chess records

Chicago had long been a destination for African Americans fleeing oppression in southern states, where cotton was king and where Blacks were used to work the fields, first as slaves and later as sharecroppers. Such escapees from the South could find employment opportunities and higher wages in such northern cities as Chicago and Detroit, where industrialization was booming. Blues singers like Muddy Waters, who electrified the blues, found Chicago to be quite accommodating during the 1940s. One could probably say that the Chicago environment got Muddy’s mojo working.

But Chicago blues really didn’t get hot until blues record labels were established there. Blues records could then be cut and distributed to radio stations, which helped popularize the genre. The hottest of all Chicago music labels in the early post-WWII era was Chess Records, established in 1950. Founded and run by two Jewish immigrant brothers from Poland, Leonard and Phil Chess, the company produced and released many singles and albums regarded as central to the blues (and later rock) music canons. Musician and critic Cub Koda described Chess Records as “America’s greatest blues label.”

In 1951, the Chess brothers began an association with Sam Phillips, of the Memphis Recording Service, the forerunner of Sun Records, which later recorded such rock luminaries as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. One of the most important blues artists that came out of Memphis, however, was blues legend Howlin’ Wolf, who stayed with the Chess label until his death in 1976. Many songs created by Chess artists were later covered by many famous rock-and-roll artists, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Eric Clapton. Musical figures created for Chess by Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and others were the basis of much subsequent rock and roll.

The 2008 biopic Cadillac Records, starring Arien Brody as Leonard Chess, was a loose retelling of the Chess Records story, but this “based on a true story” got a lot of facts wrong. For instance, Leonard’s brother Phil does not appear in the flick and his name is not even mentioned. One has to wonder what the real Phil Leonard (died at 95 in 2016) thought of this movie. There is no proof that Leonard had a sexual relationship with Etta James nor was Minnesota Fats Etta’s father, as the movie suggested. Maybe Robert Wilonsky, writing in The Dallas Observer, hits the main point here: “Fabrications in the name of movie myth-making are, of course, to be expected from a genre that demands condensing lives into a handful of Defining Episodes; all biopics reduce and trivialize.” Inaccuracies aside, Cadillac Records is a very entertaining movie experience, especially the acting and singing of Beyoncé Knowles who plays Etta James.

Back to the real facts: “In the mid-1960s, Chess relocated to a much larger building, the former home of Revere Camera Company at 320 E. 21st Street, the label’s final Chicago home. Shortly before the death of Leonard Chess in 1969, the brothers sold the company,” explains Wikipedia. “By 1972, the only part of Chess Records still operating in Chicago was the recording studio, Ter-Mar Studios. Following the sale of Chess to GRT, Phil left the label to run radio station WVON.” Phil Chess told Vanity Fair in 2008 that there’s a perfectly logical explanation for his and his brother’s affinity for the blues. “We’d been around it all our lives,” he says. “We came from Poland in 1928. That was blues all the time.”

Irony is not lost on another interesting historical twist. The original Chess Records building is now the home of Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation which labors away at making sure Black artists get their due in terms of music royalties. The title Cadillac Records is a subtle joke in itself as Blues musicians in the early days were often given Cadillacs instead of royalties, but they did not realize the automobiles had been bought with the royalty money they should have received in the first place. They would have gotten much more in terms of royalties had they just said no to the cars. To paraphrase a famous line from another movie, they should have said “just give me the money!”

Beyoncé, as Etta James, sings “I’d Rather Go Blind”

cultural appropriation

Musicians play the songs of other musicians all the time, calling this style “covers” or “tributes.” Never mind that they don’t ask permission or, heaven forbid, offer compensation. They just go ahead and do it anyway and there is normally no blowback from either the original composer or the first musician who recorded the song. How many people before 2016 realized they were breaking the copyright law when they sang “Happy Birthday?” They were supposed to have compensated the original artist (however, since 2016 the tune has been placed in the public domain).

What is more serious is when an artist just outright steals the work of another and uses his or her own name on the new recording. Even worse is, say, when a White musician pinches the recording of a Black blues artist, re-records it under his or her own name and does not even give a dime or a nod to the creator of the work. Sadly, this happened often in the history of blues music as these White thieves knew there would be no repercussions as most early Black blues performers did not have the finances to hire lawyers to fight back.

