As I sit here in my living room watching Ken Burns’ Country Music with my father, I am struck by the evolution of country music. For a genre to grow from Jimmie Rodger’s fingerstyle to Bill Monroe’s bluegrass to Chet Atkin’s Nashville Sound, then into the outlaw country revolution, and then today have all of those genres be unified under the umbrella of “country music.” I touched on this inclusivity (and selective exclusivity) a few weeks ago, but today I want to contrast it with another genre, The Blues.
On May 17th, 2019, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram released his debut album, Kingfish, on Alligator Records. This album was well liked, because it’s a good blues album, but it is also indicative of everything wrong with the blues in 2019. It is the same old BB King and Muddy Waters riffs we’ve been playing for 60 years now. The notes ring clear but sound stale this late into the blues’ lifespan. It feels that, in the 21st century, The Blues is a museum piece.
The blues is one of the two oldest genres of American popular music. Before the advent of Louis Armstrong, there was just blues and country (although no one at the time would have called it country). Its prominence was always diminished by the fact that blues artists up until the 1960s were almost without exception black, with record labels relegating Big Bill Broonzy and Honeyboy Edwards to the “race record” charts and scarcely promoting them outside black markets. But as we rolled into the 1940s and 50s, the blues evolved out of Robert Johnson’s brand of American primitivism and into grander instrumentation. These records were branded “rhythm and blues” by Jerry Wexler as a replacement for the term “race records” and make it more palatable to white buyers. Wexler certainly didn’t mean to cut Etta James and Ray Charles into their own genre separate from blues, but it nevertheless had that impact, and today R&B is so alien to that early blues that most people don’t even know what it stands for.
But R&B was not the most popular genre the blues spawned — at least, not until the recent decline of its most influential child. When exactly rock and roll was invented is not an easily answerable question. Some say the first rock song was 1951’s “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston (with the production that made it so rock by Ike Turner). Some say it was the 1948 recording Sister Rosetta Tharpe did of “This Train.” Regardless, it’s certain that by the time Bill Haley brought “Rock Around The Clock” to the top of the charts in 1954, it had been cemented as a genre distinct from the blues. But how different was this new formed genre? Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis certainly had more in common with Son House than Bill Monroe had with Jimmie Rodgers. Yet Bluegrass is still considered country and rock its own distinct genre.
This separation from the blues that early rock faced is mostly two factors. One was that the blues was already a museum piece, and while people were certainly buying Lightning Hopkins and John Lee Hooker records, they were not doing so in droves. It was a gamble by marketers to be able to advertise a new genre. The second reason is that the blues was black. White record executives feared alienating the white high schoolers who were most likely to buy these records by advertising them as “blues,” all of whose stars up to the 1950s were black. Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck’s Yardbirds were advertised as blues in their home nation of Britain, but when brought to America they had to be rebranded as rock. The Rolling Stones were subject to similar treatment, though Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ intense desire to make black music recognized in its home country led them to promote those artists on their American tours.
As a result, The Blues is the most powerful and influential genre in American music. If marketers in the 1950s had come up with a different, blues derived term for the music of artists like Little Richard, this would be recognized today, and massive acts like Queens of the Stone Age and Foo Fighters would be recognized as children of the blues. But instead, the blues sits in quiet desperation as everything innovative it creates is taken away from it.
The blues speaks to my soul in a way no genre but folk punk can really compare, and I do not want to say there is nothing happening in the genre today. The Southern Gothic style that blends blues and country in artists like Bones of JR Jones and The Dead South is an important contribution that the blues does get credit for influencing. But still, so much of what could be recognized as the blues never will be. It’s a sad state of affairs that Ken Burns would be unable to make a documentary series on The Blues as compelling as his Country Music due to how it’s innovation was all credited to other genres.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.