swamp blues

Swamp Blues

Sandwiched in between Mississippi to the east and Texas to the west, one does not necessarily associate the state of Louisiana with a blues tradition. In terms of music, most observers would point to New Orleans and its jazz history. However, that would eliminate other areas (and cities) of the swampy state which do have a blues tradition. Of course, it would be more natural to associate the southwestern area of Louisiana with the sport of college football as Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge won the national championship in the 2019 season. The music that evolved from that area in the immediate post-WWII era was dubbed the “Swamp Blues.”

Swamp blues, sometimes called the “Excello” style (after the Nashville-based recording studio), is a type of Louisiana blues that developed around Baton Rouge in the 1950s and 1960s. It incorporates influences from other genres, particularly zydeco and Cajun. However, it should not be confused with “swamp rock” which resulted from the integration of rockabilly and the soul music boom of the 1960s.

Unlike the national Chitlin’ Circuit, the “Crawfish Circuit” of Louisiana nightclubs heightened musical exchanges across the region. Influenced as much by New Orleans’ piano-driven R&B as Texas guitar blues, the swamp blues represents a cultural third-space beyond the more popular Zydeco and swamp pop local arenas. Swamp blues’ most successful proponents included Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim, both of whom enjoyed national rhythm and blues hits.

James Moore (1924-70), later known as “Slim Harpo,” was the most famous Louisiana harp player in the swamp blues tradition. Born in Lobdell in West Baton Rouge Parish in 1924, he taught himself guitar and harmonica, which he played in a neck rack, as a child. When he was in tenth grade his mother and father both died, and he had to leave school to support his family. Although he was working as a dock hand, Harpo already was a good harp (harmonica) player.

His 1957 single “King Bee” was a hit for Excello. In 1961, his “Raining in my Heart” was even bigger, scoring not only on the R&B charts but reaching number 34 on the pop charts also. “Scratch My Back,” released in 1966, reached the R&B number one slot. “After the Rolling Stones recorded ‘King Bee’ on their 1964 debut album, Harpo began to play for white rock audiences. He started to record with psychedelic overtones in the mix, and was playing the Electric Circus and the Fillmore East by 1969. A European tour was planned, and commercial success was perhaps around the corner, when he died of a heart attack in early 1970,” states Celticguitarmusic.com. Some of the lyrics to his most famous song go like this:  

“Well, I’m a king bee
Buzzing around your hive

Well, I’m a king bee
Buzzing around your hive
Well, I can make honey baby
Let me come inside

I’m young and able
To buzz all night long
I’m young and able
To buzz all night long
Well, when you hear me buzzin’ baby
Some stinging is going on.”

The draft card of “Lightnin’ Slim” (real name Otis Hicks, 1913-74) shows that he was born in Good Pine, Louisiana, but moved to Baton Rouge at the age of thirteen. Taught guitar by his older brother Layfield, Slim was playing in bars in Baton Rouge by the late 1940s. “His first recording was ‘Bad Luck Blues (If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all), released by J.D. ‘Jay’ Miller’s Feature Records in 1954. It was Miller, who had a penchant for picking colorful artists’ names, who christened him ‘Lightnin’ Slim.’ Slim then recorded for Excello Records for twelve years, starting in the mid-1950s, often collaborating with his brother-in-law Slim Harpo and with the harmonica player Lazy Lester,” states Wikipedia. In the 1970s, Slim performed on tours in Europe, in the United Kingdom and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. In July 1974, Slim died of stomach cancer in Detroit, Michigan, aged 61.

In her 2016 dissertation entitled Swamp Blues: Race and Vinyl from Southwest Louisiana at the University of Pennsylvania, Evelyn Levingston Malone argues that “the unconventional ‘regional’ swamp blues beg a revaluation of both blackness in Civil Rights-era Southwest Louisiana, and the accepted racial and ethnic segregations of sound found there that exclude the swamp blues from standard narratives of local music history.”

That may or may not be overstating the importance of this blues music sub-genre, but I would argue that not paying any attention to this particular music would be paying it a great disservice.

As Frank Zappa once said of Lightnin’ Slim’s music, “That’s good stuff because it’s real direct, it’s not a matter of pretense there. It’s right to the point.”

