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”

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

 

the great migration

The massive exodus of six million Blacks from the South for destinations north and west between 1916 and 1970 is historically known as the “The Great Migration.” The percentage of Blacks living in the South dropped from 95% to 50% during this same period. This, the largest voluntary migration in history, was mostly spurred by a rising demand for production workers for military equipment to support two world wars. Henry Ford’s employment of Black production line workers also brought many to Detroit, which earned the nickname “motor city.” The blog Music in the World explains that The Great Migration was produced mostly by “crop devastation, formation of the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws, and the US entering WWI and WWII, which demanded more labor in the Northern states.”

As in other historical diasporas, southern Blacks took their culture with them. The movement created new markets for the music industry, particularly for blues and jazz, in Chicago, New York, St. Louis and Los Angeles. The Great Migration also urbanized the southern African American population, expanding Blues music from the southern states throughout the rest of America. The migration affected Blues music greatly, but the reverse was also true. New musical genres such as West Coast Blues, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blues and East Coast Piedmont Blues resulted.

Symbolic of this African American movement was the odyssey of Mississippi Delta Bluesman McKinley Morganfield (1915-83), otherwise known as “Muddy Waters.” He is also known as the “Father of the Chicago Blues,” an electrified version of the rural Delta Blues that featured acoustic guitars. His mother came up with the moniker “Muddy Waters” because her son played in the swampy puddles of the Mississippi River as a boy. The legend of Waters’ plugged-in influence on American music began in 1943 when Muddy boarded a train in Mississippi headed north for Chicago. Working in the city at various jobs to support himself, Waters finally broke into fame with his “I Can’t be Satisfied” recording for Chicago-based Chess Records. Many other hits followed over the next three decades, including “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Got My Mojo Working” and “Trouble No More.”

Of course, New York City has long been a center for music formation in the United States. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s had a lasting impact on blues and jazz music, especially the gritty sounds of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith. “The traditional southern brass instruments were being played with pianos, which were considered to be a wealthy instrument. Innovation and liveliness were inspiring performers all over the city, the newly found freedom resounded in their lyrics and music style,” states Music in the World blog. “By the 1950s, blues and jazz had a huge influence on mainstream American popular music, the creation of white jazz bands allowed for many white audiences to begin to appreciate new types of music and the black artists who originally created it. At the time, in New York, ‘bluesy-pop’ music was created that redefined American music and appealed to white teenagers that started listening to rhythm and blues (R&B).”

On the West Coast, post-WWII Los Angeles became a huge central location for Blues music; the style there seemed to be producing a smoother, cooler type of Blues called R&B that differed from the traditional model. “Lew Chudd, a record producer based in L.A. signed a man named Fats Domino from New Orleans. Domino had the same smooth style of L.A. artists but also had robust energy and a quirky rhythm that changed the face of R&B,” says Music in the World. “Domino was one of the first artists to successfully incorporate white country music with the blues.” The fusion of the two styles produced rock n’ roll, which is usually credited to Elvis Presley and artists like him, “but the real pioneers were Domino and, a few years later, Chuck Berry.” Buddy Holly and Little Richard could perhaps be added to this list.

While Blues singers and players from the Deep South tended to move northward toward opportunities in Chicago and New York, many Texas-born Bluesmen drifted westward to California, especially during the 1940s when aircraft construction for WWII was booming in cities like Oakland. Texas Bluesmen often went west with such migrants as Aaron “T-Bone” Walker (1910-75) and Pee-Wee Crayton. T-bone was a corruption of Walker’s real middle name Thibeaux, and was not a reference to a kind of steak, as many have believed. In Southern California, Walker, like Muddy Waters in Chicago, plugged into an amplifier and thus changed his sound. The pain and humor of the blues was no less present, but in a swinging big-band format. The sound was also much louder and capable of reaching larger audiences.

The Great Migration spread the messages and sounds of the Blues far and wide across the United States. It also informed the American public of the downsides of Blues players like Walker who lived the corrupt life of gambling, drinking, womanizing and hell-raising that he was singing about. One of the quotes attributed to T-bone goes like this: “Have fun while you can. Fate is an awful thing. You can’t tell what will happen—that’s why I love to sing.” And sing he did. The greatest hit of this half-Cherokee innovator of jump blues (a lively form featuring saxophones and small combos) was his 1947 “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad).” T-bone has been posthumously inducted into the Blues, Grammy and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.

