Red, White, & Blues: A Brief History of the Blues

Woke Up This Mornin’

“Quite impossible to copy, weird in interval and strange in rhythm; peculiarly beautiful” – Charles Peabody on early Blues music/singing 

            In June 1901, Charles Peabody headed to Clarksdale, Mississippi in order to conduct an archaeological dig on Native American dirt mounds.  The goal of this trip was to unearth the remains of Native American culture in the Mississippi Delta.  Peabody hired a work crew of black men, who broke out into song as soon as they began working.  What Peabody discovered and wrote about in the 1903 Journal of American Folklore would serve as the first historical documentation of what would later become known as the blues.

The west coast of Africa (also known as the Slave Coast) was home to a wide array of musical styles, which were merged together in the cotton fields of the south.  Blacks from Senegambia to the Congo were brought together through slavery, which helped lay the foundation for blues as we know it today.

By the turn of the 20th century, blues music was still heavily rooted in the African call-and-response and percussion based styles that were prevalent on the west coast of Africa.  This style was used by many of the early slaves as a means of maintaining rhythm while they worked as well as helping the time move by.  One person would begin the chant and the rest would provide the chorus.

The physical composure of blues music often consists of driving, forward-moving rhythms, which repeat throughout the song.  The rhythmic repetition works to accent the tonal alterations of the singer’s voice.  These vocal alterations typically range “from grainy falsetto shrieks to affected hoarseness, throaty growls, and guttural grunting.”  However, the blues of slavery is markedly different from the blues of Reconstruction and the 20th century.

During slavery, the music was focused more on singing and traditional African music practices.  Drumming was banned by many plantation owners as it was used to orchestrate escape attempts.  Many slaves got around this using a method calling “juba”, which consisted of smacking the shoulders while singing and timing the pats with their feet.

As a result, the blues became heavily based around improvisation, forcing the bluesman to utilize whatever he had at his disposal to produce a wide range of sounds.  This open-ended approach towards music led many of the early blues musicians to experiment and play with a variety of styles ranging from European dance music to American folk music.

Reconstruction and twentieth-century blues was proof of this musical mélange.  Once the Civil War had ended, emancipation had provided many former slaves with a mobility that was previously unknown to them.  While many blacks stayed on the very plantations where they were enslaved, others took up traveling, carrying their guitar (if they were able to acquire one) wherever they went.

It is important to note that from 1865 to 1890, the blues did not exist—at least formally.  The Sears-Roebuck catalog and other mail-order services did not start offering guitars at affordable prices until the 1890s, at which point black sharecroppers and tenant farmers began purchasing them.

At the time, the Mississippi Delta—an area located in northwest Mississippi between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers—was home to a diverse music scene that further influenced the early bluesman’s repertoire.  Even once the guitar was common among black musicians, the blues was still non-existent in the Delta where, as Robert Palmer writes in Deep Blues, there existed a melting pot of: “hollers, work songs, spirituals, country string bands, fife and drum and brass bands, homemade percussion, guitar-accompanied ballads and jump-up songs,” but no blues.  For that, a historical trip to Dockery Farms in Cleveland, Mississippi is in order.

Goin’ Where the Southern Cross the Dog 

Get in trouble in Belzoni, there ain’t no use a-screamin’ and cryin’

Mr. Will will take you, back to Belzoni jailhouse flyin’

Le’ me tell you folksies, how he treated me

Le’ me tell you folksies, how he treated me

An’ he put me in a cellar, just as dark as it could be

There I laid one evenin’, Mr. Purvis was standin’ ’round

There I laid one evenin’, Mr. Purvis was standin’ ’round

Mr. Purvis told Mr. Will to, let poor Charley down

It takes booze and blues, Lord, to carry me through

~ Charley Patton, High Sheriff Blues

The blues is mythic in nature, which explains why its origins are still fairly unknown.  Its influences, while rooted in traditional African styles, are broad.  Early blues musicians seemingly took bits and pieces from every kind of music floating around during the late nineteenth-century, but one day, in the lower Mississippi Delta, the blues appeared.  No one knows for sure where it came from, but what is known is that Dockery Farms in Cleveland, Mississippi was a breeding ground for it.