Slim Harpo sings “King Bee”

queen of country blues

Memphis Minnie

Categorically speaking, the blues can be divided into urban and rural styles. This is an important distinction when discussing female blues singers in the early days of blues recordings, starting in the 1920s. Performers like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey belonged to the former category. They sold lots of records as they were based in large cities, near the centers of musical production. Lesser known black female recording artists such as Katie Crippen, Edith Wilson, and Esther Bigeou did not get as many headlines, but many were just as talented. Blues historians tend to focus on Mississippi and Texas, but fewer mention the Piedmont area of the East Coast or the state of Louisiana. One great female singer, who migrated from Louisiana to Tennessee and on to Chicago, made a name for herself there with exceptional guitar picking and a loud but melodic singing touch.  

Her name was Lizzie “Memphis Minnie” Douglas (1897-1973) and she was an American blues guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter who was active from the 1920s to the 1950s. Despite her nickname, Douglas was born in the Algiers section of New Orleans. She was the only female blues artist considered a match to male contemporaries as both a singer and as an instrumentalist. “As blues and jazz gradually made their way into mainstream American culture during the swing era, the singer and guitarist known as Memphis Minnie stands out as a trailblazer. One of the first musicians in any genre to embrace the electric guitar, Memphis Minnie helped lead the transition from acoustic rural blues to electrified urban blues in the early 1940s,” reports the website 64 Parishes.

It is true that Minnie started her career in Memphis, but her nickname is misleading because the bulk of her career occurred in Chicago. In terms of record sales during the 1930s, she ranked second behind the boisterous Bessie Smith. Minnie was different from Bessie in that she wrote her own songs and played the guitar. She was much less flamboyant and controversial, thus she caught the eye of the media much less. As one observer put it, “The thin, light-skinned, bespeckled performer looked more like a schoolteacher than a blues singer.”

Minnie’s sparkling career never got as much publicity as many other blues players, probably because she had a less than a tragic life. She didn’t die at a young age like Robert Johnson or perish in a car accident as did Bessie Smith. An old adage says: “We respect people for their abilities, but love them for their weaknesses.” Instead of displaying frailties, Minnie was a woman in charge of her career, which ironically made her less interesting to historians and to the media. She was one of the most famous black women singers you have never heard about.

Langston Hughes, often called the Poet of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, saw Minnie perform at a New Year’s Party in December 1942 at Chicago’s 230 Club. There was Minnie sitting on top of a refrigerator full of beer, belting out blues songs about Louisiana over the roar of the crowd. “Then, through the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy old swamps, Mississippi dust and sun, cotton fields, lonesome roads, train whistles in the night, mosquitoes at dawn, and the Rural Free Delivery, that never brings the right letter. All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions — a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill,” Langston later wrote in the newspaper for blacks called The Chicago Defender.

Memphis Minnie recorded over 100 songs, most of which she had written herself. Among her many hits were “Bumble Bee” (her first), “Me and My Chauffer Blues”, “Hoodo Lady” and “When the Levees Broke.” The last-named 1929 song (with Kansas Joe McCoy, her husband) was actually about the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, but the tune prompted a revival of her music following Katrina, a large Category 5 Atlantic hurricane which caused over 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage to New Orleans in August 2005. The song’s lyrics start:

“If it keeps on raining’ levee’s going to break
If it keeps on raining’ levee’s going to break
And the water gonna come, you’ll have no place to stay
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moaned
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moaned
Thinkin’ bout my baby and happy home
If it keeps on raining’ levee’s going to break.” 

Minnie played the guitar like a man. She once even beat the great Big Bill Broonzy in a picking contest. Her title “Queen of the Country Blues” was no hype. “Minnie did everything the boys could do, and she did it in a fancy gown with full hair and makeup. She had it all: stellar guitar chops, a powerful voice, a huge repertoire including many original, signature songs and a stage presence simultaneously glamorous, bawdy and tough,” states an article in memphismusichalloffame.com.