Why African Americans Left the South in Droves

mother of the blues

In many ways, Bessie Smith was lucky to have a seasoned Blues performer as her mentor and teacher. This role model’s name was Ma Rainey, and as the name suggests, she was known as the “Mother of the Blues.” Rainey was an established Blues performer long before the “Crazy Blues” record of Mamie Smith turned the recording world on its head in 1920. Mamie and Bessie were so popular during the 1920’s that they established a new genre called “Vaudeville Blues.” Both singers, however, had a lot to learn about style and delivery from the Mother of the Blues.

“Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia, Ma Rainey became the first popular stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues into her song repertoire. She performed during the first three decades of the 20th century and enjoyed mass popularity during the Blues craze of the 1920’s. Rainey’s music has served as inspiration for such [Black] poets as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown,” states www.biography.com.

Thomas A. Dorsey, a Blues pianist and later spiritual singer, knew Rainey as well as anyone on the early Blues circuits. He described her as rather unattractive, but with an unforgettable appearance on stage to go along with her ruggedly powerful voice. Her headband was holding down a horsehair wig, her skin was “richly dark,” she had a gaudy necklace made of $20 gold coins and had a mouthful of gold teeth that “sparkled when she started singing.” Dorsey added, “She was in the spotlight, she possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the Blues with her.”

In other words, Ma Rainey was a sight to behold and had a voice to remember. As music historian Chris Albertson has written, “If there was another woman who sang the Blues before Rainey, nobody remembered hearing her.” 

Rainey was also unashamed to publicly state her sexual attraction to women. In “Prove It on Me Blues,” accompanied by a jug band, she sings defiantly:

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.

They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.

It’s true I wear a collar and a tie,

Makes the wind blow all the while.

Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.

You sure got to prove it on me.

A recent New York Times article lamented the fact that the paper had largely overlooked the importance of Ma Rainey in Blues history. “As the biographer Sandra Lieb observed in Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey (1983), by combining a black folk style with techniques learned on the vaudeville stage, Rainey ‘offered to whites a glimpse into black culture far less obscured by white expectations, and offered to blacks a more direct affirmation’ of their cultural power.”

Memories of Ma Rainey as the Mother of the Blues resonate in other ways. For instance, she is now remembered in an odd way, through a 1982 work called “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” This play was the first of Black poet and writer August Wilson’s plays to win wide acclaim, and is still among his finest works.

Explains the eNote website: “Set in a recording studio in the 1920’s, the story takes place over the course of an afternoon, as a group of musicians and the legendary Blues singer Ma Rainey record several songs. Much of the play takes the form of discussions and arguments among the four musicians, each of whom brings his own perspective to questions of prejudice and the problems facing Black people in American society.” The play is, in other words, a microcosm of the African American experience.

Just this week, Netflix announced its own upcoming film adaptation of Wilson’s play, produced by Denzel Washington, that will cast actors Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in the leading roles. 

The New York Times neatly sums up Rainey’s long career: “She was also a celebrity. Of the nearly 100 songs she recorded in the 1920’s, many were national hits, and some have become part of the American musical canon. Her 1924 recording of ‘See See Rider,’ on which she is accompanied by a young Louis Armstrong, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2004.” 

Interestingly, there was not enough room for two divas in the same record company: Rainey went to Paramount while her understudy, Bessie Smith, ended up with a Columbia contract.

Then came economic catastrophe. The crash of the US stock market in 1929 almost destroyed the music recording industry. And when the Blues faded from popularity in the 1930’s, the earthy Ma Rainey returned to her Columbus, Georgia hometown, where she ran two theaters: the Lyric Theater and the Airdome. The Mother of the Blues passed away from heart disease in 1939; she was 53 years old.

