Tag Archives: blues

How Did the Blues Become the Blues?

AP / Beth J. Harpaz

There’s a certain type of scholar who is obsessed with the Blues. The music’s historic record is riddled with holes, and, like swamp water, speculation fills the gaps, producing a narrative built as much from legend as fact, where a traveling guitarist like Robert Johnson can stroll down a dark rural road to make deals with the devil. Blues’ blurry, mythological past only makes the subject more seductive. Still, there are certain matters of record to contend with. With so many scholars searching for new revelations, it seems like every rock has been overturned and every shellac pre-war record unearthed from those Southern attics, but like all frontiers, there’s always more to discover.

In The Sewanee Review, essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan explores the Early Blues, a time in the music’s development before people started calling songs “blues songs” based on their definitive a-a-b rhyme scheme and 12-bar structure. There in the not-so-blurry past of early published articles, Sullivan finds an African American journalist named Columbus Bragg who was the first to call a song a blues song. Although Bragg predates all the well-known Blues scholars, he is largely absent from the larger narrative. But it was Bragg who, in the 1914 issue of the African American newspaper the Chicago Defender, wrote “Mr. William Abel, the race’s greatest descriptive singer, will sing the first Blues song, entitled ‘Curses,’ by Mr. Paul Dresser.” And with those words, he simplified a diverse group of musical traditions and helped codify a genre.

That sentence in the Defender is the first “first blues.” It represents the first time, that we know of, when someone speculated about what the first blues song had been, and who had created it. This is also the first time we ever find these two words together, “blues” and “song.”  The first time someone ever calls a song “a blues song,” he’s actively wondering what the first one was. The form and the obsession with the form’s roots are born together. This suggests that when we wonder about the beginning of the blues, we are participating in the form; it is a way of playing the blues.

Another extraordinary thing about the sentence is that the man doing the wondering is black. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. “Blues scholarship” is educated white men writing on old black music. But this is why the Early Blues rewards study. The writer’s name is Columbus Bragg, or to go by the fuller version he gave the draft board in 1918, the Rev. Columbus Sylvester Clifton Bragg. He was preaching then (or claimed to be; he often grew inventive when asked to provide biographical data) at a tiny church called Israel of God, White Horse Army, a black evangelical sect that had recently bloomed in nearby Sycamore, Illinois. The members keep their headquarters there to this day. They possess some old records, but these make no mention of a Rev. Bragg. The only other noticeable entry on his draft card is a brief observation made by the registrar, concerning Bragg’s physical faculties. The man, who must have examined one too many inductees that day, has written in big bold cursive, “Deaf Eye.”

It is perhaps an unfortunate description for an arts critic. Bragg’s slender fame, his not-quite-oblivion, depends entirely on a brief 1914 stint as a culture columnist for the Chicago Defender. The newspaper had been founded about a decade before, just as Bragg was coming to the city, arriving by train from Louisiana with a half-German wife named Lillian and their daughter, Lumie. He seems to have made the decision on the train to rewrite his past.

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How the Blues Conquered Tokyo

I couldn’t quite figure out why Japanese listeners had come to appreciate and savor the blues in the way that they seemed to—lavishly, devotedly. Blues is still an outlier genre in Japan, but it’s revered, topical, present. I’d spent my first couple of days in Tokyo hungrily trawling the city’s many excellent record stores, marveling at the stock. I had shuffled into the nine-story Tower Records in Shibuya (NO MUSIC NO LIFE, a giant sign on its exterior read), past a K-pop band called CLC, an abbreviation for Crystal Clear—seven very-young-looking women in matching outfits, limply performing a synchronized dance, waving their slender arms back and forth before a hypnotized crowd—and ridden an elevator to a floor housing more shrink-wrapped blues CDs than I have ever seen gathered in a single place of retail. I had been to a tiny, quiet bar—JBS, or Jazz, Blues, and Soul—with floor-to-ceiling shelves housing owner Kobayashi Kazuhiro’s eleven thousand LPs, from which he studiously selected each evening’s soundtrack. I had seen more than one person wearing a Sonny Boy Williamson t-shirt. I had heard about audiophiles installing their own utility poles to get “more electricity” straight from the grid to power elaborate sound systems. What I didn’t know was what about this music made sense in Japan—how and why it had come to occupy the collective imagination, what it could offer.

