I first came across the blues through this image. It was on the front cover of King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II, a collection of recordings by Robert Johnson, which by the miracle of twentieth-century production and distribution systems had made its way from the 1930s Mississippi Delta to 1970s Whitstable public library. I knew of blues music tangentially, because I knew Bob Dylan’s early work and the influences that he cited among the great American bluesmen. I knew of the music unconsciously because almost every popular rock song owed something to the structure and style of the blues. The blues were universal.
But I had not as yet heard any of the original bluesmen, and I was haunted by the mysteriousness of the image. Who was this black man, with his guitar and recording set-up in a hotel room? Why was there a painting of him and not a photograph? Why had he turned his back on us? Why was he singing to the wall? What sort of a king was this?
I had some fun putting together a series of posts on guitar solos, basslines, drumming and singers, which came together to say something, perhaps, on how musicians come together to create song. I could have gone on with the series (producers? rhythm guitarists? keyboardists?) but I didn’t see much point to it. Instead, I thought it would be interesting to take a different tack and look at genres. Having brought the musicians together, we need to give them something to play. Let us begin with the blues.
Blues, like all genres, is specific to a time, a place and a people. Musically it rose out of the work songs, hollers, spirituals and ballads sung by African-Americans in the late 19th century. Socially it was a product of a post-slavery, post-Reconstruction black American society which ostensibly had greater freedoms but remained imprisoned by white society. Music and social condition then fused as one. We are what we sing.
Blues evolved in the early years of the 20th century into its own distinctive form, characterised by the repeated lines of the AAB pattern; the adoption of eight, twelve or sixteen bar forms; the tonic, sub-dominant, dominant chord progression; and the bent or blue note, whose wavering uncertainty gave the music of the last century so much of its character, and which is now being Autotuned out of existence.
Blues gained its name from a feeling. Etymologists have traced the used on the word back to the 17th century and a British phrase, ‘blue devils’, which alludes to the hallucinations that can accompany an alcoholic state. Maybe so. But blues in its African-American form was a state of mind, a private sorrow that could only be shared by those who were trapped by the world in which they found themselves in the same way. An outsider might appreciate its musical expression, but they would never truly feel it. As Robert Johnson sings, in ‘Preaching the Blues’:
The blues is a low-down shakin’ chill
You ain’t never had them
I hope you never will
The blues is a psychic condition that forms the reason to sing. Its specific roots can lie in racism, poverty, sex, death, a rootless existence, or simply relaying the news, but it infects its whole world. Most vividly, it is expressed through the weather: blues fallin’ down like hail (or rain), as Johnson sings in ‘Hellhound on my Trail’. It is its sheer inescapability, like the rain, that characterised the blues as a condition and a music. It is what you are.
Blues music doesn’t just document anomie, however. It spoke of the people, places, events and topics that its particular African-American audience understood. Just look at the subject index of Paul Oliver’s peerless study Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues, for the great diversity of the blues musicians’ concerns, embracing a range of themes and conditions such as perhaps no other music had done before it:
Harlem, New York
High John the Conqueror
highways, routes and maintenance of
hoodoo, see voodoo
Blues songs were sung in juke joints, house parties, dances and street corners. The recordings that were made of the music served an African-American audience affluent enough to have record players at home, and spread the fame of the greatest performers. These recordings, from the late 1920s onwards, crystalised and distributed the music, and of course they have preserved it. But they also helped end it, at least in its classic 1920s/30s phase, not least through records being played on jukeboxes which meant that there was no longer a need for a live musician at your dance. Tastes would change, moreover, and the electric guitar was just around the corner.
The blues musicians of the 1930s wanted to be heard more, more widely (they liked the fame, they liked the money) and more loudly. They craved amplification. There are various arguments given for why Robert Johnson turned his back and sung to the wall for that recording session – he was a shy man, he was jealous of others stealing his musical ideas – but one reason is likely to have been the sound. There was a boom to be gained from singing into that space which accentuated the power of the recording. He was both hiding and yearning to be heard.
Genres rise, evolve and fall, never returning to what they once were. Often they last no more than a generation. So it is that there is no more blues music. There is plenty of music that sounds like the blues, and anyone who can turn out C, D, G chords on a guitar and maintain a twelve-bar pattern can say that they can play the blues. But none truly do. Robert Cray, Keb’ Mo’, Eric Dibb, fine musicians all, may keep up the stylings, but it is the form, not the spirit, an acknowledgment at most. The blues was bred of a particular time and place, and of a people at a specific stage in their relationship with society. It is rootless in feeling but rooted in history.
But listening to the blues is not a history lesson. Its qualities lie outside time. The power and beauty of the songs, the musicianship, the themes, the tropes, the quality of feeling, and above all the sense of mystery are what make it compelling. It’s the elusiveness, the things you’ll never know, that make the blues what it is. You ain’t never had them. I hope you never will.
As in those previous posts, here is a top ten, but not the top ten, blues recordings. They are personal favourites, mostly of the folk or country blues of the 1920s and 30s, where the heart of the blues lies for me. They are in reverse order, for amusement’s sake only.
10. Barbecue Bob, ‘Motherless Chile Blues’ (1927)
“I’m a motherless child and I don’t know right from wrong”. Is there any better line than that in the whole of twentieth-century song? It is witty, pointed, mournful and defiant, all bound up in one. It references the spiritual ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’, turning its yearning, existential conceit into an assertive expression of individuality. It is the quintessential blues line. Barbecue Bob (real name Robert Hicks) played a ringing, twelve-string bottle-neck guitar and sang songs of bravado and wit. His recordings sold well in the ‘race’ market, but he died in 1931, aged just 29, leaving too small a legacy.
