TEXAS, TENNESEE, ALABAMA, MISSOURI AND OF COURSE, MISSISSIPPI.
Missippi, the crowning capitol of the blues. In the 1930's and since the end of the slave trade, a place of despair and depression. Draughts and floods. Home of the blues. It was here in 1903 that W.C. Handy first heard the blues. Songs of sorrow and despair. Songs of an unhappy people. But they weren't just songs they were the voice of a people. The voice of a people that during the depression had it worse off than any. You could hear it in the wind and see it in the eyes of an 8-year-old cottonpicker. Or in the weary eyes of a farmer. Or in the deadpan eyes of a prisoner. This was the blues. The voice of a people. And Mississippi was its home. Its natives were the hardworking poor. Its mouthpiece were the bluesmen.
The average bluesmen had certain characteristics. They were usually drifters who went from town to town. They also lead a dangerous life. Booze, broads, and, of course, jealous husbands. But more than anything, they loved their art. Their soul. Their voice. They would usually play guitar, but would sometimes play harmonica, piano, jug, and even a washboard.
In the early 20's only a few blues artists were recorded. These included Papa Charlie Jackson, Sylvester Weaver, and Lonnie Johnson. But it was in 1926 in Texas that it all changed with the recording session of Blind Lemon Jefferson. His enormous popularity and commercial songs were but one factor that promoted the recording of the blues. The other was of course, the invention of the electrical recording process. It picked up the guitar better and highlighted the singers vocals. Most singers of the region were gruff rural voiced singers. With the success of radio in full swing, the recording industry naturally saw that the rural blues and the black community were untapped markets. They jumped at the chance, and in the process made quite the buck. The buyers of blues records in the 30s, for the most part, were the black communities. The Recording Industry recorded hordes of blues artists until 1932 when depression caused the companies to go bankrupt. Later they only recorded select artists.
|Papa Charlie Jackson|
The Delta blues, the blues of Mississippi that is, were usually laced with tales of evil women, murder, drinking, the devil, and all known vices. The Texas blues were far more commercial and usually appealed more to a white audience. Texas bluesmen's songs were not out of place in dancehalls and parties. They were more free and easy going. More folk than blues.
Southern blues and Texas blues differed immensely but were common in one aspect, the instruments. Guitars, banjos, harmonicas, kazoos and jugs, these were the tools of the trade. Most bluesmen learned guitar at an early age, when as children they would make a makeshift guitar on a wall or the side of a house. They would put two blocks of wood, one at the top one at the bottom, then tie 3 strings from one end to the other and then wedge a bottle between the strings and the bottom block. Viola, an instant guitar.
Bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta were usually youths who didn't want to be confined to their community or didn't want to be what their fathers had become, farmers or preachers. They wanted something more. The blues was a freedom. A way out. They would often play at farms, bars, brothels, and lumber camps but preferred street corners because of the large tips. In that time, it was not uncommon to see two or three different bluesmen in competition with each other on different corners of the same block. In this way they also benefited from each other by learning the other one's techniques.
The earliest and largest collection of blues recordings stem from Mississippi. This is due in part to a man who played a key role in blues recording, H. C. Spiers of Jackson. Spiers was a white man who owned a furniture store, but in the back had a recording studio.
One of many of Spiers discoveries was the great Delta bluesman Charlie Patton. Pattons music, more than any other, epitomized the Delta blues. He also was responsible for pioneering most of the styles of the Delta, in other words a role model for all up-and-coming bluesmen.
Born in 1891 near Bolton in a hill country between Jackson & Vicksburg, Charlie was the son of Bill Patton, a local country store owner. Pattons father Bill, had a lucrative business that Charlie surely would have inherited but Charlie found his voice in expression. Tired of the racist south and other blacks who refused to do anything other than what was expected of them he sought a way out. His answer: the blues. He mostly played at the Dockery Plantation but roamed all the Delta. He traveled as far as Georgia and Texas, even Chicago. He led a fast life though. He earned lots of pay, married 8 times, had countless girlfriends, and then died at the age of 43. A dangerous but rich life. More of a life than most black Americans knew.
Between 1929-1934 Patton recorded over 50 titles, mostly for Vocalion. He sang everything from spirituals, folk ballads, dance tunes, to children's songs. These were all part of his repertoire, but he mostly sang the blues. Gritty Delta blues. His blues pieces were like newsreels of the time. For instance, his "High Water Everywhere" describes the 1927 flood. Patton sang of hardships and troubles in the deep south, all accented by his gutteral growl. His guitar playing was extraordinary, he used special methods such as slapping, bending chords etc., even using a knife to make the strings emit a whining effect.
Patton's off and on partner was Willie Brown. Patton brought Brown to record at his 1930 sessions. Brown recorded four selections of his own including his famous "Future Blues".
Patton also brought Eddie "Son" House to this session. Son House had been a preacher but whisky and women lured him from the church and into the hands of the blues.
Brown and House became quick friends and partners. They eventually became kings of the delta blues in thier own right. Willie Brown died around 1942. Son House lived well into his years and was rediscovered in 1964, he died in 1988, influencing, among others, Robert Johnson.
Another of the Delta's most influential was Tommy Johnson (no relation to Robert). His influence was so widespread in the South that it rivaled even Patton's. He also was the first bluesmen to claim he sold his soul to the devil for musical abilities. In actuality, he learned to play from watching Patton and Willie Brown among others. Known for his strange yodeling hollers, which emoted the pains of the Delta. His greatest song is perhaps "Canned Heat Blues". "Canned Heat" was about Johnson's love for drinking cooking fuel, which he consumed along with shoe polish, hair tonic, and anything else that would give him a kick! Johnson suffered from heavy drinking problems which probably explains his limited output. Despite being an alcholic, Johnson lived longer than most, but eventually passed away at the age of 60 in 1936, ironically after playing blues all night at his niece's birthday party.
