The blues is the genre that speaks to my inner soul. When I hear a bottleneck slide on a resonator guitar playing that beautiful interval known to music theorists as “the blue note,” my heart skips a beat. And as I read up on the history of the blues — both in books from primary sources like Alan Lomax and in secondary sources like Peter Guralnik — I feel I should make a shorter, more presentable version of the information I’m taking in.
Believe it or not, some people believe we know approximately when the blues was invented. Esteemed Musicologist Robert Palmer pinpointed the invention of the blues to Dockery Plantation around 1904. There were only a few musicians on Dockery Plantation, and only one was recorded, so Charley Patton is considered by many to be “the father of the blues,” Of course the chords of the blues were old, but his innovations in rhythm and introduction of the blue note resulted in what contemporary black musicologist WC Handy called “the weirdest music he’d ever seen” when he first encountered it waiting for a train in Alabama. Below is Patton’s most famous song, “Pony Blues,” covered by countless numbers of artists.
It is worth noting that, while musicology believes Charley Patton invented the blues, the earliest recorded blues singers were all women. The very first blues recording (that we still have) was Sara Martin accompanied by guitarist Sylvester Weaver singing “Longing for Daddy Blues,” recorded in 1923 (let me warn you, the rip quality in the video below is pretty awful).
However, most of the female blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s were not the country blues/delta blues that defines the popular perception of The Blues of that era. It was often a full string band, a more accurate representation of what was going on every Saturday night at Juke Joints in the Delta. Singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (who tend to be considered jazz now, but were nevertheless considered blues at the time, as jazz was defined as the upbeat hot jazz of Louis Armstrong) would sometimes even bring in horns and piano, taking full advantage of the resources of the recording company.
The famous country blues players of the 1920s and 1930s were very distinct from this jazzier style that was more popular. It evoked an image of an elderly black man sitting on a porch in a plantation playing the songs his grandfather played for him (despite the fact that, as I said, the blues was a new invention). The most influential of these recordings were those of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Memphis Minnie. Minnie frequently played with Leroy Carr or her husband Kansas Joe, but was possibly the finest of the recorded blues guitarists of this time. Her tune, “When The Levee Breaks,” sung by Kansas Joe, was covered by Led Zeppelin (who were subsequently threatened with legal action for not crediting her).
But of course, if you only know one name from this period of the blues, it would be Robert Johnson. Johnson was a fine bluesman, not particularly popular in the Delta, and not particularly special in his style, but still notable for a few reasons. Firstly, he traveled everywhere. Whereas most blues players would only play in the South, and occasionally go up to Chicago or Detroit to record, Johnson toured all over the country as West as Wisconsin and as North as the lower Canadian provinces. He introduced the blues to people who never would have heard it if he hadn’t gone there.
Secondly, he was legendary A&R man John Hammond’s favorite of the blues singers. Hammond sent Alan Lomax down to the Delta to get him for a black music concert at Carnegie Hall, but Lomax found out then that Johnson had been killed under circumstances unclear to historians due to how many competing stories there are. He became the first “27 Clubber” of the 20th century, but Hammond loved his music so much he played the recordings he had gotten a few years earlier at the concert. Hammond’s love for Johnson was ultimately the reason for his notability, as in 1963 when there was a surge in interest in early blues singers with white audiences, Hammond reissued Johnson’s recordings before anyone else’s.
Robert Johnson’s death resulted in legends about him going to the crossroads and making a deal with the Devil to become good at guitar (the truth of the matter is a man named Ike Zimmerman took Johnson in for a year and a half and would take him to a graveyard to practice at night so “the ghosts can teach [him] how to play the blues,” a much better myth in my opinion). This legend was started by a man who knew Robert before and after his disappearance, Son House, frequently credited as having taught Robert how to play guitar (only half true). Son is probably my favorite of all the delta bluesmen. His voice haunts the soul and his playing is legendary in its beat and melody. Everyone I’ve spoken to or read who saw him before his death in the 1980s said “he was possessed by the blues” when he performed (more or less those words exactly every time).
In the 1940s, The Blues left it’s acoustic period and started to go electric. When Lomax had gone down to the Delta to find Robert Johnson, he had instead found and recorded a man named McKinley Morganfield, who would go up north and make a name for himself playing an electric Gretsch for Chess Records playing with Willie Dixon and Little Walter as Muddy Waters. He became the first blues artist to really land with white audiences as well as black. He is still considered a genius and was wildly influential to any electric or acoustic blues player who followed him.
Not that Muddy was the only one who was innovating with electric guitar at this time. Simultaneous to Muddy’s arrival on the national scene, maybe even slightly before, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an aggressively bisexual black minister from Arkansas, became the first recorded artist to play what we now consider lead guitar. She was using distortion before the famous “Rocket 88” where Ike Turner allegedly invented it, and created a musical structure and arrangement more recognizable to contemporary ears as “rock and roll” than most of the more popular nominees for “first rock and roll song.” This recording from 1939(!) doesn’t use distortion, which she didn’t start using until the late 40s (distortion in the late 40s!), but is nevertheless very recognizable as rock and roll.
Of course, the kings of the 50s and 60s electric blues scene were the Kings, B.B. and Albert. It has famously been said of them by every blues writer worth 2 cents that it’s not the notes they played, it was the notes they didn’t. This is really true of every blues player, but with the development of full backing bands as standard acompaniment for blues, The Kings were able to utilize white space in a whole new way.
This was about the end of the blues’s evolution. Of course there have been artists recording blues since, notably Canned Heat, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and The Devil Makes Three for a contemporary and mainstream act, but after this point any innovation in The Blues was spun off into its own genre. I wrote a whole piece on this a few months ago, but basically blues was a dead market and the record companies knew that when Chuck Berry and Little Richard injected a new energy, they could make more money off of it by selling it as something else, thus Rock and Roll came about. Even the blues acts I mentioned above usually get classified as rock before they get classified as blues. Anything slower would get lumped into R&B (which just stands for Rhythm and Blues, but nearly no one today knows that), and straight blues became a genre without any variation, because anything else will get placed in a different genre. Nevertheless, to prove that The Blues is still alive, here’s three of my favorite contemporary blues artists:
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.