The Black Bottom song

race records

The end of the Great War (1914-18) produced a giddiness in America not seen since the “Gay Nineties” (1890s). The 1920s became known as “The Roaring Twenties” or “The Flapper Age,” the latter expression referring to women’s dresses with flaps. Jazz was all the rage for the White population, who could afford to buy record players and records. Due to ongoing segregation and the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, Blacks were relegated to buying cheap record players and records, if they could afford them at all, from Black-owned stores. Very few records sold in White stores featured, or even included, Black musicians. However, a major change in the music recording industry occurred in August 1920 with the recording of “Crazy Blues” by Black Blues singer Mamie Smith.

“African American culture greatly influenced the popular media that White Americans consumed in the 1800s. Still, there were not any primarily Black genres of music sold in early records. Perry Bradford, a famous Black composer, sparked a transition that displayed the potential for African American artists,” explains Wikipedia. “Bradford persuaded the White executive of Okeh Records, Fred Hager to record Mamie Smith, a Black artist who did not fit the mold of popular White music. In 1920, Smith created her ‘Crazy Blues/It’s Right Here for You’ recording, which sold 75,000 copies to a majority Black audience in the first month.”

The music industry immediately sat up and took notice. Okeh did not anticipate such enormous sales and attempted to recreate their success by recruiting more Black Blues singers. Other recording companies such as Columbia, Paramount, Victor and Vocalion quickly followed Okeh’s lead. Columbia went all-in and bought Okeh in 1926. The “Race Record” industry was thus formed to provide 78rpm records to Black audiences through Black-owned stores. Such records were not allowed for sale in White stores at the time. Race records were marketed to America’s Black population in this way from the 1920s through the 1940s. This accounted for approximately 10% of the record-buying  market.

One might ask why so many early Blues singers were women. Following the stunning success of “Crazy Blues” all the major record labels were on the hunt for their very own Blues diva. About 100 race records featuring female Blues singers were cut in the two years following the launch of Mamie Smith’s breakthrough record, thus forming the period called “Classic Blues” or “Vaudeville Blues,” in which Black female Blues singers predominated.

Vaudeville and Prohibition were indeed in full swing in the early 1920s. Most of these “divas” were to be found Vaudeville, but some were discovered in night clubs and in Speakeasy clubs as Prohibition was the law of the land between 1920 and 1933. Most sales of Blues race records during the Flapper Age came from divas such as Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter and Lucille Hegamin.   

Black Bluesmen were nowhere to be found in this early period, not in Vaudeville nor in recording studios. Why? “African-American Bluesmen were not welcome in the studio either, perhaps because their songs of oppression and need were considered to be too hot to handle politically at a time of the ‘Black Diaspora’, with the rise of the Klan in the south and race riots in Northern cities. The growing demand for Blues music would eventually breach this barrier, but in the early 20s, nobody was ready to make that breakthrough,” states the website All About the Blues.

The “Golden Age” of race music ranged from 1926 until the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929. When the Blues duo of Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey recorded “Tight Like That” in 1928 it set off a new trend called Hokum Blues, a sexually suggestive form relying heavily on innuendo and double entendres. “This chimed well with the culture of decadence and speakeasies in the cities and at ‘juke-joints’ in the countryside,” points out the All About site. Hokum was also called the “Dirty Blues,” but the object was not to be obscene but to make (mainly Black) audiences laugh. Bessie Smith’s contribution to Hokum was to ask for “a little sugar in my bowl” and one of her song titles was “Put It Right Here (Or Keep It Out of There).”

Nobody could sing the Blues or Hokum like Bessie Smith (1892-1937; no relation to Mamie), a raunchy and crude Black Blues singer, known as the “Empress of the Blues,” who would occasionally pause in a song to spit. The temperamental, hulking singer was as handy with her fists as with a microphone. At a tent performance in North Carolina in 1927, a half-dozen robed members of the KKK showed up and started pulling up the poles. When Bessie saw what was happening, she confronted the hooded men with fists at the ready, telling them they needed to run. They ran. Bessie went back on stage and continued her show. Black or White, nobody messed with Bessie Smith.

“Smith’s drinking, violent temper (and physical strength), and predatory sexual life involving both men and women were boundary breaking, even by the standards of free-living musicians of the Roaring Twenties,” states the New World Encyclopedia. In most performances, Bessie didn’t need a mic; she was so loud that listeners in balcony seats believed they were in the first row. Her best-selling record, “Downhearted Blues,” sold nearly 800,000 copies in its first six months in 1923 and two million copies in total. Columbia records was so impressed that it bought Bessie a private train car for touring since she was not allowed to ride in the first-class section of regular trains.