Since Will Dockery wasn’t in the business of tricking uneducated black laborers out of wages, his farm tended to attract many of the free-spirited, guitar-wielding blacks such as Henry Sloan.  By 1897 Sloan was playing what he called the blues, making him one of the earliest known bluesmen.  However, little is known about Sloan.  What is known is that he played a rough, gritty style of music, which he taught Charley Patton, who came to the farm with his family in 1897.  At the time, Patton was playing guitar for two years, well-versed in the jump-ups and nineteenth-century ballads that were popular throughout the south.

Nevertheless, it may have been Sloan who introduced Patton to the blues, it was Patton who took that gritty early form and transformed it into a ferocious slashing and jumping style that became the Delta blues.  Fittingly so, Patton embodied the character traits of a true bluesman.  He was a heavy drinker, supposedly had eight wives, and had a tendency to get into fights despite weighing only 135 pounds and standing five-foot-five.

“Now Charley Patton was around playing on Saturday nights, or going from plantation to plantation, a new woman here and a new woman there, just having a party,” said Joe Dockery, son of Will Dockery.  “Daddy could have told you more about that, because he was closer to it.  I think they had to get Charley Patton out of jail half the time.”

As the father of the Delta blues, Patton was an incredibly adept song writer, writing songs that covered a range of topics from morality to nature.  Additionally, Patton was a lively performer who would beat the back of his guitar, throw it up in the air, play behind his back, and jump around on stage, whooping it up for the crowd.

By the time Patton’s mentor, Henry Sloan, had left for Chicago in 1918, Patton was well known throughout the Delta.  He began playing with Willie Brown in 1916, and the two had quite a following, playing all over the Delta, mostly at the Dockery’s and in various homes and juke joints.  Brown was more talented musically, but it was Patton’s eccentric live show that became the focus, often leading to disputes between the two.  Regardless of the occasional tiff, Brown and Patton would go on to influence some of the most famous and influential bluesmen, most notably Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson.


Went To The Crossroads

            Robert rests the guitar on his knee and does a song about a train station, a suitcase, and the eyes of a woman.  His voice is mournful, sad as steady rain, the guitar whining above it like a cry in the distance.  “Yes!” they call out.  “Robert!” Somebody whistles.  Then they applaud, waves on the rocks, smoke rising as if from a rent in the earth.  In response, the guitar reaches low for the opening bars of Robert’s signature tune, his finale, but there is something wrong—the chords staggering like a seizure, stumbling, finally breaking off cold.

            Cramps.  A spasm so violent it jerks his fingers from the strings.  He begins again, his voice quavering, shivered: “Got to keep moving, got to keep moving/Hellhound on my trail.”  And then suddenly the voice chokes off, gags, the guitar slips to the floor with a percussive shock.  His bowels are on fire.  He stands, clutches his abdomen, drops to his hands and knees.  “Boy’s had too much of that Mexican,” someone says.  He looks up, a sword run through him, panting, the shock waves pounding through his frame, looks up at the pine plank, the barrels, the cold, hard features of the girl with the silver necklace in her hand.  Looks up, and snarls.~ T.C. Boyle, Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail


You may bury my body ooh

Down by the highway side

So my old evil spirit

Can catch that Greyhound bus and ride.

~ Robert Johnson, Me and the Devil Blues


            Robert Johnson is credited with modernizing the blues well before the electric guitar and amplification became common among blues musicians.  Around 1930, when Robert was nineteen, Johnson crossed paths with Willie Brown, Charley Patton, and Son House.  Brown and House remember Robert’s early guitar playing as primitive and prone to drive folks crazy.

