country blues

Sometimes called folk blues or rural blues, country blues was definitely the forerunner of all types of modern music that we call “the Blues.” A short definition could be a black songster living in the Southern countryside in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, making blues music with an acoustic guitar and/or harmonica accompaniment. Some notable pioneers of country blues included Blind Lemon Jefferson (Texas), Charlie Patton (Mississippi) and Blind Willie McTell (Georgia). The counterpart of country blues is urban blues, played in cities where electrification was more prominent. Crowds are larger and noisier there so electric guitars came to mostly replace their acoustic predecessors.

A Wikipedia article explains: “Folklorist Alan Lomax was one of the first to use the term and applied it to a field recording he made of Muddy Waters at the Stovall Plantation, Mississippi, in 1941. In 1959, music historian Samuel Charters wrote The Country Blues, an influential scholarly work on the subject. He produced a music album, also titled The Country Blues, with early recordings by Jefferson, McTell, Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, and Robert Johnson.”

Charters was an American, but it took British writers like Paul Oliver (The Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues) to really explain in detail why American country blues had important messages that the world needed to hear. Oliver came to America to seek out the origins and meanings of the country blues music that has inspired so many British bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Oliver published his groundbreaking work in 1960, so he perfectly captured the spirit that produced the musical British Invasion of the later 1960s. The New York Times called Oliver’s book “Remarkable…a definitive study in breadth and depth of the themes, backgrounds, imagery and motivation of the blues.” 

Oliver points out that some of the most intriguing country blues songs were written and performed early in the emergence of this genre. Some examples include:

  • 1927 “Matchbox Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson, called the “King of the Country Blues”

How far to the river, mama, walk down by the sea
How far to the river, walk down by the sea
I got those tadpoles and minnows all in over me

Standing here wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes
I’se sittin’ here wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes
I ain’t got so many matches but I got so far to go

Lord, Lord, who may your manager be?
Hey, mama, who may your manager be?
Reason I ask so many questions, can’t you make friends match for me?

I got a girl cross town she crochet all the time
I got a girl cross town crochet all the time
Baby if you don’t quit crochet-in you gonna lose your mind

  • 1929 “Down the Dirt Road Blues” by Charley Patton

I’m goin’ away, to a world unknown
I’m goin’ away, to a world unknown
I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long

My rider got somethin’, she’s tryin’ a keep it hid
My rider got somethin’, she’s tryin’ a keep it hid
Lord, I got somethin’ to find that somethin’ with  

I feel like choppin’, chips flyin’ everywhere
I feel like choppin’, chips flyin’ everywhere
I been to the Nation, oh Lord, but I couldn’t stay there
Some people say them oversea blues ain’t bad

  • “Statesboro Blues” by Blind Willie McTell

Yes now, wake up mama, turn your lamp down low.
Wake up mama, turn your lamp down low.
Have you got the nerve to drive poor papa Taj from your door?

Woke up this mornin’ baby, I had them Statesboro blues.
Statesboro Georgia, that is.
Woke up this mornin’, had them Statesboro blues.
Looked over in the corner, well my baby had ‘em too.

Mama died and left me reckless, Papa died and left me wild,
I ain’t good lookin’ baby, but I’m someone’s sweet angel child.
Going to the country, baby do you want to go?
I know if you can’t make it, your sister Lucille say she wanta go.

One would expect simple lyrics from country folk, but complex feelings can also be expressed simply. The spirit of the country blues is not only explained by authors and professors either. Musical performers like Keith Richards, lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones, sums it up neatly: “If you don’t know the blues…there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”

Blind Lemon Jefferson “Matchbox Blues”