The Delta: Blues Music 2003 Piero Scaruffi Blues music was the antithesis of city life, but the early recording of blues music was a New York affair. Several blues stars (Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida "Cox" Prather) started out in minstrel shows, and then simply migrated from the itinerant shows of the South to the permanent vaudeville theaters of New York, where their songs were written specifically for a broader audience by professional black songwriters such as William Handy, based in Memphis, who "composed" (but maybe simply published) several of the early "classics": Memphis Blues (originally written in 1909 for a political campaign, but published only in 1912), St Louis Blues (1914), Beale Street Blues (1916), Loveless Love (1921), Harlem Blues (1923), Careless Love Blues (1925). Handy was fully aware that he had "invented" a new musical genre, as he wrote in 1916: "I have added another form to musical composition and to the world". He realized that the key feature of blues music that made it unique was that it was about sorrow, not about joy. Handy made his own recording of these compositions with his Memphis Blues Band between 1917 and 1923. The orchestra featured trombone, clarinet, alto sax, violins, piano, tuba, string bass, drums and xylophone. He had clearly introduced elements of western harmony in the original blues (for example, one can detect a sixteen-bar tango within St Louis Blues). Handy also recorded one of the first songs with "jazz" in the title: Jazz Dance (1917). The twelve-bar structure that eventually became the standard was an invention of these urban songwriters: the original blues music was largely free form. The blues singers bridged different realms of black music, bringing together the styles and practices of the minstrel shows, of the vaudeville theaters, of ragtime and of their native rural environments. The first blues songs to be published, in 1912, were Baby Seals Blues, written by ragtime artist Artie Matthews, and Dallas Blues, written by white songwriter Hart Wand. Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image! Ohio-born Mamie Smith (not truly a blues singer, although black) sang two blues numbers written for her by black songwriter Perry Bradford: That Thing Called Love (february 1920), the first record by a black female artist, and Crazy Blues (august 1920), the first blues to become a nation-wide hit (with Willie Smith on piano). It sold 200,000 copies the first year. She was accompanied by the Jazz Hounds, that featured Memphis trumpeter Johnny Dunn, the first master of the plunger mute. Before Smith's hit, blues music only catered to the underworld of brothels and vaudeville theaters. Afterwards, blues music became as "respectable" as the black syncopated orchestras, despite the fact that it was a music about sorrow instead of joy. The idea of that record was largely due to its black producer, Alabama-born pianist Perry Bradford, a veteran of the minstrel-show circuit and now a songwriter, author of Lonesome Blues (1918), who had just composed the blues-based revue Made in Harlem (1918), that had starred Mamie Smith. He revised James Johnson's Mama's And Papa's Blues as Crazy Blues, architected the "respectable" sound of the record (different from the "wild" live sound of the Jazz Hounds) and convinced the label (Okeh) to release the first blues record by black musicians. In 1921 Okeh introduced a "Colored Catalog" targeting the black community, the first series of "race records". Alberta Hunter, from Memphis, followed suit in 1921 with How Long Sweet Daddy and had a hit with Gulf Coast Blues (1922) before joining the jazz orchestras. Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image! Bessie Smith, from Tennessee, made her first record in february 1923 (Alberta Hunter's Down Hearted Blues accompanied by Clarence Williams on piano and Williams' own Gulf Coast Blues), which became an instant hit, and in january 1925 she cut her version of St Louis Blues with Louis Armstrong on cornet. She was instrumental in both sculpting a powerful, emotional vocal style and in bridging the worlds of blues, pop and jazz. The musicians who played with her had to develop new styles of playing. Ted Wallace's House Rent Blues (july 1924) contrasted her with Fletcher Henderson's piano and Charlie Green's trombone. Pam Carter's Weeping Willow Blues (september 1924) featured piano, trombone and Joe Smith imitating Smith's vocals on cornet. William Handy's Careless Love Blues (may 1925) relied on a dialogue with Louis Armstrong's cornet that seems to "sing" as much as the singer. Ragtime pianist James Johnson accompanied her in the 32-bar song Peachin' The Blues (february 1927) and especially in Backwater Blues (february 1927). Her interpretation of James Johnson's Empty Bed Blues (march 1928) lasted six minutes (two sides of a 78-RPM record) with accompaniment of piano and trombone. The filmed 17-minute version of St Louis Blues (1929), sung by Bessie Smith with Louis Armstrong on cornet and James Johnson on piano, with an all-black cast and directed by Dudley Murphy, who had directed Le Ballet Mechanique (1924), may be considered the first music video. Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, from Georgia, debuted in 1923 and the following year delivered Blame It On The Blues and Night Time Blues, both written by pianist Thomas "Georgia Tom" Dorsey and accompanied by his Wildcats Jazz Band, and then See See Rider (recorded in october 1924 with Louis Armstrong on trumpet and Fletcher Henderson on piano). The first real star was perhaps Ethel Waters, from Los Angeles, who was first recorded in 1921 and featured in several musical comedies, and eventually obtained her own itinerant revue ("The Ethel Waters Vanities") and became a celebrity. All of them had moved to New York, and none of them was a real blues musician (an itinerant, street performer from the South). The "classic blues", as it came to be called, was not classic, and was not even blues. Alberta Hunter's most famous number, Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Mornin' (1924), was a ballad backed by Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, two jazz musicians. The bluesmen were starving in the South while the "classic" blues singers were getting rich in New York. These "classic" singers were almost all women, in the tradition of the old vaudeville shows. Their style was more polished, structured (twelve bars, no less and no more) and arranged (they fronted a band instead of playing the guitar). The first records featuring a blues guitar were Sylvester Weaver's instrumentals Guitar Blues/ Guitar Rag (1923), although the B side was played on a guitar-banjo, recorded in Louisville (Kentucky), and Charlie Jackson's Papa's Lawdy Lawdy Blues (1924), recorded in Chicago. Charlie Jackson's Shake That Thing (1925) was the first hit by a self-accompanied bluesman. (Jackson actually played a six-string banjo). One of the few female composers, Texas blueswoman Victoria Spivey recorded in St Louis, accompanying herself at the piano, her own Blue Snake Blues (1926), Arkansas Road Blues (1927), with Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson on guitar, Dope Head Blues (1927), T.B. Blues (1927), Toothache Blues (1928), a duet with Johnson, and Moaning Blues (1929). The country blues was initially heard in an "arranged" version, performed by "string bands" such as Bo Carter's. String bands had been common in plantations at the turn of the century for entertaining the masters. The popularity of the original bluesmen dates from much later. In 1926 Blind Lemon Jefferson became the first real bluesman ("country" bluesman) to enter a major recording studio. It was the beginning of a trend: record labels would go and look for talents in the Mississippi Delta region, bring them to the city, dress them up and send them to stage backed by a jazz combo. The blues music that white audiences heard in those days bore little resemblance to the blues music that was heard by black audiences in the "barrelhouses" and "juke points" of the South. Their songs were curtailed to three minutes because the 78 RPM record could hold only that much music. Their lyrics were censored to avoid any reference to sex. Their performance was constrained to sound as close as possible to the style of white singers. The African elements (the polyrhythms, the antiphonal singing, the vocal range) were diluted or avoided altogether. Many bluesmen of the South were too poor to buy instruments. They learned how to make music out of washboards, kazoos and jugs. Hometown Skiffle (1929), one of the earliest "samplers", coined the word "skiffle" to refer to such music. The record labels found out that there existed a market for "race records" among the liberal white audiences and the small black middle-class of the big cities, particularly New York and Chicago. The term "rock'n'roll" might be as old as any of these historical events. Trixie Smith cut My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll (1922) four