The harmonica was Robert’s instrument of choice early on, but being curious and interested in anything that produced a sound, the guitar attracted Robert.  After following Patton, Brown, and House around for some time, Robert up and left Robinsonville, probably as a result of Patton, Brown, and House’s drunken ridiculing, which focused on Robert’s sloppy guitar work.  Upon his return, roughly a year later, the primitive style of guitar that House and Brown had come to know Robert for had been stamped out during Robert’s time away from Robinsonville.

“So he sat down there and finally got started. And man! He was so good! When he finished, all our mouths were standing open. I said, ‘Well ain’t that fast?’” recalls Son House after hearing Robert’s new sound.

Robert left Robinsonville again, this time to travel, playing his style of blues wherever he went.  The new style was rooted in the Delta blues that he picked up from the likes of House, Patton, and Brown, but Robert developed a deep affinity for the East Coast Blues played by people like Lonnie Johnson, and it showed.

Robert went on down to his birthplace of Hazelhurst, Mississippi where he married an older woman who would serve as his “Sugar Mama” of sorts.  She would work while Robert would play.  It was Ike Zinnerman, a competent and adept bluesman who played an alternative type of Delta blues, who helped Robert develop his picking into the polished and electric form found on his 1936 recordings.  Robert’s fascination with death and the Devil could be linked to Zinnerman, who claimed to have learnt the blues by playing in graveyards at midnight.  Nevertheless, upon returning to Robinsonville and subsequently leaving again, Robert was now playing a style of blues that incorporated various genres of music into one, producing a unique kind of blues that was entirely Robert’s.

Robert Johnson’s style of blues was extremely innovative, serving as a glimpse into the future of the genre.  With a guitar, a slide, and his body, Robert was able to produce a sound that—to a person who wasn’t witnessing the lanky, sharp-dressed man—would appear as if a full band was behind the music.  He would tap his feet, drum on his guitar, howl, whoop, screech, yelp, and fret his guitar ferociously with his slider, all at once, creating a rich, clean, and full sound that would leave the audience and fellow bluesmen in awe.

He developed a serious case of wanderlust and had traveled throughout much of the south and east coast, playing Chicago and New York in the process.  On August 13th, 1938, Robert was playing a juke joint with Sonny Boy Williamson in Greenwood, Mississippi.  He also happened to be flirting with the owner’s wife.  Later in the evening, Robert was handed an open bottle of whiskey.  Sonny Boy warned him of the dangers of accepting an open bottle of booze, but Robert being drunk and stubborn, insisted on drinking it.  It turned out to be an “ice course” or strychnine-laced whiskey.

Robert became ill and died at his home on August 16th after lying in bed near death for three days; he was twenty-seven.  His death certificate claims he died of natural causes—the Devil, perhaps?  The way Robert lived, constantly moving from place to place, woman to woman, juke joint to juke joint serves to enforce the legend that surrounded him during his life and after his death.

Further evidence of this can be found by looking at his ominous last recording session on June 19th, 1937.  Among the songs recorded were “From Four Until Late”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, and “Hellhound On My Trail”.  All of the songs recorded on that day had dark undertones of a man who truly felt he was being pursued by the Devil.  Given the nature of Robert’s fame, which came (for the most part) posthumously, it seems that on a dark night in the Mississippi Delta, just before midnight, Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads, fell down on his knees, and sold his soul to the Devil.

I got to keep movin’

I got to keep movin’

blues fallin’ down like hail

Umm mmm mmm mmm

blues fallin’ down like hail

And the days keeps on worryin’ me

there’s a hellhound on my trail

~Robert Johnson, Hellhound On My Trail


Sweet Home Chicago

“Up here we have a little more freedom.  If we get off from work, buy us a bottle of whiskey, and take a drink, nobody objects.  If we get a little too much, as all of us do sometimes, the police take us to jail.  Next morning they let us out without having beat us over the head or making us pay a fine.  We think we get better protection from the law up here.  Going into towns down home, the law would get us, beat us up, handle us rough.  We don’t get that treatment here. ” ~ Unknown Black Man

