on alligators and bears

Ever since Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920, the recording industry for blues music expanded and has been the pathway to fame for most blues artists. Since commercial radio began to develop during the same period, such musicians depended on cutting a record and getting it played on the radio to get their names known regionally and, more importantly, nationally. Yes, I know that many blues historians will argue that blues recordings started years before Mamie’s breakthrough recording, but that is not the point here.

Now, digital recording and the Internet have opened up a large international audience, much to the delight of blues music lovers. Traditional recording agencies still play a large role but most Americans still do not realize that 70% of all blues recordings are sold in Europe. Other blues historians may argue that is not the point either. Enough. Let’s take a closer look at a couple of these blues music recording companies.

Today, the Chicago-based Alligator Records (https://www.alligator.com) is the largest independent blues label in the world, and has been repeatedly honored for its achievements. Three Alligator recordings have won Grammy Awards, and 41 titles have been nominated. The label and its artists have received well over 100 Blues Music Awards and more than 70 Living Blues Awards. But even with all of the accolades, Alligator Records never rests on its laurels.

The Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection clearly lays out Alligator’s wide-ranging, forward-looking vision with tracks from newer voices — Shemekia Copeland, Selwyn Birchwood and Toronzo Cannon, to name a few. Together, the Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection presents a comprehensive portrait of the label’s singular, rooted, soul-stirring American music.

According to owner Bruce Iglauer, “Alligator should be the label that’s exposing the next generation of blues artists and bringing their music to the next generation of blues fans. I want to keep bringing blues and roots music to new fans and getting them as excited about the music as I am. I want the future of the blues and the future of Alligator Records to be one and the same.”

Europe has long been receptive to the traditional sound of Southern blues music.  Blues-infused rock groups from England, which were greatly influenced by the historic blues style, like the Rolling Stones or the Animals, also brought new energy to an outdated, but still powerful, style. However, the blues as we once knew it may be dying a second death. Perhaps the only new trend that can save it (again) is internationalization. Although they don’t always know the history of the songs they are singing, blues artists from all over the world are tapping into the blues style. Blues pubs are popping up from Tokyo to Berlin, from Toronto to Sao Paulo and beyond.

Iranian-born bluesman Big Harp George says: “One of the things that is really exciting in the blues world right now, here in the [San Francisco] Bay Area maybe more than anywhere, is the internationalization of the style. One of my songs is ‘Hey Jaleh!,’ which happens to be the name of my Iranian-born wife. I have had blues musicians tell me I should change that name, that no one has ever sung a blues song to an Iranian woman.”

But is it really that strange that people from other cultures and other nations can “get” the American blues? No matter your nationality or cultural upbringing, feelings are feelings and they can be expressed in song. George was educated in Beirut, but did not need to work in a cotton field in the American South to understand where the blues is coming from. “I have not picked cotton,” George points out. “I have not worked in a steel mill. By comparison to many blues musicians, I’ve had a very privileged life. But that does not mean I can’t tap emotions and contexts that are consistent with the blues tradition, and that are genuine to my own experience.”

Germany seems to be the main engine for blues activity and recording sales in Europe. It is home to Bear Family Records (https://www.bear-family.com/) and its huge collection of blues recordings and other paraphernalia concerning the American blues and other musical genres. Formed in 1975, it is the gold standard for the reissuing of classic blues recordings and is a large contributor to the sale of blues recordings worldwide. The label issues lavishly designed box sets of blues and other American roots music, with book-length liner notes.

Founded by collector Richard Weize, Bear Family Records started with the double LP “Going Back to Dixie” by Bill Clifton. The company describes itself as “a collector’s record label” due to its primary business, which is reissuing rare recordings in CD format in small amounts. Historically, their material has had only limited availability in the U.S., stocked at Ernest Tubb Record Shop and through mail order sources. Many of their box sets are now available through Amazon Marketplace, however. 

Big Harp George sings “Build Myself an App”