louisiana blues

Art Neville

Blues historians and musicologists like to point out that the Blues originated in cotton fields along the Mississippi River in the latter part of the 19th century. Many fail to explain that another river, the Brazos in Texas, also played a leading role in the development of the Blues. How many Blues aficionados realize that Blues singers and groups such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan and ZZ Top were (and are) from Texas?

We also cannot leave out the great state of Louisiana in this analysis without lamenting the recent passing of such wonderful New Orleans-based musicians as Lonnie Brooks (2017), Dr. John (2018) and Art Neville (2019), the latter who helped form the Neville Brothers group.

“Everybody in the industry digs us,” Neville told Rolling Stone in 1987. “Every other band, bands I love, bands I look up to, they looking at us the same way. Huey Lewis — those cats was onstage watching us every night. The Stones was watching us.” But, he added, “I wanna go to the bank. For once in my life, I’d like to be able to do something for my family.”

Long before making that statement, Art had recorded a song while still a teenager. In fact, it was one of Neville’s greatest songs, “Mardi Gras Mambo,” a track he recorded with the Hawketts when he was just 16-years-old. The song is still played during New Orleans’ famous Mardi Gras Fat Tuesday celebrations, which blast across the Crescent City every February and March.

Using the term “Louisiana Blues,” can be tricky, however, because the jazz-influenced New Orleans Blues is based on the musical traditions of that city, but the slower tempo Swamp Blues incorporates influences from zydeco and Cajun music from the Baton Rouge area. The former genre features artists such as Professor Longhair and Guitar Slim while the latter spotlights such players as Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim. 

Not all experts on the subject agree, however. Laura Martone is one.

“Blues music has its origins upriver a bit from New Orleans, about 300 miles north in the fruitful delta farming regions of northwestern Mississippi, especially the towns near Clarkdale. It’s said that blues derives from the field hollers of cane and cotton workers in these parts. Eventually, the soulful vocals were joined with guitars, drums, and horns to become the modern form of blues celebrated today all through the South and especially in Louisiana,” explains Martone, author of Moon New Orleans.

Martone goes on to suggest that the Blues, along with New Orleans jazz, melded together in the 1950s to influence a new genre: rhythm and blues, or R&B. “It is a distinctly commercial genre that was begun with the express intent of getting airplay on the radio and acclaim for its stars through record sales, and to that end, it has always incorporated the catchiest and most accessible elements of the genres from which it borrows.”

Analyzing “Louisiana Blues” becomes even murkier when one considers performers born in Louisiana, but were displaced elsewhere later in their lives. One such musician was Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (1888-1949), who wrote such classics as “Good Night, Irene” and “Midnight Special.” There are various theories as to how he got his nickname: shot in the stomach with buckshot, he could drink moonshine better than most, but nobody knows for sure.

Lead Belly grew up in Shreveport, in the northwestern corner of the state, but was later interned in the Imperial Farm Prison in Sugar Land, Texas for killing one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman. He was “discovered” there by field music researcher Alan Lomax, who was instrumental in getting Lead Belly released early (to become his driver). Ledbetter is sometimes credited as the “father” of Blues music and the “King of the 12-string Guitar.”

In his Nobel Prize Lecture, Bob Dylan said: “Somebody – somebody I’d never seen before – handed me a Lead Belly record with the song “Cotton Fields” on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.”

For any Blues lover, a trip to Louisiana would be incomplete without visiting the House of Blues in the New Orlean’s epicenter. Dozens of other Blues joints dot the landscape of the Crescent City, more famous for being the birthplace of Jazz music. Great Blues, Jazz and sumptuous Cajun cooking are the hallmarks of one of America’s oldest, and most interesting, cities.  