This concerns cultural appropriation, some critics say, which means using material from another culture without giving credit or compensation. Freelance journalist and editor of BBCNewsbeat Irahman Jones writes (2016) about Elvis Presley’s cover of “Hound Dog,” previously recorded by black artist Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, though it was written by the White team of Leiber and Stoller: “With a song like this, it’s easy to see why Elvis often gets levelled with accusations of appropriating black music. Why is he seen as the father of rock ’n’ roll music when he didn’t invent it? Why did it take a good old white boy to popularize a genre [the Blues] which black Americans had been playing for years, and in the process become one of the richest people on earth? It’s clear to see cultural appropriation going on here; Elvis clearly stole music from the black culture of the time, passed it off as his own, and hugely profited from it himself.”

“Hound Dog” stayed at No. 1 for 11 weeks in 1956, ultimately selling 10 million copies worldwide, making the young Elvis (then 21) a very wealthy man. Thornton’s original version, recorded four years earlier, had sold two million copies, though Big Mama collected only $500. Although “Ball and Chain” was the lead on Thornton’s 1968 album by the same name, the song became a smash hit when it was later appropriated by Janis Joplin. Again, Thornton got no royalties from this misuse of her music.

The Big Mama cases were blatant, but there are many other examples. Take the case of Willie Dixon, the blues bassist who operated out of Chicago. Dixon did fight back when Led Zeppelin stole his song “Whole Lotta Love.” Willie won his 1985 lawsuit against the group and later used the money to start the Blues Heaven Foundation to help Bluesmen get their royalty checks.

Misappropriation is one thing, but authenticity is quite another. Perhaps many white singers are simply performing the blues and not really putting black feelings into the music, some critics suggest. But at the very least, a white performer trying to sing the blues should give recognition to the original artist and make it plain what the content of the blues song was originally referring to, as he or she is morally (but perhaps not legally) supposed to do. However, when a musical genre like the blues suddenly becomes “hot” legalities often get overlooked, all in the interest of making as much money as possible before the market cools.

“Remember that, up until relatively recently, white people wouldn’t buy music performed by Black people, and that Black culture was considered ‘inferior’, ‘strange’, or ‘exotic’. Then white performers repackaged the Blues for a white audience, and suddenly they were respectable, and the origins of the Blues as a culture of resistance and the expression of a particular experience were often erased and denied. And remember that this happened during or not long after segregation… I would say that was cultural appropriation,” writes Yvonne Abburow in the online journal Patheos. By “relatively recently,” Abburow probably meant anytime up until the 1950s.

Like Abburow, a PhD candidate at the University of Florida, Howell Evans, argued that there is something smelly about White discourses on blues history. In his work The Literature of the Blues and Black Cultural Studies (2004), Evans wrote: “The literature of the blues is mostly a white man writing about a black man’s art, and there is more than a taste of paternalism…what this paternalism masks, this worship of the old authentic bluesman, is the guilt that white musicians have in ripping it off.”

Big Mama Thornton sings “Hound Dog Blues”

the Devil’s music

It’s hard to tell exactly when the Blues got saddled with the “devil’s music” moniker. On the other hand it’s much easier to determine why. “Blues was raggedy street music, performed and listened to by the down at the heel segment of society, known for doing lowbrow things like getting drunk on cheap beer, having bar fights, etc. People tend to politicize music, that is they can’t separate the music from its natural habitat. So they thought the people who played, sang, and listened to the blues were influenced by the devil, and by association, the music was also associated with the devil,” opines musician Collen Kitchen.

The downright anti-social behavior of a lot of Blues pioneers added to that perception. Son House, an early Mississippi Delta Bluesman, shot and killed a man who was shooting up the bar he was in, allegedly to protect his date. The Louisiana-born singer Lead Belly, best known for composing and singing “Goodnight Irene,” killed one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman and stabbed a white man after being released from prison. And then there was the legendary Blues singer Robert Johnson who supposedly sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads for an improved skill on the blues guitar. In “Me and the Devil Blues,” Johnson sings:

“Me and the devil

Was walkin’ side by side

Me and the devil, whooo

Was walking side by side

And I’m gonna beat my woman

Until I get satisfied”

All this negativity notwithstanding, perhaps the greatest contributor to the “devil’s music” stamp came from organized religion, both Black and White. “A large sector of the black community were fiercely religious at the time [early 1900s], and criticized blues artists for subverting the gospel and spiritual tradition in the name of this secular and self-indulgent lifestyle music,” states the Music Fans website. “The criticism came from all sectors of the ‘square’ community, including of course, the white establishment. No one, it seems, wanted to acknowledge or accept what was going on in the underworld of black life.”