years before Chuck Berry was born. In 1934 John Lomax and his son Alan began recording black music of the southern states, and discovered the gospel genre of "rocking and reeling" that had been around for years, if not decades. Despite being much older, the country blues of the Mississippi Delta region, south of Memphis, was recorded after the classic blues had already become a sensation in the big cities of the north. The country-blues style had no jazz combo: only a guitar and a harmonica. The most influential in Mississippi were: Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image! Charley Patton, a werewolf-like vocalist and sophisticated slide guitarist (two gifts that made his style the most fluid vocal-guitar duet of blues music) who wrote the classics High Water Everywhere (october 1929), Pony Blues (june 1929), Prayer of Death (june 1929), Moon Going Down (june 1930); Eddie "Son" House, another powerful vocalist who in 1930 recorded, as two-sided 78 RPM records, lengthy ballads such as Preachin' The Blues and My Black Mama, With guitarist Willie Brown and pianist Louise Johnson; Tommy "Snake" Johnson, an acrobatic vocalist who wrote Canned Heat Blues (1928), Big Road Blues, Cool Drink of Water Blues and Maggie Campbell (all recorded between 1928 and 1929, his only recording dates); Nehemiah "Skip" James, who introduced a less rhythmic, folkish style in Devil Got My Woman (1931), learned from his guitar teacher, I'm So Glad (1931) and Cypress Grove (1931); and "Mississippi" John Hurt, one of the first to enter a recording studio, with Avalon Blues (1928) as well as his adaptations of Candy Man Blues (1928) and Nobody's Dirty Business (1928), and one of the most archaic in style, but then forgotten for 34 years. Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image! St Louis' multi-instrumentalist Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson, one of the first black instrumentalists to make a record, used the violin in Falling Rain Blues (1925), and occasionally played the piano, but made his name with the "singing" (vibrato-laden) guitar lines that accompanied most of his blues and gospel numbers, such as Dark Was The Night Cold Was The Ground (1925), Woman Changed My Life (1926), You Don't See Into the Blues Like Me (1926), I Have No Sweet Woman Now (1926), Lonesome Jail Blues (1926), Love Story Blues (1926), Blue Ghost Blues (1927), Life Saver Blues (1927), Away Down In The Alley Blues (1928), Steppin' On The Blues (1930), plus Blue Blood Blues (1929) and Jet Black Blues (1929) recorded with Eddie Lang. His style (and his collaborations with jazz guitarist Eddie Lang) was instrumental in bringing together blues, jazz and pop. Memphis (Tennessee) had Walter "Furry" Lewis, one of the first to play the slide guitar with a bottleneck, whose Mr Furry's Blues (1927) and Cannonball Blues (1928) predated even Patton; and "Sleepy" John Estes, one of the most popular bluesmen since he debuted in 1929, his biggest success probably Married Woman Blues (1935). Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image! Texas boasted Blind Lemon Jefferson, the most versatile interpreter, a master of both dramatic recitation and guitar accompaniment who penned Bad Luck Blues (1926), Spivey's Black Snake Moan (1926), Matchbox Blues (1927), Booger Booger (1927), that transposed the left-hand piano boogie figures to the guitar, See That My Grave's Kept Clean (1927), and Penitentiary Blues (1928) but died in 1929 (the year that country blues became a brief fad); "Texas" Alger Alexander, a baritone who, unable to play the guitar, employed guitarist Lonnie Johnson and was the first to record the traditional House Of The Rising Sun (1928); "Blind" Willie Johnson, the greatest interpreter of religious music, who penned Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed (1927), Dark Was The Night (1927) for solo guitar and wordless humming, and Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning (1928); Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, discovered in 1933 in a prison by Alan Lomax, later a celebrity of New York's folk revival and thus the symbolic bridge between black and white folk music, who popularized Gussie Lord Davis' Goodnight Irene (1933), Midnight Special (1934), Rock Island Line (1936), Pick A Bale Of Cotton (1940) and Cottonfields (1941); and Mance Lipscomb (discovered only in 1959). Atlanta's "Blind" Willie McTell developed a dazzling technique at the 12-string guitar that sounded almost polyphonic, and composed songs