Professor Longhair “Crawfish Fiesta”

st. louis blues

Bessie Smith

William Christopher (W.C.) Handy, by writing and recording his “Memphis Blues,” had not only put a Southern city on the musical map but had also created a new musical form called the Blues. On a later trip to St. Louis where he ran across a lonely woman in the street moping about a lost love, the peripatetic musician sat down in a bar there called Pwee and wrote a memorably sad song about the woman. The song, “St. Louis Blues” was first published on September 11, 1914, and has gone on to become a Blues classic.

“W.C. Handy, whose father was a Methodist preacher in Florence, Alabama, was 40 when he wrote the song. When it was completed he learned from a past mistake – when he had sold all rights to his 1912 composition Memphis Blues for just 50 dollars – and held on to the rights for St. Louis Blues. At the time of his death in 1958, aged 84, Handy was earning more than $25,000 in royalties a year from that song alone,” states an article in The Telegraph

There have been various versions of St. Louis Blues, in both jazz and blues styles. Probably the best blues version was recorded by Bessie Smith. Part of the lyrics she sang are as follows:

“I hate to see de evenin’ sun go down, 
Hate to see de evenin’ sun go down
‘Cause ma baby, he done lef’ dis town.
Feelin’ tomorrow like I feel today, 
Feel tomorrow like I feel today, 
I’ll pack my trunk, make ma git away.”

“Saint Louis woman wid her diamon’ rings 
Pulls dat man ‘roun’ by her apron strings.
‘Twant for powder an’ for store-bought hair, 
De man ah love would not gone nowhere, nowhere.
Got de Saint Louis Blues jes as blue as ah can be. 
That man got a heart lak a rock cast in the sea.”

The remark in the last line about “a rock cast into the sea” was what Handy heard the woman in the St. Louis street say when bemoaning to herself how she really felt after being jilted by her lover. W.C. Handy’s contribution notwithstanding, a form of the early Blues, and later jazz, had been popular years before in St. Louis. It was called “ragtime” and was mainly an instrumental form played with horns and drums.

“Ragtime was very popular in St. Louis and the integration of blues music from Mississippi created what became known as the St. Louis blues. Ragtime was born in the African-American communities of St. Louis in the 1890s. This style takes traditional march form, much like the music of John Philip Sousa, and adds the syncopated, or ‘ragged’, rhythms of African music. The style fell out of favor in the early 20th century with the rise of jazz but many compare the American rag to European minuets, mazurkas and waltzes. The rhythm of ragtime had an influence on later composers, such as Satie, Debussy and Stravinsky. Jazz influences also steamed into St. Louis aboard northbound riverboats from New Orleans,” explains a 2016 article in VPR by James Stewart.

The steamboat connection to the Blues and Jazz is interesting. After the Civil War (1861-65) ended, the musical instruments used by the armies on both sides dumped their no-longer-needed drums, fifes, bugles and the like onto steamboats and shipped the lot down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. This pile of cheap army surplus instruments contributed greatly to the music scene there, particularly in the parlors of bordellos where musicians entertained the “guests.” Louis Armstrong’s early career was spent in one such establishment.

“St. Louis Blues had seeped into the American consciousness from the moment a vaudeville female impersonator called Charles Anderson started using it in his act in October 1914. St. Louis Blues was also played in the 1914 Charles Chaplin film, ‘The Star Boarder’, and was sung by Minnie Mouse in a 1931 Disney film. It inspired a novel by William Faulkner and a play by John Paul Sartre,” explains The Telegraph article.

The 1925 version sung by Bessie Smith, with Louis Armstrong on coronet, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993. In 1929, Bessie Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a movie titled “St. Louis Blues” that was based on this song. The 1929 version by Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra (with Red Allen) was inducted in 2008.

Bessie Smith’s St. Louis Blues 1925 version

beale street

The Great Migration (1916-70) may have displaced six million Blacks from the South to the North and West, but there were some Southern areas left unaffected by migration during this period. One was Memphis, Tennessee and its famous Beale Street, where great jazz and blues were developed without much need for migrant musicians. “Unlike its northern counterparts, Beale Street never became a black ghetto,” claims the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. “But it was Beale’s black culture that gave the street its fame, and the street stood as testimony to the decision of black people to strive to achieve the American Dream in their American homeland, the South, rather than to move North.”

