Music of the people: The Blues

Mitch Mitchell is back with another people’s music playlist. This time he’s here with a brief history of The Blues. Earlier playlists introduced Skiffle and Doo Wop.

Trixie Smith
Trixie Smith (c.1885/95-1943). Her ‘My man rocks me’ was released on the first African American owned label in 1922.

The music we know as The Blues has many sources. The slaves who toiled in the cotton fields made up songs, often repetitive ‘call and response’ songs, to alleviate the boredom and back-breaking monotony of the work and also to sing in a style and language that the bosses and slave-masters couldn’t understand.

The disproportionately black work gangs in the prisons and penitentiaries of the Southern states would often sing songs again to break the tedium. This was hilariously spoofed in the movie Blazing Saddles (dir. Mel Brooks, 1974).

After the invention of the gramophone and the move from the original wax cylinders to 10 inch, 78 rpm records, companies began looking for songs and artists to record. The label bosses had noted the popularity of acts who played in the bars and gin joints around America and wanted to sign them up, often to very exploitative contracts.

The first African American owned label was called Black Swan records and was formed in late 1917. In 1922, it released this track by Trixie Smith:

Trixie recorded this song several times and for several labels between 1922 and 1938. Sadly, the label folded in the mid-1920s as it was unable to get distribution or plays on the fledgling radio stations.

The 1920s were fertile grounds for the music which mainly stemmed from the Mississippi Delta and, fairly obviously, became known as ‘Delta Blues’. One well known exponent of Delta Blues was Big Bill Broonzy, here singing about racial discrimination:

A number of women singers became very popular during the 1920s. Many women blue singers sang songs full of double meanings. One of the best known was Bessie Smith who, whilst singing about sexual relationships with men, was actually lesbian. This one is a prime example of double entendre:

After the war many African Americans migrated north to the car factories of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors in Chicago and Detroit. They took their music with them, but toughened it up with the help of the newly invented electric guitar.

One such was McKinley Morganfield who became better known as Muddy Waters. He had been a singer in the Delta region, but, inspired by the music of T-Bone Walker, arguably the first electric guitarist, he went to Chicago to audition for the newly formed Chess record label, having had some of his earlier work released by other labels.

Muddy became a great success for the label which was run by two white, Jewish brothers, Phil and Leonard Chess. Here’s one of his better known tracks:

Many of the tracks released by Chess were taken from masters recorded by the Memphis Recording Service. This was the first business venture of Sam Phillips whose name was later to become synonymous with rock ‘n roll when he formed the Sun record label.

Several of Howlin’ Wolf’s tracks (real name Chester Burnette) were recorded by Phillips in this way and sold either to Modern Records, a quite large and successful Hollywood label, or to Sun. Phillips also used to take his tape recordere out and about and on one occasion visited the local prison where he recorded inmates singing this. The lead vocalist was Johnny Bragg and all of them were lifers.

With the advent of record sales charts in 1941 in the US music trade magazines Billboard and Cash Box, different genres each had their own chart. There was a ‘Country’ chart, a ‘Jazz’ chart, the ‘Pop’ chart which was the main one to get a hit single in and what was known as the ‘Race Music’ chart for blues and other songs by African Americans.

Then, in 1948, a young journalist with Billboard named Jerry Wexler persuaded his editors to change the name from Race to ‘Rhythm and Blues’. Wexler went on to be the A&R manager at Atlantic records and nurtured the careers of many star names, most notably Aretha Franklin.

In the USA, radio stations were generally targeted at specific sections of the population. This meant that there were country stations, jazz stations and black music stations. The mainstream was served by the larger companies that had much more powerful transmitters and were able to reach all parts of the country. Blues and Rhythm and Blues tracks were mainly confined to the black stations, although in the early 1950s, this was beginning to change as young people, both black and white began buying the same records and listening to the same music stations.

Therefore many of the artists began to be heard by new audiences but it took the ‘British Invasion’ of the early 1960s to make stars of people such as Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson and others, their songs being part of the repertoires of British Bands like The Animals, The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones. Here are The Animals with one of their bluesy tracks:

As the 1960s wore on, white Americans formed blues outfits and people such as The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat and Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin, put their stamp on the music and played at many of the festivals such as Monterey and Woodstock.

Although many bands to this day still play blues and rhythm and blues, it has become a sub-genre since about the mid-1970s, although the introduction of CDs in the 1980s revived the careers of many of the surviving artists.

In addition to the people I have named in this piece, I suggest you look for tracks by B.B. King, Albert King, Slim Harpo, Freddie King, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightning Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lazy Lester, Little Walter, Robert Johnson, Andrew Tibbs, and many others, too numerous to mention…

But for now I’ll end with this guy:


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