More unfortunate than tragic, Memphis Minnie died broke, sick and forgotten, passing away in a nursing home in 1973. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Memphis’ New Hope Cemetery. Minnie laid in that unmarked grave for twenty-three years until Bonnie Raitt bought a headstone for her last resting place in 1996. In 1980, Memphis Minnie was one of the first 20 artists inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe perform “When the Levees Broke”

piedmont blues

In studying the historical development of the blues, it would be easy to assume that all blues came directly from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and the river bottoms of the Brazos Valley in Texas. That would be a mistake because cotton was not the only plant that contributed to the blues tradition. The other was tobacco, grown in the Piedmont region along the East Coast, which stretches from the Appalachian Mountains, down through Virginia, the Carolinas all the way to Alabama and Georgia. The region’s style of guitar picking, using only the thumb and index finger on the right hand and a slide on the left, became known as the Piedmont Blues, or was sometimes referred to as the East Coast Blues. The Piedmont style is differentiated from other styles, particularly the Mississippi Delta Blues, by its ragtime-based rhythms.

Tobacco had been grown in Virginia ever since white settlers from Europe established a settlement at Jamestown in 1607. Exporting tobacco leaves from Jamestown to England was far more profitable in those early days than growing corn. Black slaves from Europe were introduced later as tobacco growing was very labor intensive and such slaves were less likely to contract diseases than the white settlers. These slaves, coming mostly from Western Africa, brought their music with them. One of the most famous Virginians to make a fortune selling “yellow leaf” tobacco was James B. Duke, who employed the first cigarette-rolling machine. His descendants used this fortune to establish Duke University, whose basketball team is still known as the Blue Devils.

“The tobacco cities and towns of North Carolina and Virginia, plus the textile-based ones of South Carolina and Georgia, loom importantly in the history of Piedmont blues. Musicians followed the money during the tobacco harvest and auctions. The Durham market, for example, lasted three to four months, ending in December. It was a rowdy scene replete with medicine shows and buskers in the auction warehouses, all amplified by flowing dollars and bootleg whisky,” states The Blues Encyclopedia.

Why were so many Piedmont Blues players blind men?

Perhaps because the Piedmont style was less complicated than regular guitar picking, blind guitar pickers were some of the first to master the style. Such visually impaired men really had to choose between picking cotton or plucking a guitar in those days. “Blind Blake [1896-1934] was a notable exponent of this style, with clean picking, steady rhythm and tasteful and imaginative phrasing making him a best-selling Blues artist. Throughout the ‘20s he played on street corners, Saturday night dances and fish-fries all up and down the Georgia and Carolina coastline. His instrumental, ‘West Coast Blues’ was a hit on Paramount in 1926, and he recorded more than 80 tracks before his demise in 1933,” explains allaboutmusic.com.

Blake was a long-time husker, working the streets of Atlanta and Augusta. He cut his first record in 1927 for Victor Records and recorded for several different labels up until the 1950s. Unfortunately, this great master of the Piedmont Blues did not live long enough to see the “discovery” of many old blues musicians in the 1960s. Blake died from complications of diabetes and alcoholism. Not much is known about Blind Blake’s history, but the record is much better for another blind blues guitarist named Blind Willie McTell (1898-1959), who hailed from Thomas, Georgia.

“Blind Willie McTell (born William Samuel McTier) was a Piedmont blues and ragtime singer and guitarist. He played with a fluid, syncopated fingerstyle guitar technique, common among many exponents of Piedmont blues. Unlike his contemporaries, he came to use twelve-string guitars exclusively. McTell was also an adept slide guitarist, unusual among ragtime bluesmen. His vocal style, a smooth and often laid-back tenor, differed greatly from many of the harsher voices of Delta bluesmen such as Charley Patton. McTell performed in various musical styles, including blues, ragtime, religious music and hokum,” states Wikipedia.

Etta Baker (1913-2006) of Caldwell County, North Carolina played the guitar in the Piedmont Blues style for more than 80 years, starting when she was only three years old. Her father, who picked guitars in the same style was her only teacher, which meant that the 93 year old had learned from a first-generation blues performer. Many blues players have been influenced by Baker’s “pure” mastery of the Piedmont style.

Piedmont blues was popular between the 1920s and 1940s, but fell out of favor after WWII. However, the music enjoyed a revival thanks to the British Invasion and the growing anti-Vietnam War protest songs of the 1960s. Modern-day practitioners of the Piedmont style include such musicians as Keb Mo’, Eric Bibb and Ry Cooder. The last-named musician’s slide guitar, with its haunting and soul-piercing sound, has been the soundtrack to several movies, including “Paris, Texas” and “Southern Comfort.” Of Cooder’s many hits, my personal favorite is “Vigilante Man.” Arlo Guthrie famously used a Piedmont blues backing for his “Alice’s Restaurant” monologues, as it was easy to play repeatedly for long stretches of time.