9. Henry Thomas, ‘Don’t Ease Me In’ (1928)
Henry Thomas is the best surviving example that we have of how the blues sounded before its more familiar structures were established in the recordings of the late 1920s. Thomas, born in 1874, was recorded over 1927-29 but his folksy, songster sound is that of the 1910s. His best-known recording is ‘Bull-doze Blues’, which Canned Heat turned into ‘Going up the Country’ (complete with panpipes, or quills, such as Thomas frequently used). ‘Don’t Ease Me In’ I find intriguing because though it superficially sounds like the rest of Thomas’ sunny output, it has hints of the introspective stance that was to follow. It has the hypnotic effect of the blues. Or maybe it’s just because it’s a singularly beautiful song.
8. Elmore James, ‘Stranger Blues’ (1962)
I’ve kept this selection mostly to acoustic blues, and mostly Memphis blues from the 1920s/30s, because that’s what blues means to me. The swagger of the electric blues coming out of Chicago in the 1950s feels like a mutating, hybrid genre, on its way to rock’n’roll. But Elmore James sounds like Robert Johnson might have done had he lived and got the chance to pick up an electric guitar (James knew Johnson and covered his song ‘Dust My Broom’). It brings amplification to the emotion and the sense of mystery. It’s a performance that says ‘beat that’ and knows that no one can.
7. Furry Lewis, ‘Kassie Jones – Part 1’ (1928)
This is the quintessential folk blues performance. It’s something in the intoxicating melody, in how voice and guitar interweave and play off each other, in how the story (that of the engine driver Casey Jones) unfolds, drawing you into both narrative and character. It took six minutes and so two 78s to encompass the epic tale of the real-life Mississippi train crash from 1900, so the song continues with Part 2.
6. Blind Willie Johnson, ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’ (1927)
Maybe the most chilling, atmospheric blues recording of them all. Johnson (a preacher when he wasn’t singing) moans over the hypnotic slide guitar melody, which Ry Cooder so memorably adapted for the soundtrack to Paris, Texas. It’s also the most far-flung of blues recordings, as it was one of the recordings that were included on the Voyager Golden Record that was sent into outer space to let the aliens what life on earth was like. Those aliens will be asking themselves from what deep well such a sound of sorrow came, as well they might.
5. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, ‘Key to the Highway’ (date?)
I don’t know which of the several versions of ‘Key to the Highway’ this is that Sonny Terry (harmonica) and Brownie McGhee (guitar) recorded, but it is special for two reasons. Firstly, the duo – who first met and played together in 1939 – lived long enough for me to be able to see them perform, at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, in 1981 I think. It was magical. Second, because this exuberant, poignant number was a special favourite of my friend Mike, who died not so long ago. He loved the blues, lived too sad a life, and was as close to the Delta as any middle-class white man from Altrincham could hope to be.
4. Bukka White, ‘When Can I Change My Clothes?’ (1940)
There is no more individual voice among those who played the blues than that of Bukka White. He was hard man who had a hard life, ending up imprisoned in Mississippi’s Parchman Farm prison for murder, an experience he documented in several songs. His rhythmic guitar style and bitter tone are shown to tremendous effect in ‘When Can I Change My Clothes’, which is ostensibly about his physical imprisonment but also rages at an imprisonment of the soul, and against himself.
3. Robert Johnson, ‘Hellhound on my Trail’ (1937)
The hype and the mythologizing are all true. Robert Johnson was the greatest of the bluesmen, the genre’s supreme poet and most agile musician. His finest music has this extraordinary quality, drawing you in irresistibly in while forcing you to keep your distance. The songs are simultaneously universal and utterly private. Johnson didn’t invent the phrase ‘hell hound on my trail’ but you believe that he lived it. A more elemental piece of music has yet to be recorded.
2. Leadbelly, ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ (1944)
This song comes under various titles: ‘Black Girl, ‘In the Pines’ and ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’. It derives from two American folk songs of unknown authorship that were combined by assorted performers in permutations that told of a missing lover, a train journey and a decapitation, each characterised by the strange, metaphorical image of the girl in the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine. This version by Leadbelly is the most haunting, in its measured pace and mournful delivery. Many other artists, notably Nirvana, have tried to get to the heart of the song’s darkness, inspired by Leadbelly, but none has bettered him.
1. Geeshie Wiley, ‘Last Kind Words’ (1930)
What is special about the blues is its unknowability. The private, elusive nature of the music performed by the great Delta bluesmen – and occasional blueswomen – is echoed in the elusiveness of the lives they led. Robert Johnson was once the unknowable figure more mythical than real, with his face turned away from us. Much has been found about the man over the years (including two photographs), so we want to dig deeper to find that which we will never fully comprehend. Geeshie Wiley recorded just six songs in 1930. We know almost nothing about her – there are no photographs, scant biography, researchers are not even certain about her true name. Yet out of a hidden life comes this superlative recording: mournful, world-weary, yet defiant, all that the blues can be. And so the myth endures.
If you want to hear more (and you should, you really should), here is three-and-a-half hours of fine listening, including all of the above.
- The greatest writing on the blues remains that of Paul Olivier, notably his The Story of the Blues and Blues Fell This Morning. On Robert Johnson, the starting point is Peter Guralnick’s slim, engrossing Searching for Robert Johnson
- One of the best introductions to the blues is The Roots of Robert Johnson, a fine CD of recordings from Skip James, Charlie Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Johnnie Temple, Son House and others whose music inspired the great man
- On the rise of Autotune pitch-correcting technology, and whether it has “stripped the blues element out of popular music”, see Simon Reynolds’ recent article for Pitchfork, ‘How Auto-Tune Revolutionized the Sound of Popular Music‘