Black music had, from early on, been criticized in print as well. One of the earliest published denunciations found is from 1913, when The New York Times defended the fear surrounding ragtime music, a form of the Blues more often associated with jazz. “Decent people in and out of the church are beginning to be alarmed at the crude and vulgar music and loose conduct accompanying it with dances defying all propriety,” the paper wrote. But times have definitely changed and Black traditions like “bump and grind” dancing, twerking, potty-mouthed lyrics and anti-social messages in rap music have not only been normalized but have become all the musical rage.

Books and films have also explained why the Blues got its “devil” label. One of the best books is Giles Oakley’s 1977 The Devils’ Music, which describes the texture of the life that made the Blues possible, and the changing attitudes toward the music. The book is a wholehearted and loving examination of one of America’s most powerful traditions. And then there is the 2008 The Devil’s Music, the first film to document the strange story of notorious shock-rocker Erika Spawn, who was the most infamous woman in the world after her music had been linked by the tabloid press to real-life atrocities.

That film, in alluding to a rock and roll figure, points out the handoff of the “devil’s music” label from the Blues to rock in the post-WWII era of prosperity. Baby-boomers, tired of the very straight music of such crooners as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Andy Williams and polka practitioner ­­Lawrence Welk turned to the more exciting and more danceable tunes of rock pioneers such as Bill Hailey, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. When Elvis Presley single-handedly invented a new musical form called “rockabilly” in the early 1950s by combining Blues, R&B and Western music the acceptance of black influences in white mainstream music was complete.

Elvis’ 1957 hit song “Jailhouse Rock” turned the evolving rock and roll industry on its ear. When Elvis appeared on the nationally televised Ed Sullivan Show for the third and final time on January 6, 1957, the CBS censors would not allow the cameras to show anything below the singer’s waist. They feared that the suggestive gyrations of “Elvis the Pelvis” would sexually stir up young teenaged girls tuning in.

Clinical researcher John Beaton says, “As I remember the word Blues used to be linked to drinking and carousing. The ‘Blues’ was a type of music associated with Honky Tonks and bars which encouraged late Saturday nights and diminished Sunday Church attendance. Throw in the fact it was prevalent in black neighborhoods at a time when being black was all but criminal. In fact ‘Blue laws’ still prohibit people in some states from buying alcohol on Sundays.”

Texas is one of them. Texas law still prohibits sale of liquor for off-premises consumption all day on Sundays and sale of beer and wine for off-premises consumption before 12:01 p.m. on Sundays in some counties. In 1986, there were 62 counties wholly dry, but that number had dropped to seven by 2015. Does this suggest America’s reddest state is loosening up a bit? Good question; something to have a drink on.

Robert Johnson sings “Me and the Devil Blues”

barrel house blues

Of all the different blues forms, barrelhouse may be the bawdiest. Taking its name from early American bars, usually on the outskirts of towns, these small dives served beer and whiskey to their African American (mostly hard laborer) patrons directly from barrels that littered the floor. Almost always featuring a piano, these local bars rocked with an emotional music known as barrelhouse, a blend of jazz and blues that got these patrons up on their feet to dance. Eventually morphing into boogie-woogie—a strident, uninhibited, and forcefully rhythmic new American music—barrelhouse could be played on the guitar as well. Memphis Minnie proved as much in her classical 1934 recording “Drunken Barrel House Blues.” She sang:

“Get me drunk in the mornin’
don’t say one mumblin’ word (2X)
I can’t tell you all about it and I ain’t gon’ tell you nothin’ I heard

Well I believe I’ll get drunk 
tear this old barrelhouse down (2X)
‘cause I ain’t got no money but I can hope all outta town

Get me one more drink
drink and let’s ball and fun (2X)
And I’m gon’ tell everything just as soon as I get back home”

Unlike the more serious blues forms, barrelhouse was aimed more at getting drunk and having fun dancing. “While blues lyrics often deal with personal adversity, the music itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is also about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, and simply having fun. The best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion,” writes Ed Kopp on the All About Jazz website. Kopp could have been describing barrelhouse blues with that statement although he was talking about the blues in general.