The Mississippi Shieks were yet another sensation of the Delta. They consisted of the Chatmon Brothers, Lonnie and Bo, and thier neighbor Walter Vincson. The Shieks usaully played dance numbers with Lonnie on the violin, Bo on the guitar and Vincson doing vocal duties. They appealed even to white audiences becuase of their snappy repertoir. Bo Chatmon changed his name to Bo Carter and in 1928 embarked on a solo career performing racy and risque numbers like "Bannana in your Fruitbasket" and "Ram Rod Daddy". These type of songs were usually referred to as Hokum Blues, a term for blues that were tongue-in-cheek concerning taboo subjects.
|The Mississippi Shieks|
Mississippi John Hurt also deserves a mention. A local bluesmen who only played in his community of Avalon near Greenville, he was an oddity among other blues legends as he only played for the most part what was known as household music, a sort of strain of domestic folk music. Hurt, unlike Patton and the rest, played for little or no money with fame being the last thing on his mind. He even had an unorthodox way of playing. He would pick his guitar in a gentle-yet-erratic tune as an accompaniment to his vocals. The other bluesmen did it the other way around. Hurt recorded just one session in 1928 and then returned to obscurity until the late 1960s when he was rediscovered and found still playing the same tunes from 1928. Some of his most popular pieces include "Frankie", "Stack O' Lee Blues", and "Louis Collins".
In retrospect, of all the bluesmen, perhaps none were more important than Nehemiah "Skip" James. James was the son of a preacher who in no way would take up his father's profession. Instead he went on to create some of the strangest, most haunting blues ever laid to record. His songs told of evil women, hard times and death, all accented by his weird guitar-tunings and the eerie moaning wail of his vocals. He recorded the greatest blues song ever, "Devil Got my Woman". With this song, James pratically blew away all the other bluesmen in that his music was everything that the blues purported to be, but wasn't.
Skip James was also the oddest and most colorful of all the bluesmen save Robert Johnson. A solitary secrective man who never had children, thought all women were evil, and hated the entire human race. In fact several members of the human race he personally eliminated in shootouts! Once when a couple in a car with a wedding sign went by he replied "Bet you won't hear that when they get divorced."
James never played for entertainment or crowd pleasing, his purpose was to startle and "deaden the mind" of the listener. Adding to all this James (yes it gets better) was also once a lucrative bootlegger. He prospered and eventaully saw himself above less educated blacks. He once claimed "I am one of the best men whoever walked the earth". James could also play piano and violin, perhaps adding to his egotism.
He recorded only one haunting session in 1931 resulting in 26 sides. One song he recorded in the session was ".22-.20 blues" in which the narrator is planning to shoot and kill his cheating girlfriend. In the song, James pounds on the piano with such a ferocity that you can almost imagine his fingers being bruised. He once remarked of his general mood "I get so mad I want to bust".
Shortly after his session he opened up a music school for up and coming guitarists, who he declared were "dummies". He shut it down shortly after saying "They didnt learn anything--I didn't want
While Mississippi was a virtual breeding ground for blues artists, Texas was a major contributor in the earliest reports of blues recording. The state gave us countless country blues artists in the late 20's and early 30's.
These include the most important, Henry Thomas. His first recordings from 1927-29 sheds light on a performer whose music predates the blues and some songs which held the first prototype of blues. Perhaps Thomas should be the one credited with inventing the sound, at least as far as documentation can tell us. His trademark instrument was panpipes. Thomas's most popular piece is "Red River Blues," best known for the rock band Canned Heat's remake of it in the late '60s, "Goin' up the Country".
Texas's greatest contribution though is without a doubt Blind Lemon Jefferson. Jefferson has the distinction of being the most popular blues artist of his time. Lemon Jefferson was born blind in 1879, and though he managed to help out around the the family farm as a youth, when he got into his teens he took up guitar playing on street corners. From then on he lead a rambling life style, an odd existence for a blind man indeed. He at one point took up wrestling and usually won his matches due to his enormous size.
While prosperous at wrestling it was the blues that Jefferson had found to be his true talent. He possessed a soft yet booming voice and employed intricate guitar skills. In fact Jefferson became known for his technically difficult guitar stylings. Like Mississippi's John Hurt, Jefferson used the guitar to accent his vocals. In the end no one came close to matching his sound.
Jefferson was discovered on a street corner in 1925 by a music store owner, who sent him to record in Chicago the following year. All his recordings from the session became instant hits, making him the first blues artist to succeed commercially on records. Jefferson's success resulted in the floodgate of blues recordings that was the early 30's.
Despite all his success Jefferson never settled down for a domestic life and he continued to ramble all around Texas and the South. After four years of stardom and 100 records, most successful, he died unexpectedly in the winter of '29-'30. Jefferson was on the way to play at a Chicago house party, got lost, and was found the next morning dead apparently frozen to death in a barn.
Jeffersons' fears of sudden death and bodily harm, as evident in his songs such as "Mosquito Moan", in the end, proved prophetic. Nevertheless, he remains the most prolific and successful blues artist of his generation.
|Blind Lemon Jefferson|
The rest of the South had its share of stars as well, mostly stemming from Memphis, Tennessee. The most popular were Frank Stokes, Furry Lewis, and Memphis Minnie. The Memphis sound was best distinguished in the sounds of the jug bands such as Whistler's Jug Blowers and Cannon's Jug Stompers.
By the late 1930's, the blues of the Delta felt a change coming on, a new sound emerging. A sound that drew from all blues styles and then updated them, and its main forebearer was a mysterious young man by the name of Robert Johnson.
NEXT-- Profile: Robert Johnson