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The Genius of Blues

Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians

edited by Lawrence Cohn
Abbeville Press, 432 pp., $45.00

The Land Where the Blues Began

by Alan Lomax
Pantheon, 539 pp., $15.00 (paper)

King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton

by Stephen Calt, by Gayle Wardlow
Rock Chapel Press, 341 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Searching for Robert Johnson

by Peter Guralnick
Dutton, 83 pp., $15.00


The blues, a form of music that seems as ancient as the emotions it conveys, is actually less than a hundred years old. Sometime in the mists of the late 1890s, somewhere in the South, some unknown singer (or singers) first settled on the now-familiar three-line verse, with its AAB rhyme scheme and its line length of five stressed syllables, e.g.:

Hitch up my pony, saddle up my black mare,
Hitch up my pony, saddle up my black mare,
I’m gonna find a rider, baby, in the world somewhere.

(Charlie Patton, “Pony Blues”)

Although the term “blues” came to be applied to any minor-key lament—in the 1920s and 1930s to almost any kind of song—the authentic blues songs are those that hew to this structure. While the sentiments, chord progressions, vocal and instrumental styles that came to distinguish the blues were all lying at hand in the black musical culture of the South, the form itself is just too specific not to have had a very particular origin. All we know of this origin is the result of a process of elimination. For one thing, the folk-song collectors who were already assiduously combing the country in the last quarter of the nineteenth century did not gather any works fitting the blues pattern until after 1900. Even more telling are the accounts of primary encounters with the blues left by black musicians who went on to become so identified with the music as to be credited with inventing it.

In 1903, W.C. Handy, dozing in the depot in Tutwiler, Mississippi, while waiting for a train that was nine hours late, was awakened by a ragged black man playing “the weirdest music I had ever heard,” fretting his guitar with a knife to produce an eerie, sliding wail, and singing about “goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog,” i.e., matter-of-factly describing his impending journey to Moorhead, Mississippi. A year earlier Ma Rainey was working a tent show in Missouri when “a girl from town” turned up to sing a “strange and poignant” song that galvanized the audience. When asked what kind of song it was, she said, “It’s the Blues.” Around the same time or a bit earlier Jelly Roll Morton, in New Orleans, heard a piano player and sometime prostitute named Mamie Desdoumes sing a lament that was clearly a blues:

I stood on the corner, my feet was dripping wet,
I asked every man I met…
Can’t you give me a dollar, give me a lousy dime,
Just to feed that hungry man of mine…

So often depicted as having seamlessly evolved from field hollers and beyond that from griot songs, the blues was actually a sudden and radical turn in African-American music. This is not to say that it materialized in a vacuum. Numerous strains of black folk music were current in the nineteenth century, from field hollers and ring chants to ballads and breakdowns, each leaving some mark on the blues, in lyrics or instrumentation, and many of them were carried on in the twentieth century alongside the blues, by the same musicians. Even “the blues,” the term itself, was not unique to the blues. It may have derived from an Elizabethan term for depression, “the blue devils,” and as a musical designation it existed at least as early as 1892, when Handy first heard “shabby guitarists” in St. Louis singing the song he baptized “East St. Louis Blues,” not a blues in structure but a proto-blues by virtue of its theme and chords, and one that, to add to the confusion, was subsequently recorded dozens of times over the years under nearly as many names: “Crow Jane,” “Sliding Delta,” “One Dime Blues,” “Red River Blues,” “Jim Lee Blues.”

Residing in the same itinerant songster’s bag a century ago might be such equally anonymous foundation stones of American popular music as “Hesitation Blues” (also not actually a blues), “Alabama Bound” (likewise known under a dozen or more names), “Salty Dog,” “C.C. Rider,” “Stavin’ Chain,” “Boll Weevil,” “Spoonful,” “Careless Love,” “Frankie and Albert” (or “Frankie and Johnnie”), “Stagger Lee,” “Poor Boy Long Ways from Home,” “Gang of Brownskin Women,” “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” and “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.” The origins of nearly all of these are lost to history (although “Stagger Lee,” a version of which appears in the Library of America’s American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, can be traced to an incident that occurred in Memphis in 1890 or thereabouts).1 These songs were carried from place to place by numerous hands, and accordingly altered, extended, abridged, and transposed, but each of them was also written by one or two people at a specific time and place.

Certain old popular songs have so infiltrated the collective unconscious that it may not seem as if they were ever actually composed, but rather that they mysteriously occurred, the way jokes and proverbs sometimes seem as if they had fallen from the sky. The oldest and most durable elements of popular culture defy our notion of authorship, somehow suggesting a prehuman origin. There are, of course, true examples of collective creation, as when melody and lyrics come hurtling at each other from different directions, maybe different traditions, and join through some mysterious agency that may resemble destiny. And there are also works, even in our own time, which despite possessing a known author and point of origin are so altered by a succession of interpreters as to exist almost in fluid form, as a constantly changing entity.2

But then there are also songs whose creation took place in the darkness of poverty and segregation and illiteracy, especially in the time before recordings, and whose authorship is assigned to “Trad.” by default. This is so much the case with black music before 1920 that the exceptions are startling. The early history of jazz may be better documented than that of the blues or its analogues, but it is no less surprising to come upon such definite and exact statements as Sterling Brown’s assertion that the elemental “Shimmy She Wobble” was written by Professor Spencer Williams to celebrate the entertainments of Lulu White’s bordello, or E. Simms Campbell’s claim that “Tarara Boom Dee-ay” was composed in Babe Connors’s house in 1894.3