The liner notes to an album called Barrelhouse Blues explain that the piano-based blues style developed around the same time as ragtime in the late 19th century, and both shared the same syncopated emphasis on the offbeat. Cow Cow Davenport was a real pioneer of the style. His seminal 1928 recording of “Cow Cow Blues” owed much to the ragtime style. “Unlike the guitar, you couldn’t ride the rails or hobo around with a piano on your back, so musicians would have to adapt to whatever beat-up piano was on offer, with the general state of disrepair adding to the rough and unpolished sound in true barrelhouse spirit.” Other popular blues pianists to emerge from the barrelhouse circuit included Jimmy Yancey, Roosevelt Sykes, Cripple Clarence Lofton and Skip James.

Referring to the well-known barrelhouse album mentioned above, the World Music Network website says, “The raucous playing style of the opening track by Speckled Red perfectly sets the scene for this rough and ready world, with his classic ‘The Dirty Dozen’ [1929] being based on a game of exchanges of insults and vulgar remarks that have long been a part of African-American folklore. In some respects a precursor of rap music, he was told to ‘clean it up for the record’.” Here are some of his (cleaner) lyrics:

“Now, I want all you womenfolks to fall in line
Shake your shimmy like I’m shaking mine
You shake your shimmy and you shake it fast
You can’t shake your shimmy, shake your yes, yes, yes

Now you’s a dirty mistreater, robber and a cheater
Slip you in the dozen, your pappy is your cousin
Your mama do the lordy-lord

Yonder go your mama going out across the field
Running and shaking like an automobile
I hollered at your mama and I told her to wait
She slipped away from me like a Cadillac Eight”

Blues historians will recognize that Speckled Red’s style closely resembles another sub-genre of traditional American blues called “hokum,” or “dirty blues,” which uses extended analogies or euphemisms to create sexual innuendoes. Such songs were popular in the late 1920s and 30s. Their suggestive titles like Bo Carter’s “Warm My Wiener” and “Banana in Your Fruit Basket” promised salacious lyrics, and they did not disappoint. Even female blues singers like Bessie Smithtackled cheeky double-entendres with an unmistakably mischievous tone, as can be heard on “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” I won’t list any of the often X-rated lyrics here, but you get the idea. Saying the blues has meaning within meanings might be an understatement.

Memphis Minnie sings “Drunken Barrel House Blues”

Flour and Roots music

The Light Crust Doughboys in the mid-1930s

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.

Actually, the blues never died but was fused with Western swing to produce a lively new form of music that was easy to dance to, especially for White audiences. Fort Worth-born fiddler Bob Wills was one of the first to mix the two genres after he migrated down from the Texas Panhandle in 1929. In Cowtown, he performed in blackface in minstrel shows and formed the Wills Fiddle Band, which included vocalist Milton Brown and guitarist Herman Arnspiger. The band played on the radio and was hired by W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a flour salesman who later went on to become Texas’ governor and a U.S. senator. O’Daniel was the only man to defeat Lyndon B. Johnson in a political race. The band, renamed the Light Crust Doughboys (named after light crust flour), became so popular that virtually every radio in Texas was tuned to its popular daily radio show whose tagline was “The Light Crust Doughboys are on the air!”

The National Fiddler Hall of Fame says: “Wills not only learned traditional music from his family, he learned some Negro songs directly from African Americans, and said that he did not play with many white children other than his siblings, until he was seven or eight years old. African Americans were his playmates, and his father enjoyed watching him jig dance with black children.”

Did Wills learn the blues from these playmates? “I don’t know whether they made them up as they moved down the cotton rows or not,” Wills once told Charles Townsend, author of San Antonio Rose: The Life and Times of Bob Wills, “but they sang blues you never heard before.”

As the marriage between flour advertising and radio progressed, it was perhaps inevitable that a flour company would sponsor a radio program full-time. Enter King Biscuit Time (KBT), named after King Biscuit flour. It is not only the first radio program dedicated to blues music (established in 1941), it is also the longest-running daily American radio broadcast in history. The program is broadcast each weekday from KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, and has won the George Foster Peabody Award for broadcasting excellence. Its website www.kingbiscuittime.com claims it is “bringing the blues into the 21st century.”