Bessie died in a tragic auto accident in 1937; she was only 45 years old. “Since her death, Bessie Smith’s music continues to win over new fans, and collections of her songs have continued to sell extremely well over the years. She has been a primary influence for countless female vocalists—including Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin —and has been immortalized in numerous works. A comprehensive, acclaimed bio on her life — Bessie, by journalist Chris Albertson — was published in 1972 and expanded in 2003. An HBO film loosely based on the book aired in 2015, with Queen Latifa (who also executive produced the project) portraying Smith and Mo’Nique playing Ma Rainey,” says www.biography.com.

Bessie Smith “Downhearted Blues”

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folk songs as code

The Negro folk song was an antecedent of the blues. Its lyrics were sometimes coded instructions for black slaves escaping from Southern plantations via the Underground Railway. One example of this type of folk song disguised as Black code for escape was “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” This song, dating back to the 1830s, was actually a road map for how to get to Kentucky and then to freedom. Part of the lyrics, which many white people thought was just a spiritual, made references to landmarks along the way from Alabama northward.

 “When the sun comes back, 
and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd,
The old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the drinking gourd.” 

 “Where the little river 
Meets the great big one, 
The old man waits—
Follow the drinking gourd.”

The “drinking gourd” is not just a hollowed out gourd for drinking water but the Big Dipper constellation, pointing the way north. A returning sun and quail calls recall spring, the best time to run. The “old man” refers to “Commander” Peg Leg Joe, an operative of the railway. It is said that Joe would leave his mark, a left foot and a small circle (for the peg), on dead trees along the route, to guide runaways. The rivers mentioned are the Tombigbee and the Ohio. Where they merge in Peducah, Kentucky was allegedly the staging place for escaping slaves to follow the Underground Railway to freedom in either New England or Canada.

Some scholars, such as James B. Kelly, question the authenticity of the song’s lyrics. He claims the song is an interpolation and not an interpretation. The song content was researched by H.D. Parks in the 1910s and was recorded for the first time in 1928 by the Texas Folklore Society. Parks admitted that he pulled the lyrics from memories of people who could not verify from where the words had actually been derived. Other scholars point out that the song has been re-recorded by so many different singers and groups that its original meaning has become somewhat diluted, or even lost. In fact, historical records show that most of the escaping plantation slaves did not go north at all, but fled instead to large southern cities or to Caribbean destinations.

None of this criticism, however, can diminish the historical importance of the Drinking Gourd song. The website www.followthedrinkinggourd.org states: “In the ensuing 80 years [since 1928], the Drinking Gourd played an important role in the Civil Rights and folk revival movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and in contemporary elementary school education. Much of the Drinking Gourd’s enduring appeal derives from its perceived status as a unique, historical remnant harkening back to the pre-Civil War South – no other such map songs survive.” 

In addition to Negro folk songs were Negro spirituals, which formed the bedrock for the blues that followed. Some of these compositions were also coded language for resistance and escape. Examples include “Canaan, Oh Canaan,” “Steal Away to Jesus,” “Wade in the Water” and “I Got My Ticket.” One of the most performed escapist songs of the slavery period was “Go Down Moses,” with its lyrics about an oppressed people being led out of bondage. Frederick Douglass, perhaps the nineteenth century’s most famous abolitionist author and former slave, wrote about singing spirituals in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.” (Library of Congress article)

For white churchgoers of the time, “Wade in the Water” was a call to baptism, but black slaves interpreted the meaning of the song differently. To them, the lyrics were advice to wade in the rivers to throw the bloodhounds off the scent of their trails as they escaped. 

Slave owners were not entirely in the dark about such coded language, however. Escape was one worry to them, but the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 to allow slaveowners to legally recapture runaway slaves in other states. On the other hand, an armed slave revolt was one of Southern plantation owners’ greatest fears during the antebellum period. They had heard of the 1831 rebellion in Virginia, led by a slave named Nat Turner, in which 51 white people had been massacred. Slaveowners were determined to prevent a repeat.