Beale Street was created in 1841 and managed to survive the Civil War and the Yellow Fever outbreaks that followed. After 1865, emancipated slaves rushed to Memphis, building a black community alongside the extant white settlement. By the early 1900s Beale was still filled with shops, restaurants, and clubs, but now, many of them were owned by African Americans. Beale Street quickly became the urban center for black nightlife for northern Mississippi, eastern Arkansas and west Tennessee. The setting was complete for creating a unique new sound in music.

In 1909, W.C. Handy wrote the first blues song that created the first uniquely American music style (gospel and country were largely adapted imports from Europe). The song was actually a campaign theme for politician and Memphis boss E. H. Crump called “Boss Crump Blues” that was later published as “Memphis Blues.” The song really caught on quickly in the clubs, partly due to its unique sound, explains historic-Memphis.com. “Because many of the musicians were poor and couldn’t afford traditional instruments, they improvised using household items such as washboards, kazoos, and Jews harps, but the most unique instrument was ‘the jug’.” Blowing into various-sized jugs could create a deep, hollow sound, similar to a bass guitar. Thus the blues sub-genre “jug blues” was created, and jug bands could be heard all over Beale Street in the early 1900s.

What kind of man was Handy? The website No Song Is Safe from Us has an explanation. One late night he happened into a local barber shop and asked the proprietor why he hadn’t closed for the evening: “well, ain’t nobody got killed yet” was the reply. The beginning of the [Beale Street Blues] chorus, though omitted in our day’s recording, sets the scene leading into the “I’d rather be here…” finale:  “And the Blind Man on the Corner, who sings these Beale Street Blues.” 

Handy was also a great folklorist. His bandmates would ask why he was always lingering on street corners listening to singing beggars. He always had a pencil and a scrap of paper with him, and the foresight to know what should be disseminated rather than lost in the mists of time.

Beale Street’s contribution to new forms of Blues has been immense. “In the 1940s and 1950s Beale Street musicians like B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland blended traditional blues with jazz arrangements to produce the new form of music known as rhythm and blues,” the Encyclopedia continued.

Born and raised in nearby Mississippi, a young singer named Elvis Presley was impressed with the Beale Street blues music. He did a little experimenting of his own, mixing the blues with country music to come up with yet another music form called Rockabilly, which formed the basis for rock and roll.

The essence of Beale Street was captured in a 2018 screen adaption of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. “Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street,” states the opening quotation from Baldwin, citing “the impossibility and the possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy.” Regina King won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the heart-stopping love story about heroism in a world gone bad. King was cast as Sharon Rivers, the mother of lead character Tish (played by KiKi Layne).

Although Beale Street peaked in musical influence during the Roaring Twenties, it was still going strong until three historical events wounded it deeply: 1) the civil rights movement of the 1960s, 2) the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. nearby and 3) the urban renewal movement. Ironically, the first-listed event undermined the street’s importance as a cultural center by enabling blacks to do business all over the city instead of being confined to the black district. The fear associated with the assassination of King accelerated the street’s decline while urban renewal removed a lot of the old historical buildings to make room for more modern structures. Urban renewal was perhaps the final nail in the coffin for Beale as historical buildings were torn down to make room for modernization, whatever that really means.

Of course, Beale Street lives on as a musical attraction. Elvis Presley’s home Graceland, which brings in tens of thousands of admirers every year, is also in Memphis. It wasn’t accidental that W.C. Handy chose to live and work in Memphis. It’s just that kind of place.

