scotland to play it for him, it was played at the marriage of Princess Marina of Greece, and it became the battle hymn of the Ethiopians when they were invaded by Italy in the 1930s. It is even said to be a favorite tune of Queen Elizabeth II (Ewen 1977, 221).
From the early 1900s up through the 1930s, the African-American art form called the blues changed the entire concept of what an American pop tune might be. It opened a whole new musico-aesthetic territory for exploration, leading directly and immediately into its own electric extension, called "rhythm and blues", but also leading into that cataclysmic upheaval in American pop culture, the rock revolution.
More on these topics, soon. But first, it's time to see what piano players outside the blues community were doing.