Southern slaveowners even had an edited version of the King James version of the Bible called the “Slave Bible,” which had any descriptions of escape from bondage or similar notions deleted. Originally published in London in 1807 for the use of British missionaries in the Caribbean, this bible also removed most of the Old Testament, especially the Exodus section, but retained the parts commanding slaves to respect their masters. Other remaining passages were about the maintenance of the slavery system and slave obedience. Is it any wonder, then, that some Confederate soldiers went into battle waving Slave Bibles above their heads?

Only three copies of the Slave Bible still remain; one is on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

Follow the Drinking Gourd

spiritual blues

Thomas A. Dorsey

Gospel music and the blues share a unique relationship, reflecting two sides of the same coin, some music critics have written. It was, and still is, very common for black blues singers performing in juke joints on Saturday nights to be singing hymns in church the next morning to the same sort of beats and rhythms, or even the same lyrics. In fact, some of these songs were religious hymns that had been converted to blues or rhythm and blues (R&B) by changing a lyric here or there or adhering to a similar sound. Some singers have forged careers by making these types of conversions which were, and still are, denounced noisily by pious church goers and blues purists.

According to the Mississippi Blues Trail website: “…the blues and the spirituals flow from the same bedrock of experience, and neither is an adequate interpretation of black life without the other.” Spirituals and hymns preceded gospel, a genre that evolved through the work of Thomas A. Dorsey, a former blues singer and composer often called the “father of [Black] gospel music,” and others. “The influence between religious music and blues has long been mutual. While both genres have their own distinct characteristics, many gospel songs have been transformed into blues or soul songs, and vice versa, by simply changing a few words in the lyrics.”

When looking for clear-cut examples of such musical manipulation, the works of Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993) may, in fact, be one of the most profound. Dorsey was born in Georgia and originally made his mark in the music industry as a blues pianist playing under the stage names of “Georgia Tom” or “Texas Tommy.” He is best known for writing and performing the gospel standard “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which he wrote while grieving over the death of his wife Nettie in 1932.

The Great Depression was at its apex in the early 1930s and, with that prevailing dark mood, Dorsey’s combining of blues rhythms and spiritual lyrics did not go over well with many conservative Christians. In the beginning, many mainstream churches rejected his songs. “He spoke many times about being ‘thrown out of some of the best churches in America’ where the pastor’s labeled his gospel songs as ‘Devil Music’,” claims the blog Black Art Depot Today.

Blind R&B singer Ray Charles (1930-2004) was another prolific converter of religious music. His famous 1954 hit “I’ve Got a Woman” was a good example. It was originally a church hymn entitled “It Must be Jesus,” which was first performed by the Southern Tones, a gospel group. Charles’ converted song became a prototype for what later became known as soul music. Other music critics say the song was a converted gospel hymn called “My Jesus Is All the World to Me.” No matter the source, Charles’ R&B version shot up the music charts like a roman candle, turning the music world on its head.

But in mid-50s America, this sort of hymn conversion was frowned upon, to put it mildly. Not just pious Christians were upset at Charles’ mixing – blues purists got their backs up too, saying that spiritual music and the blues should not be stirred together. Although the converted song “I’ve Got a Woman” helped Charles tap into a much wider white audience, it was shocking and outrageous to many Christians and blues purists at that time.

Ray Charles, however, remained unfazed. “If I was inventing something new, I wasn’t aware of it. I started taking gospel lines and turning them into regular songs. Many of [my] first tunes were adaptations of spirituals I had sung in quartets back in school,” states Robert Marovich’s Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul blog, quoting Ray Charles. Among the “spirituals-and-blues” Charles cites creating was “Leave My Woman Alone” from the gospel standard “You Better Leave that Liar Alone.”

Maybe we have to look farther back into history to understand the connection between spirituals and the blues. During slavery, for example, many Southern plantation owners forced their slaves to attend Christian churches, where they sang traditional (white) hymns. Slaves adapted these songs to their own needs and desires and thus produced what is known as the “Negro spiritual.” Many believe the most important American antecedent of the blues was the Negro spiritual, so it should not be surprising that some singers and performers would combine the two into an art form of its own. The songs of Thomas A. Dorsey and Ray Charles are proof this has actually happened.