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 still being 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 KBT 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.

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.”

Who would have thought that a radio program sponsored by a flour company would have such an influence on the blues? A virtual who’s who of the blues have made live appearances on the program and continue to do so. Blues lovers from around the world, especially those in Europe, tune in through the Internet. Maybe you should too.

Longtime KBT disc jockey “Sunshine” Sonny Payne

hendrix: blues or rock?

Classifying singers into neat little musical categories so that their recordings would fit into neat little lists and into the right boxes at record stores was always a challenging task, especially for musicians experimenting with new sounds. When you listen carefully to the songs of Jimi Hendrix (1942-70), for example, there is an unmistakable blues background in spite of his designation as a “rock” performer. In the Hendrix “experience” one can definitely hear the influence of great bluesmen such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King and especially Albert King. “Jimi took the blues from the mud of the Mississippi Delta into the stratosphere, all the way to Venus,” said Eric Burdon of the Animals.

According to UltimateGuitar.com, the young Hendrix was charged with riding in a stolen car in 1961 and was given a choice of either going to jail for two years or joining the army. Jimi ended up in the 101st Airborne Division, but was discharged a year later for bad behavior. After the army “experience,” Hendrix traveled the chitlin’ circuit, a series of venues sympathetic to black performers, in order to earn a living. He backed many important singers of the early 1960s, including Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke and the Isley Brothers. Jimi’s flamboyant style of playing his guitar with his teeth, behind his head or between his legs, however, did not sit well with other band members. An inevitable clash of egos occurred after Hendrix teamed up in 1964-65 with Little Richard’s band called the Upsetters. Jimi was never a good team player so ­­sparks flew and Richard finally fired Hendrix.

Undaunted, Jimi staged a comeback. He had a brief career as front man in Jimmy James and the Blue Flames playing the same chitlin’ circuit he played with the previous bands. In late 1966 he got his big break and was offered a trip to England after being discovered by Linda Keith who introduced him to Animals bassist Chas Chandler who became interested in being Jimi’s manager, explains the online publication Quora. In September 1966, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed there after jazz drummer Mitch Mitchell and guitarist-turned-bassist Noel Redding were recruited by Chandler, and recorded a cover of the Billy Roberts song “Hey Joe,” kicking Hendrix’s musical career into interstellar overdrive (Moshcam.com). It was ironic, then, that Hendrix’s star began to rise in Europe more than in the States, at first.

In the rock music field, it is often stated the music can be divided into “before Hendrix” and “after Hendrix” periods because Jimi was allegedly “the greatest guitarist of them all.” High praise indeed, but nobody before Hendrix had manipulated guitar sound so effectively. Will Brewster, writing in Mocham.com explains: “Jimi first experimented with effects pedals on the guitar solo for ‘Purple Haze’, where he used an octave doubling pedal designed by close friend Roger Meyer, who would build many effects for Hendrix over his career. After hearing it being used on recordings by Eric Clapton and Frank Zappa, Hendrix frequently utilized the wah-wah pedal in his music, pioneering the effect as a musical tool which few have been able to replicate.”

There is no doubt that Hendrix’s unique guitar talent represented a challenge to other musicians of the time. While performing “Killing Floor” with Cream in 1966, the then-unknown Hendrix’s playing caused guitar-great Eric Clapton to walk off stage in disbelief, or so the story goes.­ Many critics were also upset by Jimi’s use of the guitar to replicate the sound of guns and other armaments in protest of the ongoing war in Vietnam. They always point to Hendrix’s rendition of the national anthem at the three-day Woodstock Festival in August 1969, which they said was “unpatriotic” because the artist used those sounds therein. The 500,000 people attending that festival probably did not even notice. There is a saying: “If you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there.”

Hendrix, like many other American performers of his time, died due to a drug overdose. Jimi passed on September 18, 1970 in London due to inhaling his own vomit after overdosing on barbituates. Beatles guitarist and singer George Harrison later told television talk show host Dick Cavett that rock performers took drugs to compensate for the tremendous pressure of creating great music but also to get closer to that ultimate love that all of them were seeking. Jimi thus joined the “27 Club,” meaning the collection of performers who died at that age (see previous post). Just think what Hendrix could have achieved had he not passed at such a young age.