The original Memphis Blues by W.C. Handy

House of the rising sun

Was there really a house of ill repute in New Orleans called the “House of the Rising Sun”? Although this question has vexed musicologists, arm-chair historians and others for many years, no definite proof has ever been offered for anything of the kind. The closest match was a New Orleans prison for women that had an etching of a rising sun on the gate. Now hold on, the arm-chairs might argue, there was a coffee shop in New Orleans in the 1860s by that name and it served alcohol as well. That may be, the realists would counter, but it did not sell sex nor did it employ Japanese waitresses (Rising Sun is an alternative expression for Japan).

Long before Eric Burdon and the Animals made the song into a number one hit in the United States, England and France in 1964, the references to a house in New Orleans that corrupted youth had been the theme of many folk songs dating back to at least the early part of the 20th century. Some say the lyrics (warnings from parents to their children to avoid such places) date back even further to British folk songs of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Animals’ success with recording “House of the Rising Sun” may have been the reason Bob Dylan went electric, some people say, thus turning away from acoustic folk protest songs and turning more to rock. Burdon said so himself: “I’ve been told by lots of people who know, and were around at the time, that that’s what stimulated Bob into going electric, and becoming a rock star as opposed to a folk star. You might say we’re all exposed — when I say ‘all of us,’ I mean the same age group on both sides of the Atlantic — we were exposed to the root of true black music at the same time, and realized that that was the road that we wanted to take.” (somethingelsereviews.com)

Few realize that a house in New Orleans was mentioned in a Blues song by a Black Texas-born singer back in 1928. “New Orleans Blues” was recorded by a Blues singer from Jewett, Texas named Alger “Texas” Alexander (1900–54), a cousin of Lightnin’ Hopkins. His lyrics, however, were completely different from Eric Burdon’s later version.

“My woman got somethin’ just like the rising sun
My woman got somethin’ like the rising sun
You can never tell when that work is done

It’s no use to worryin’ ‘bout the days bein’ long
It’s no use to worryin’ ‘bout the days bein’ long
Neither worries ‘bout your rollin’ because it sure goin’ on

She got somethin’ round and it look like a bat
She got somethin’ round and it look just like a bat
Some time I wonder, ‘What in the hell is that?’

Alexander did not play a musical instrument. The Texas Blues Tribute website explains that Alger was “a short man with a big, deep voice. He started his career performing on the streets and at parties and picnics in the Brazos River bottomlands, where he sometimes worked with Blind Lemon Jefferson. In 1927, he began a recording career that continued into the 1930s, recording sides for Okeh Records and Vocalion Records in New York, San Antonio, and Fort Worth.” Alexander was charged with murdering his wife in 1939 and was imprisoned in the state penitentiary in Paris, Texas, from 1940 to 1945. He died of syphilis in 1954, at the age of 53.

Burdon and the Animals were British and were recording amid a rediscovery of Blues music in England that was being transported back to the United States in the “British Invasion” of the 1960s. Alexander did not benefit from any such tailwind of popularity. As a traditional folk song recorded by an electric rock band, Burdon’s version had such wide-sweeping influence that it has been described as the “first folk rock hit.” Others may label the song as the “first blues rock hit.” 

Dozens of artists have recorded the song in the wake of the Animals’ smash hit. For instance, versions of the song were later recorded by such artists as Bob Dylan, Jody Miller, Dolly Parton, Thin Lizzy, Geordie and Five Finger Death Punch. Johnny Hallyday recorded a French version while the Colombian band Los Speakers came up with a Spanish interpretation. A particularly haunting pan-pipe version was recorded by the Peruvian group Razandina.

Perhaps the real question is whether songs such as this can make a historical statement or not, even if they are not factual. There is little doubt that millions of worldwide listeners heard this song and believed there really is, or was, a whorehouse in the Crescent City by that name.

Perhaps Robert Palmer’s justly celebrated question at the end of his book Deep Blues says it all: “How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string?” And sometimes, lyrics are just lyrics.

“House of the Rising Sun” by Eric Burdon and the Animals