– In Oxford American, journalist Amanda Petrusich listens to a Mississippi Blues musician perform in a Tokyo club and tries to figure out why American Blues has a particular resonance with for so many in Japan.

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Remembering the Female Voice of the Blues

In the 21st century, if “the blues” has any face, it’s Robert Johnson’s, or, more typically, a Johnson-esque silhouette, dark and downtrodden: slumped, itinerant, devastated, male. He has usurped all the torture and torment, a fantastical incarnation of a fantasy. That, in the 1920s and ’30s, commercial artists like Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith were the dominant figures of the genre has become irrelevant to the myth of the blues as it’s been written by collectors and critics. Smith was phenomenally successful—a stout, outspoken black woman in a fur coat and pearls, stuffing theaters—and her success so directly contradicts a more romantic saga (the-blues-as-marginalized-cry) that she’s been nearly excised from its telling.

Amanda Petrusich, writing in the Oxford American magazine about blues singer Bessie Smith, one of the most popular blues musicians of all time, an architect of the musical form, and the first to appear on Columbia Records’ “race series” in 1924. Petrusich’s piece ran in December, 2013.

Buddy Guy and the Inequity of Musical Fame

Guy heads into his living room and points out some of his favorite memorabilia collected over his 60 years in the business: a photo of him grinning onstage with Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall in 1990; a thank-you note from Mick Jagger for appearing in Shine a Light. There’s a photo of Guy with his family and the president and first lady from the first of four times Guy was invited to the Obama White House. “He’s from Chicago, so he knows,” Guy says of Obama. “As soon as he put his arm around me, I said, ‘Mr. President, it’s a long way from picking cotton to picking the guitar in the White House.’ And we laughed.”

Guy points out a painting of Hendrix, and tells the story of the day Hendrix brought a reel-to-reel recorder to tape Guy’s guitar workshop at Newport. “Everyone was saying, ‘Hendrix is here,'” Guy says. “I’m like, ‘Who?’ We went back to the hotel and played until the sun rose. He was so damn good, so creative.”

Next to that is a painting of Stevie Ray Vaughan, playing his guitar behind his back — a trick he learned from Guy. “That one’s priceless,” he says. Vaughan had been a fan ever since he heard Guy singing and playing alongside Wolf and Waters on the 1963 American Folk Festival of the Blues LP as a kid. Whenever Guy played Antone’s nightclub in Austin, he invited Vaughan and his older brother Jimmie onstage. “He became like a big brother to us,” says Jimmie. “It was such a trip.” Guy played with Stevie Ray at Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley in 1990 — Guy took a different helicopter back to Chicago; Vaughan’s helicopter crashed, killing him and four others.

Patrick Doyle, writing in Rolling Stone about the life of trailblazing bluesman Buddy Guy, a brilliant guitarist and longtime Chicago club manager whose influence is as sweeping as Howlin’ Wolf’s, B.B. King’s and Sonny Boy Williamson’s, but whose name isn’t as recognizable.

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Surveying Sin in American Music

What a blast! But there’s danger in the air─someone on the dark floor’s got a gun, and everyone “does his best to act just right, ’cause it’s gonna be a funeral if you start a fight.” In [Billy] Hughes’s terms, folks “struggle and they shuffle” until the sun comes up, delicate diction for a Saturday of screwing and fighting. “Tennessee Saturday Night” hit number one on March 19, 1949, and remained on the Billboard country charts for nearly three months.