So, was Hendrix a blues or rock performer? The answer to that one is easy: he was both. Songs like “Red House” or “Hear My Train A’ Comin’ showed his ability and love of blues. Percussionist Juma Sultan said, “Jimi was mixing the old and the new. He was taking the original blues sound of the old masters to another plateau.” It is doubtful that any guitarist will ever join the great Jimi Hendrix on that plateau.

Jimi Hendrix plays “Hey Joe”

brazos valley blues

By Glenn D. Davis and Jay Brakefield

The Mississippi Valley often gets credit for being the sole area that birthed the blues, but this is just a much-repeated myth. A parallel movement was going on in Texas, which always gets far less mention in blues histories. The blues, in both places, came straight out of the cotton fields. Cotton farmers referred to their crops as “white gold,” as it was a cash crop like no other. It was no accident, then, that many of greatest blues practitioners came from these plantation-laden regions. Blues icons such as Muddy Waters and Mance Lipscomb may not have been geographical neighbors, but they did share a common background. Plantations in both regions were laws unto themselves, where lawmen seldom left footprints. Trouble usually happened outside those gates, when black sharecroppers tried to mingle with the white majority or when black-on-black violence broke out in “jukes” (shoddy dances halls or beer joints with jukeboxes or live music) or elsewhere. The law depended on plantation owners to keep the peace on their turf and these owners used tough labor bosses (often blacks themselves) to carry out the dirty work of peacemaking.

Up until the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s, black men, especially those without steady employment, were often jailed for minor or nonexistent crimes and leased out to plantation owners, who, ironically, had less interest in their welfare than that of a slave. Before the Civil War slaves had to be procured with money; prisoners could be replaced without further expense. The politically powerful plantation owner was a much-feared law unto himself. As Brazos River bottom farmer Tom Moore always told his black workers, “You stay out of the graveyard; I’ll keep you out of the pen.” Staying out the graveyard was a not-so-subtle warning not to get killed, especially in a Saturday night brawl in some juke.

No matter what label you hang on field hands, the work is hard and long. Strong, sturdy bodies and a resistance to disease are absolute prerequisites. When working on jobs that require a specific timing, like rail laying, African-American workers would chant or sing tunes handed down for generations. They sang in church and in the fields, where songs and hollers helped coordinate the work and pass the long, hard, monotonous hours of back-breaking labor. String bands performed for dances in people’s homes and in country juke joints. Music provided both an escape from, and a response to, in-the-field oppression and outright racism elsewhere. The blues was thus born in the cotton fields and juke joints of these river valleys, where blood often flowed as well as river water. Blood-soaked cotton may not be much of an exaggeration. 

Sometime between 1890 and 1900, this new musical form started to emerge, a movement which paralleled the white backlash to Reconstruction reforms, such as allowing blacks to vote. Fear spread among white communities that if enough blacks were registered to vote, the whites would find themselves in a political minority. Violence-prone groups like the KKK and White Man’s Union began to spring up like lilies after a spring shower, to make sure the black population did not make it to the ballot boxes. The Brazos Valley blues began to take on political overtones, especially after the post-Civil War battle between armed whites and blacks in Millican Texas, called the “Millican War” (June 1868) by The New York Times. Although the decade starting in 1890 is referred to as the “Gay ‘90s” it may have been a better time for Anglo-Saxons than for minorities since statistics show that lynchings of African-Americans peaked in that period in the Brazos Valley. In other words, the birth of the blues in the Brazos Valley coincided with the region’s most violent period. 

After the turn of the century, black music got a boost through vaudeville and ragtime songs. Blues began to gain followers since unlike the communal songs of the fields and churches, these were songs of personal expression. Singers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson performed on the street, usually accompanied only by their own guitars. Female singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith performed in front of orchestras in tent shows and in theaters. When the blues boom began with the 1920 recording of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” some of these musicians were recorded, but most received a flat fee and no royalties. A few, such as Jefferson, sold enough records to fare better. But after the Great Depression had devastated the recording industry, many such performers returned to a life of toil.

In the burst of creativity and prosperity that followed World War II, some musicians who hailed from the Brazos Valley and other parts of East and North Texas found commercial success, often after moving to a bigger Texas city, the West Coast or even abroad. Alvin Ailey, who grew up in Navasota, moved to New York City and formed one of the most popular modern dance companies ever – the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – which still tours nationally and internationally. Ailey drew on his experiences and on the blues and gospel music he had heard in the Brazos Valley to create such dance masterpieces as “Blues Suite” and “Revelations.” Ailey said the latter piece derived from “blood memories” of his early life in Navasota.