The origin of the blues occurred close to our time, within a historical corridor that makes it possible to place it among the early manifestations of modernism—between the automobile and the airplane, and not long after the movies, radio transmission, and cylinder recordings—but also in an inaccessible back street of history, so that we don’t know who or when or how or why, just that it happened. Whoever first made up a blues assembled a number of elements at large in the black musical culture of the time, from the flatted intervals to the instrumental accompaniment to bits and pieces of lyrics, quite possibly, and put them together in a way that was not only new, but immediately reproducible as a form. It had the flexibility to yield itself to various kinds of originality, but the strength to remain itself in the process. The blues is at once a musical category as capacious as jazz or rock ‘n’ roll, and a form as circumscribed as the tango or the samba. The former aspect may suggest a gradual evolution over time and by many hands, but the latter pins it down to a particular occurrence. As Samuel Charters, whose The Country Blues (1959) was the first book on the subject, puts it in his essay in Nothing But the Blues: “It is always important to emphasize…that there was no sociological or historical reason for the blues verse to take the form it did. Someone sang the first blues.” Of this inventor’s particular identity we possess not a whisper, not a hint, and we likewise have no idea whether the blues was initially rural or urban, or in what Southern state it originated. No recording of a genuine blues was made until Mamie Smith’s “The Crazy Blues” was waxed in 1920, by which time the music had spread to every hamlet in the black South (and extensive recorded documentation had been made of, say, the polka). By the time it occurred to anyone to ask the question, the trail was cold.

There are many reasons why it was. Not only were the early blues musicians mostly illiterate, they were also mobile, and unpredictable in their traveling patterns. And they were disreputable, the places where they played unsavory—jazz may have emerged from the brothels of New Orleans, but its instrumentation lent it the kind of institutional gravity that mere guitars could not achieve. The blues was fleeting, transient, if not actually furtive. Blues musicians were also fiercely competitive, and loath to acknowledge influence. And, perhaps most importantly, the first researchers with an interest in the origins of the blues did not especially concern themselves with the question of authorship.

John A. Lomax and his son Alan were not the first song collectors to travel through the South with recording equipment, but they were without any doubt the most influential. Starting out in 1933, when Alan Lomax was seventeen, they recorded a breathtaking variety of work songs, game songs, barrelhouse songs, field hollers, ballads, reels, and blues, working under the auspices of the Library of Congress, which not only preserved these works but lent its formidable sanction to the idea that American folk music was at least as much black as it was white. The Texan Lomaxes were at ease with both races, and thus they were able, often but not always, to talk their way into prison farms, plantations (large agricultural estates maintained as private fiefdoms farmed by sharecroppers who were kept in permanent debt), and the like, institutions that extended the premises of slavery and kept their black inmates isolated and unheard. Their work started not a moment too soon, because the 1930s was the very last time when there would be a significant body of folk music at large that had developed without the influence of radio, recordings, or sound films. They were thus able to corral numerous specimens of vanishing breeds, such as black country musicians who employed banjos, fiddles, and accordions, and played a kind of music that for most of the twentieth century would be exclusively identified with whites.

Many of the artists the Lomaxes recorded were farmers or prisoners or road-gang workers or migratory street-corner entertainers, and the recordings constitute all that is known about them. But the Lomaxes recognized a major artist when they heard one, and they brought a number of them to light, beginning with Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, whom they first met in 1934, when he was an inmate of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, doing six to ten for assault with intent to kill. Leadbelly had a penetrating voice, played driving twelve-string guitar, and possessed a huge repertoire that covered nearly every aspect of black popular music. He was, as he later came to be called, a “people’s jukebox,” and along with his memory for the songs, he commanded the lore that went with them and the context in which to situate them—he was, in short, the ideal folklorists’ informant. But he could also draw on the tradition for songs of his own, and upon his release from prison was able to parlay his performing skills into a commercial career with increasing success until his death in 1949. Leadbelly was not an innovator but a particularly protean latter-day songster. He was not especially a bluesman, either, although he had a number of blues songs in his repertoire, having spent time in Dallas in the 1920s playing with the blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson. Leadbelly was, in other words, a folk musician, one who gathered, extended, and disseminated songs from a living tradition.

  1. 1

    For a discussion of the labyrinthine turns in the story of the song and the story behind the song, see Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, pp. 213-220 in the third revised edition (Plume, 1990).

  2. 2

    An awe-inspiring recent example of this phenomenon is charted in great detail and lively fashion by Dave Marsh in Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World’s Most Famous Rock n’ Roll Song; Including the Full Details of its Torture and Persecution at the Hands of the Kingsmen, J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I., and a Cast of Millions; and Introducing, for the First Time Anywhere, the Actual Dirty Lyrics (Hyperion, 1993).

  3. 3

    Brown, “Basin and Rampart Street Blues,” in Sidewalks of America, edited by B.A. Botkin (1954), pp. 153-154; Campbell: “Early Jam,” in The Negro Caravan, edited by Sterling Brown (Dryden Press, 1941), pp. 983-990.

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