“Gonna push the clouds away, let the music have its way, let it steal my heart away, and you know I’m-a-goin’.” On Saturday nights, the journey is as jubilant as the destination. So affirms John Fogerty in “Almost Saturday Night, from his self-titled album, released on Asylum in September of 1975. This narrative is fractured, too: there’s a train bringing the rodeo to town, or is it bringing the singer home? A radio is playing outside the window (a bedroom? a train compartment?), but it competes with the bells at the train crossing, or from an imagined Gibson in the hands of a Chuck Berry wannabe. The story is embodied in the singing, exultant melody, and arrangement that praise and make passionate contact with the expectations of a long-awaited weekend night. Six years after Fogerty released the song, Welshman Dave Edmunds issued his own rollicking version (on his album Twangin), its joy elevating the song’s hopes and promises in the universal, trans-oceanic desire: bye bye tomorrow. The most powerful word in the song is “almost.” The taste of a Saturday night’s recklessness and exhilaration is more rousing at the brink of maybe, when anticipated, when prayed for.

Joe Bonomo, writing in The Normal School about the role sex, drinking, violence and catharsis play in American music, particularly country, blues and rock and roll, and the ways people sing about blowing off steam. Bonomo’s essay ran in Spring 2014.

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Seeing Robert Johnson’s Face for the Third Time

In 2008, Vanity Fair published a story about a guitar salesman named Steven Schein, who found a photograph of Robert Johnson, the world’s most influential Bluesman, for sale on eBay for $25. The photo was mislabeled “Old Snapshot Blues Guitar B.B. King???”. Only two photos of Johnson had been publicly released. The article is about Schein’s experience buying and identifying Johnson’s face, and the issues it raised about who gets to control and profit from the music and images of one of the world’s most influential musicians, and one of Columbia Records’ big sellers, who happened to be a black man:

With the eBay photo still on his computer monitor, Schein dug up his copy of the Johnson boxed set and took another look. Not only was he more confident than ever that he had found a photo of Robert Johnson, he had a hunch who the other man in the photo was, too: Johnny Shines, a respected Delta-blues artist in his own right, and one of the handful of musicians who, in the early 1930s and again in the months before Johnson’s death, had traveled with him from town to town to look for gigs or stand on busy street corners and engage in a competitive practice known as “cuttin’ heads,” whereby one blues musician tries to draw away the crowd (and their money) gathered around another musician by standing on a nearby corner and outplaying him.

Shines had died in 1992. His picture was included in the boxed-set booklet, and Schein saw a resemblance; if both of his hunches were right, then the photo was even more of a find. At that point, Schein became possessed of two thoughts: One was “to hold the photo in my hands,” he says. The other was “to protect it.”

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Lightnin’ Hopkins Gets Your Head Tore Up

In the summer of 1960, Dallas, Texas journalist Grover Lewis went to Houston’s Third Ward in search of Bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins. Lewis found him in an old ’54 Dodge. The resulting essay, published in the Village Voice in 1968, is a small masterpiece of personal music writing, offering a snapshot of artistic endurance, 1960s race relations, and the daily life of one of the pivotal figures in the ’60s Blues revival. It’s also a shining example of how to blend first-person interiority with reporting in a way that shows the effect music can have on our lives. Lewis isn’t as well known as his New Journalism counterparts Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe, but he’s just as good. You can read the essay in the book Splendor in the Short Grass: The Grover Lewis Reader:

The head-tearing up process, which was enacted in a succession of piss-smelling little beer parlors, wore on for days, at the end of which I knew considerably more about sour mash whiskey than I had counted on. But in the end, I also knew considerably more about myself, and the South (and that knowledge ultimately freed me to leave it forever), and my own forebears, who, like Hopkins in his young manhood, had been sharecroppers Somewhere along in there, too, in those feverish, rushing days and nights of sweet, raw whiskey fumes and mournful guitar cadenzas ─ even as we shyly began to feel each other out over the clattering racket of the Dodge’s hoarse engine ─ I realized with a dawning sense of wonder that the quest I’d initiated in looking for Lightnin’ had begun long before.

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