            The Great Migration of southern blacks to northern cities, which began around 1916 and lasted until 1970, played a major role in the development of Chicago Blues.  Similar to Delta Blues in its importance to the blues genre, Chicago Blues served as the bridge between Delta Blues and Rock n’ Roll.  Incorporating horns, drums, and amplification, Chicago Blues stood apart from Delta Blues as it was louder, fuller, and more upbeat.  Nevertheless, the influence of the Delta was still very much prevalent in Chicago, flowing like an aquifer beneath the surface.

Additionally, harmonica leads became a norm of the “new” blues, primarily due to Sonny Boy Williamson.  Rather than filling the background, Sonny Boy introduced Chicago and the rest of the blues world to harmonica playing that stood on its own.  And it was bluesmen like Sonny Boy, who got their start in the Delta and the south that would shape Chicago Blues.

While Chicago offered a sanctuary from the racial turmoil and bigotry in the south during the outset of the twentieth-century, many employers refused to hire many African Americans as European immigrants were held in slightly better regard by a large percentage of factory owners.  The unfortunate part is that Chicago and other northern cities were better in regards to race relations, however, they were only better than the south, which was a steaming pile of hate-fueled illusion.  It wasn’t until World War I, when European immigration was severely hindered, that employers saw the value of African American workers.  With a shortage of laborers and a spike in demand, in addition to the Chicago Defender newspaper, the Great Migration began.

Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the first blues musicians to record locally in Chicago.  He also became the earliest blues musician to enjoy national success as far as record sales were concerned.  Recording with Paramount Records from 1925 until the time of his death in 1929, Blind Lemon Jefferson would serve as one of the last bluesmen to experience recording success prior to the Great Depression—Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Boy Williamson were among the other successful bluesmen.

The economic turmoil, which began in the mid-1920’s lasting through most of the 1930’s, caused a major drop off in overall phonograph record sales from 1926 to 1932.  Black performers experienced a sales decrease from five million dollars to a mere sixty-thousand.  This certainly curbed migration from the south—at least for bluesmen—but it did not stop it entirely.  By 1940, with war going on in Europe(again) a resurgence of black migration took place, bringing McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, to Chicago in 1943 at the age of twenty-eight.

The forties brought with it new problems: the invention of better agricultural machinery forced many black sharecroppers to find new work, which often meant going north and entering the industrial world that was supplying allied soldiers overseas.  Another invention, which hurt the bluesman more than anyone else, was the juke box.

The early days of Delta Blues saw musicians like Charley Patton who played a wide range of styles from white Appalachia hillbilly songs and deep blues to nineteenth-century ballads and European and American dance songs.  During the forties, the multi-talented and well-versed musicians such as Patton and Willie Brown gave way to specialists such as Muddy Waters and Son House, who were masters of Delta blues and spirituals.

During the late 1930’s blues in the Delta was, for the most part, stagnant. Additionally, jazz and similar musical forms were growing rapidly, causing jukeboxes to become increasingly popular outside of the bigger cities.

The north, specifically Chicago, came to serve as an incubator for the next stage in the evolution of blues music, which got back to its roots by finding inspiration in all forms of music.  With electric guitars and a slew of other instruments becoming fair game, a fiery musical renaissance took place.  Delta Blues was slower, rough, and gritty, while Chicago Blues was fast, intense, and loud.

However, Chicago wasn’t the only place where the new style of blues was being developed.  St. Louis was also a major center for musical innovation in both jazz and the blues, but it was Helena, Arkansas that helped boost the careers of many prominent and influential bluesmen such as Robert Lockwood Jr. (Robert Johnson’s stepson) and Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett.  During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Helena was dubbed “Little Chicago” as it was also fostering a kind of blues that focused more on bands and multiple instruments rather than a single individual and his guitar.

