The blues started off in the Deep South of America, in the rural regions of Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama. The first recorded mention was by W.C. Handy, a bandleader who was waiting for a train in Tutwiler Mississippi. He recalled seeing a man playing a guitar using a knife on the frets and singing.
I visited that station and sat on the bench. It was hot, humid and sultry. I could imagine.
The blues developed out of African rhythms on European instruments. In those early days there were no drums. Drums were banned. It was widely believed that the African Slaves could talk and organise through their drumming.
The deep South and particularly the fertile Mississippi delta , was the place for big plantations growing cotton, soy bean and corn. They used black slaves brought over from Africa.
The blues probably developed as a music form around 1900. It went on to become the basis of Jazz and Rock ‘n’ Roll and is still developing today.
People think of the blues as being sad. The romantic view is that it expresses the melancholy of the oppressed black slaves. That is far from the full picture. The blues covers a wide spectrum of styles and uses. It was used in the fields to entertain and create rhythm for manual work. A lot of the blues shouts come out of this. It was used as dance music at the jukes and was lively and bright. It was used as entertainment in the brothels and bawdy houses where boogie-woogie piano developed. It was used for busking on street corners or performances in inns. It was also used to express emotion and feeling. It was even used to express sexuality, full of earthy expressions and double entendres. Rarely was there any overt political or social comment, at least not in the recorded versions. Given the oppressive circumstances, lynchings and activities of white supremacist groups such as the Klu Klux Klan this was hardly surprising.
A number of the early exponents were disabled in some way. If you were blind, legless or handicapped you had no way of earning a living. Music gave you an opportunity.
The early exponents were people like Texas Alexander, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, Kokomo Arnold, Peg Leg Howell, Tommy Johnson and Bo Carter.
Bo Carter specialised in the use of double entendre. White society was very puritanical and a lot of his stuff would have been quite shocking. Charlie Patton was an early Hendrix. He’d play the guitar behind his back, through his legs and back to front. Tommy Johnson had a trick of doing handstands on the guitar while playing. The object of the showmanship was to attract a big audience. They’d vie with each other on street corners.
By the 1930s the style had reached its peak. The great Son House (A leading exponent of the national steel guitar using bottle-neck), who I saw perform in 1968, taught Robert Johnson how to play. Robert, who was poisoned in 1937 at the age of 23, had perfected a style that was intricate, melodic and poetic. His songs went on to form the backbone of everything that followed.
I visited all three of Robert’s graves and paid homage.
I had the privilege of talking to Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards who was with Robert on the night he got poisoned. He told me which of the three was the real one. It is the one at the back of the church.
It makes you wonder what might have been – if Robert had gone on to live and produce music of such quality the world would have been all the richer. It wasn’t to be and all we have left is thirty seven tracks recorded in hotel rooms on portable equipment over three sessions. They are scintillating.
Look what came out of them!