Ironically, as blues faded as black popular music, it was rediscovered in the 1960s by whites, both in Europe and America, thus experiencing a rebirth. British rock groups such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Animals credited American blues players as major influences. Local figures such as Lightnin’ Hopkins performed at international festivals. In his old age, Mance Lipscomb, a sharecropper who had spent years playing at Saturday night suppers for, as he put it, “50 cents and a fish sandwich,” made money from his music, traveled abroad for engagements and hung out with such luminaries as Bob Dylan. Today, a statue of Lipscomb stands proudly in downtown Navasota. Until recently there were two annual festivals held there in his honor. Both have been discontinued, for financial reasons. Perhaps it is a sign of the times.

Mance Lipscomb Plays “Tom Moore’s Farm”

blues treasure trove

For a blues researcher, particularly one who specializes in Texas Blues, a “lost” treasure trove of research materials suddenly coming to the surface is like stumbling into El Dorado. But that is exactly what happened in late February 2019 when Texas A&M University Press published The Blues Come to Texas by Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick, a work that was intended to be published decades ago. “Make no mistake — this is not some dusty tome, but rather a vibrant piece of research…it will be a source for blues researchers and aficionados to dip into with wonderment for years to come,” gasped a Texas Observer article. Some blues researchers say this book may indeed be the “holy grail” of Texas blues history.

“From October 1959 until the mid-1970s, Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick collaborated on what they hoped to be a definitive history and analysis of the blues in Texas,” states the book’s promo on Amazon.com. But somehow the book never surfaced, that is, until after both collaborators had passed. Let’s take a closer look at the extraordinary lives and careers of these two men, from different continents, but both possessing a common interest in the history of Texas Blues.

Paul Oliver (1927–2017) was professor at Oxford Brookes University in England and was a leading authority on American blues history as well as an expert on domestic architecture. Brett Bonner, the editor of the magazine Living Blues, said in an interview: “Paul was one of the founders of blues scholarship. He and Sam Charters set the template for everything that followed. They also set the stage for the blues revival of the 1960s. Without them, people like Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and Skip James would not have had second careers.” Oliver’s The Blues Fell This Morning (1960) was probably the seminal work on Texas Blues before the publication of the Blues Come to Texas (2019). “The former book and LP inspired a generation to discover this music, some to make it themselves, others to listen and develop their own ideas. Later books included Conversation With the Blues (1965), interviews from an American field trip in 1960; The Story of the Blues (1969), the first attempt at a comprehensive history; and Songsters and Saints (1984). They were accompanied by a constant flow of sleeve notes, articles, reviews, lectures and broadcasts,” states The Guardian obituary (8.31.17).

Robert “Mack” McCormick (1930–2015) was a folklorist and blues researcher widely acclaimed for his field interviews, extensive liner notes, and recordings with Texas blues musicians all over the state. “He found and interviewed relatives of Blind Lemon Jefferson, talked to acquaintances who knew Lead Belly before he came to New York in the 1930s and tracked down two of Robert Johnson’s half-sisters, who gave him previously unknown photographs of the most celebrated and mysterious Delta blues singer of all time,” claims The New York Times obituary (11.25.15). Maybe Mack’s greatest discovery was locating Mance Lipscomb, a blues singer from the 1920s, who was  working as a sharecropper in Navasota, Texas. McCormick then managed to talk Chris Strachwitz, who had just founded Arhoolie records, into recording him for the first time. “After seeking out Mr. [Lightnin’] Hopkins in Houston in 1959, he brought him to the recording studio to make Autobiography in Blues, an album that put him at the center of the folk music revival,” says the The New York Times article.

So when Paul and Mack teamed up to write the definitive history of Texas Blues, researchers and aficionados all over the world held their collective breaths waiting for its publication. But the always suspicious McCormick was difficult to work with, claim many who tried. For decades the book languished in obscurity. But thanks to the tremendous organizing and compiling efforts of blues writer Alan B. Govenar (Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound) and ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell, the long-awaited The Blues Come to Texas finally saw the light of day.

If you are a blues researcher or just a fan interested in the music you cannot afford to ignore this massive work.

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”

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”