Ry Cooder performs “Vigilante Man” (1973)

sister act

The blues has many roots, one of which is gospel music that has been sung in white and black churches around the nation for hundreds of years. Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer, recalled those church-going days of her youth: “Everybody in there sang, and they clapped and stomped their feet, and sang with their whole bodies. They had a beat, a rhythm we held onto from slavery days, and their music was so strong and expressive. It used to bring tears to my eyes.” Blues was a natural outgrowth of this tradition of such emotional outbursts.

In my opinion, some of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits were his gospel songs, such as “Crying in the Chapel,” “Peace in the Valley,” and “Swing Down Sweet Chariot.” The salient characteristics of such music are the feelings they exude. That’s why the early white pioneers of rock-and-roll music, like Elvis and Carl Perkins, would visit black churches to hear their choirs perform. Southern black churches at that time (1950s) had roped-off areas in the back of the pews for white visitors to observe and listen. Elvis’ trips to black churches taught him to express such feelings in his music; he channeled one black gospel and blues singer, in particular. Her name was Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-73).   

Tharpe attained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s with her gospel recordings, characterized by a unique mixture of spiritual lyrics and rhythmic accompaniment that was a precursor of rock and roll. She was the first great recording star of gospel music and among the first gospel musicians to appeal to rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll audiences, later being referred to as “the Godmother of rock and roll.” She influenced early rock-and-roll musicians, including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Tharpe’s unique guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements while incorporating a pulsating swing.

This flamboyant American singer/showman’s influence crossed the Atlantic as well. “Tharpe was a pioneer in her guitar technique; she was among the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar, presaging the rise of electric blues. Her guitar playing technique had a profound influence on the development of British blues in the 1960s; in particular a European tour with Muddy Waters in 1964 with a stop in Manchester on 7 May is cited by prominent British guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards,” explains Wikipedia

Sister Rosetta was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas and was taken by her mother to Chicago when she was six years old. At 19, she married Thomas Tharpe. The marriage did not last, but the last name she had acquired did. Moving to New York in 1938, she joined up with Lucky Millinder’s orchestra and landed a seven-year recording contract with Decca Records. She later found out that the contract called for her to sing secular, not gospel, songs. Following her first hit in 1938 called “Rock Me,” her career took off like a rocket, with performances at the famous Cotton Club and at Carnegie Hall. Lyrics to her first hit go like this:

“Now won’t you hear me singin’
Hear the words that I’m saying
Wash my soul with water from on high
Why the world loves love is around me
Even force to buy me
But oh, if you leave me
I will die
You hold me in the bosom
Till the storms of life is over
Rock me in the cradle of our love
Only feed me till I want no more.”

Tharpe’s 1944 release “Down by the Riverside” was selected for the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004, which noted that it captures her spirited guitar playing and unique vocal style, demonstrating clearly her influence on early rhythm-and-blues performers. When asked about her influence on rock performers Tharpe would respond: “Oh, these kids and rock and roll, this is just sped-up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever.”

She met Marie Knight, her reportedly lesbian lover, in 1946 and the two formed a traveling duo act. The two drifted apart, however, after a fire claimed Knight’s mother and children. When the blues began to surge in the 1960s, Tharpe toured Europe as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan along with Muddy Waters and Otis Spann.

An ode to Sister Tharpe’s vast popularity came in 1951, when 25,000 people paid to attend her wedding to her new manager, Russell Morrison, whom she had met only three weeks before. The special ceremony was followed by a vocal performance at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe died from a stroke in Philadelphia in 1973 at the young age of 57. Her leg had been amputated as the result of diabetes-related complications. Marie Knight did Rosetta’s makeup and hair for the burial. Knight passed away in Harlem in 2009; she was 84.

According to her biography on AllMusic.com, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was “widely acclaimed among the greatest Sanctified gospel singers of her generation; a flamboyant performer whose music often flirted with the blues and swing, she was also one of the most controversial talents of her day, shocking purists with her leap into the secular market – by playing nightclubs and theaters, she not only pushed spiritual music into the mainstream, but in the process also helped pioneer the rise of pop-gospel.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was finally inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. “It’s long overdue,” said singer Brittany Howard, who made the introduction.