Rollin’ and Tumblin’

The blues come over me
I pack it up and go
The blues come over me
I catch the wind and blow

And some will take the wine
And some will take the night
When everything’s all wrong
Then anything is all right

~BB King, The Blues Come Over Me

            To say that one event, one place, or one person shaped blues music would be an incredibly naïve thing to do.  The evolution of the blues did not happen in one place by one person at one time.  Instead, the progression of the blues can best be explained as a massive culmination based around a basic foundation of shared social conflicts and musical ideas, spread out over decades.  Certainly, there were bluesmen that had a greater impact than others, but all bluesmen borrowed from one another.  They were all afflicted by the blues and shared it accordingly.  After all, the blues is a music rooted in strife and struggle yet its function, for which it doesn’t get enough credit, is probably the most significant aspect of blues music.

Since many blacks were treated as subhuman during slavery, and as second class citizens after it, the blues served as an indirect way of protesting the injustices they faced on a regular basis.  Outright protest often would make their situation worse, so the blues worked to provide an outlet for the aggression, the rage, and the general disgust that many blacks were feeling during Reconstruction and much of the twentieth-century.

Just as the blues was used to indirectly protest the oppressive and bigoted forces that were trying to keep blacks on the lower rungs of the social ladder, blues music was also a coping mechanism.  By singing about one’s trouble, whether it was a failed relationship or an unfortunate encounter with the law, one was able to come to grips with it and use the experience to gain strength rather than allowing it to dampen their spirit.

Too often, people suppress their pains, their sorrows, and their shortcomings.  The blues works to confront strife head on, crashing like a freight train through a car stuck on the tracks.  In that sense, the blues allows one to keep moving rather than getting hung up on the troubles in their life.

As evidenced by the countless songs written about traveling, it appears that the wanderlust experienced by most bluesmen also played an integral role in the coping process.  Honeyboy Edwards once said, “I didn’t have a special place then.  Anywhere was home.  Where I do good, I stay.  When it gets bad and dull, I’m gone.”  This pick-up-and-go mentality was a major force both in musical composition and in the way many bluesmen lived their lives.  By singing about their troubles, they were allowing themselves to overcome the anguish that comes with misfortune.

This was incredibly necessary, given the nature of the times.  Blacks were frustrated with the situation that had been presented to them.  They were at an extreme disadvantage and, as stated earlier, outright protest would only make matters worse.  So the blues gave blacks an outlet to vent.  Some critics say this created a sense of complacency among the black community, causing them to accept the unjust situation rather than try to fix it.

However, the opposite was true.  The blues might not have dealt specifically with the issues of the time, but symbolism and veiled innuendo certainly addressed them.  Again, it was through indirect protest that bluesmen were able to share their pains as well as raise awareness of the hardships faced by not only themselves, but all of the oppressed.  It should come as no surprise then that many of the coal miners and Appalachian white folk admired black blues music immensely.

Both black and white musicians used music to deal with relatively similar problems, which were based around exploitation at the hands of powerful companies or persons.  During the 1890’s and early 1900’s, there was a unity among oppressed, poor whites and blacks, which was certainly strange for the time.  However, as economic and racial tensions worsened, this sense of unity, of shared pain and hardship became fragmented, and segregation became more and more commonplace.

Nevertheless, the blues helped people get through, on both sides of the racial fence.  It gave people a way of facing the churlish reality that they were presented with, all the while giving them strength to keep moving on.  It also served to celebrate the simple joys in life such as friends, love, and fun.  The influence of blues on modern music is clear.  Rock n’ Roll and R&B, two genres that have branched off into multiple sub-genres, were direct descendants of the blues.

In that sense, blues is the roots of modern music.  But the blues is more than that.  It is something everyone encounters, even if they never heard the twang of a slider as it shuffles up a fret.  The blues is a direct representation of everything a person needs in life. As Robert Palmer writes in Deep Blues, “Only a man who understands his worth and believes in his freedom sings as if nothing else matters.”

written: April 2008

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