influenced by white folk music such as Writin' Paper Blues (1927), Statesboro Blues (1928), Travellin Blues (1929) and Dying Crapshooter Blues (1940). Georgia's guitarist Arthur "Blind Blake" Phelps was fluent both in blues music, as in West Coast Blues (1926), that featured the line "we're gonna do that old country rock", and in ragtime music, as in Southern Rag (1927). Alabama's pianist Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport recorded Cow Cow Blues (1928), another precursor of boogie woogie, and, generally speaking, helped coin a blues style at the piano. Furry Lewis, John Hurt and Charley Patton were the guitarists who invented the "finger-picking" style of guitar playing (basically, imitating the structure of ragtime piano on the strings of the guitar, with the thumb strumming the strings to provide the rhythmic equivalent of ragtime's left hand, and the other fingers carrying the melody). North Carolina's guitarist Elizabeth Cotton/Cotten developed a left-handed style (plucking the melody with her thumb on the high strings) and demonstrated it in her Freight Train (1958), composed at the age of 11 (in 1906) but recorded only at the age of 63. Blues music was mainly vocal (it's whole reason to exist was in the lyrics), but the instrumental styles developed to accompany it would be no less influential on the future of popular music. Between 1926 and 1929, several of the legends of the Delta had been recorded. During the Depression, black music continued to spread. But the social setting was changing dramatically, thanks to the ghettoes that had grown exponentially after the first world war: Harlem in New York and South Side in Chicago. The most successful black singer of the 1930s was Tennessee's Leroy Carr, also a pianist who formed an influential duo with guitarist Scrapper Blackwell (the main guitar stylist of the era with Lonnie Johnson) for How Long How Long (1928), a song that broke the established rules of blues music (both vocal and instrumental), while his existential angst permeated the solo blues Six Cold Feet In The Ground (1935) and the tuneful When The Sun Goes Down (1935). Another piano-guitar duo became a staple of the clubs of St Louis: demonic vocalist and pianist Peetie Wheatstraw (William Bunch) and guitarist Charley Jordan. Between his debut in 1930 and his death in 1941, Wheatstraw was one of the most popular and prolific bluesmen. One of the great stylists of the blues was South Carolina's itinerant blind guitarist Gary Davis, who already in 1935 created a soulful fusion of blues and gospel, later perfected in I Cannot Bear My Burden By Myself (1949) and Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning (1956), but didn't achieve recognition as an innovative guitarist until he turned sixty, with Cocaine Blues (1957), Candy Man (1957) and the instrumentals Buck Dance and I Didn't Want To Join The Band (1957), all off his seminal album Pure Religion and Bad Company (1957), Death Don't Have No Mercy (1960) and Lovin' Spoonful (1965). He played the guitar like he played the piano, and was not afraid of complex tunings, minor keys and dissonance, of mixing ragtime, country and marches with blues chords. His fellow countryman Blind Boy Fuller (Fulton Allen) was influenced by Davis' guitar style, and his Rattlesnake Daddy (1935), Big Leg Woman Gets My Pay (1938) and Step It Up And Go (1940) harked back to the pre-blues era. Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image! A watershed year is 1936, when Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson cut his first record. A legend who lived only 27 years and recorded only 29 songs, but enough to establish a new (chilly and fatalistic) standard of delivery and accompaniment, Johnson perfected the styles of Charley Patton and Son House (and the guitar style of Lonnie Johnson) in the harrowing Terraplane Blues, Cross Road Blues, the bleak Stones In My Passway, Come On In My Kitchen (with his best bottleneck workout), Love In Vain (modeled after Leroy Carr's When The Sun Goes Down), Dust My Broom, and the lyrical Hellhound On My Trail (all recorded in 1936-37), Booker "Bukka White" Washington was perhaps the last of the great Mississippi singer-guitarists, immortalized by Shake 'Em Down (1937) as well as Fixin' to Die (1940) and Parchman Farm Blues (1940), with Washboard Sam. In 1939 Leo Mintz opened a record store in Cleveland, the "Record Rendezvous", that specialized in black music and was serving a white audience: black music found an audience beyond the ghetto.