Amen to that.

radio and biscuits

What is a good definition of radio? According to an old saying: “Radio is the theater of the mind; television is the theater of the mindless.”

Radio became a reality shortly after the turn of the century. However, commercial development of radio was set back during WWI as the American Navy commandeered the technology for use in the war, i.e. sending messages to and from naval ships. It is telling that the U.S. Navy press sent its final dispatch of the war, announcing armistice on November 11, 1918, via radio transmission.

Radio experienced monumental growth after the first commercial station, KDKA, was brought to life by Westinghouse Electric in 1920, just after the Great War ended. “The company was the first to utilize the radio for broadcasting purposes. The first broadcast announced the results of the 1920 Presidential election. By creating interest in the broadcasts, Westinghouse Electric cultivated demand for radios by the general public [especially for broadcasts of boxing matches]. This demand led to the sale of $60 million of radio equipment and accessories in America. By 1924, that number jumped to $358 million,” claims the website Bnhv.org.

In other words, the commercialization of radio coincided historically with the rise in the popularity of blues music in the first part of the 20th century. Such records as Bessie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” became extremely popular in the early 1920s, but the 78rpm discs had to be played on a record player, usually a hand-cranked Victrola. Radio broadcasts of music changed all that. A radio in the center of American homes became television before television. Blues made its escape from hand-cranked turntables to the radio waves as black female singers of the Classic Blues climbed the ratings. Radio music broadcast popularity soared in the 1920s, particularly after E.C. Wente invented the condenser microphone, which greatly improved radio sound quality.

Not many blues writers and aficionados would make a connection between the blues and the sale of flour. But after the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, the blues recording business crashed along with it. Blues artists doing well selling records during the roaring twenties suddenly found they had to return to a life of hard work in the cotton fields or doing other manual labor jobs. Blues recording seemed to die an early death. However, one staple every Great Depression family needed was bread, especially the kind made from white flour. Mixing the previously popular blues music with flour advertising seemed like a no-brainer to some flour companies. Using the relatively new medium of radio was also a self-illuminating idea.

What were some early radio stations that played blues music? It was not surprising, then, that the first such blues-oriented show was The King Biscuit Time radio show, named after King Biscuit flour, the show’s sponsor. The show debuted on AM 1360 KFFA in Helena, Arkansas with performances by Sonny Boy Williamson II and Robert Lockwood Jr. At the time (1941), it was the only radio show featuring African American music. KFFA reached a wide audience throughout the Mississippi Delta and later became famous around the world. The success of King Biscuit Time would pave the way for other African American radio stations and programming. It is still on the air daily on KFFA from Helena.

Wikipedia explains the wide-sweeping influence of this popular radio program: “King Biscuit Time was also a major breakthrough for African-American music in general. The popularity of the program and its reach into the untapped African-American demographic gained notice and spawned a host of imitators. By 1947, the first black disc jockey in the South, Early Wright, had been signed at WROX across the river. WDIA in Memphis soon became the first radio station in the South with an all-black staff (including deejay B.B. King) and a musical format based on the success of King Biscuit Time.”

Programmers at KBT wanted to aim their show at a maximized black audience so the show’s 12:15 pm time slot was chosen to match the lunch break of workers in the Mississippi Delta. KBT has racked up more broadcasts than the Grand Ole Opry and American Bandstand combined; it celebrated its 17,000th broadcast on May 13, 2014. The 30-minute live show is broadcast from the Delta Community Center in downtown Helena.

While working on the Stovall Plantation, just outside Clarksdale Mississippi, a young musician named Muddy Waters heard some King Biscuit Time  broadcasts on his lunch hour and decided in 1943 to head north for the bright lights and blues music being played in Chicago. The rest was history in the making. Muddy’s electrified blues style not only changed the Chicago blues, it changed the whole world of blues music. And audiences across the world also got to hear Muddy Waters sing and play via radio, thanks to the financial support from a flour company.

“Until it’s on the radio or online, it’s not real,” claims Bono of U-2.

As a child without access to television in the early 1950s, radio was very real to me. Hovering around our old cathedral radio set, I would listen to football or baseball games and radio’s Golden Age serials like “The Shadow, “Sky King” and “The Lone Ranger.” I would get chills running down my spine just waiting for the shows to begin. I never had those same feelings for television. Maybe it was because I was older. Maybe not.

Robert Lockwood Jr. performs “King Biscuit Time”