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The Genius of Blues

But could the blues truly be said to be folk music? The Lomaxes simply assumed that it was, and proceeded with their researches accordingly. Alan Lomax’s recent book, The Land Where the Blues Began, exemplifies this assumption. For Lomax the blues is primarily a collective expression, with a core of African music bent and shaped by the pain of slavery, of peonage, of prison, of Jim Crow. This account is not untrue, of course, but it has an obvious limitation. As Samuel Charters writes, “It is always difficult to resist the temptation to continue to look for social influences instead of the individual performer behind the development of the blues.” If the blues materialized so recently, suddenly, and specifically, it seems at best sentimental to attribute it broadly to The People. For Stephen Calt and Gayle Wardlow, the contentious biographers of the radical blues innovator Charlie Patton, the notion of a “blues tradition” is an affront. The Mississippi Delta blues, they point out, lasted as a vital form for less than sixty years, hardly long enough for a tradition to develop. Furthermore,

The rejection of blues by what former jukehouse owner Elizabeth Moore termed “good people” …illustrates that blues had no standing as “folk music,” unless one takes the position that respectable blacks formed a socially deviant element of black society during the blues era.

Part of the confusion, they suggest, derives from the fact that there is in the blues a great deal of collective material, especially in the lyrics—phrases and couplets and entire verses that migrate from song to song, sometimes without obvious relevance to the balance of the lyrics, sometimes indeed deriving from pre-blues sources. This is in fact an element of oral tradition, but this aspect of the blues leads to a false syllogism:

Blues singers play collective material.
Folk musicians play collective material.
Therefore, blues musicians are folk musicians.

For Lomax, the essence of the blues is pain, and as such the form is merely a particular organization of the field holler or the levee-camp holler. He offers a personal illustration:

As a youngster, I tried to sing whatever we recorded, with varying success, of course, but I could never do a “holler” to my own satisfaction. I tried for years and finally gave up. Then came the moment when a holler spontaneously burst out of me. It was the evening of the day I had just been inducted into the army…. When I had been yelled at, put down, examined, poked at, handled like a yearling in a chute, I drew KP. It was a sixteen-hour assignment…. I had never been so miserable in all my life, and there were still two hours to go. At that moment, without thinking, I let loose with a Mississippi holler.

Wondering why this should be, he recalls Leadbelly saying, “It take a man that have the blues to sing the blues.” Lomax divides bluesmen into two camps, those from stable families and those from broken homes—their vocal styles give away their origins. Listening to Sam Chatmon, a former member of the Mississippi Sheiks and one of the large and talented clan that also produced Memphis Slim (Peter Chatmon) and Bo Carter (Bo Chatmon), among others, he writes:

He sang about the bitterness of Delta love in a rather matter-of-fact voice, without either the keening of a Robert Johnson, the ironic merriment of Eugene Powell or Papa Charlie Jackson, or the rage of Son House. Perhaps he was too old to care, but I suspect that because he came from this stable family background, the anguish of the blues did not touch him as deeply as it did others.

He comes to a similar conclusion about Muddy Waters (né McKinley Morganfield), whom he was the first to record, in 1941 (“He learned to play the guitar only three years ago, learning painfully, finger by finger, from a friend,” say the original liner notes). He doesn’t disparage Muddy, but suggests that his “relaxed, rich vocal style” lies some distance away from the shrieks of those abandoned early in life. This index of misery is a commonplace that nearly everyone associates with the blues. It dates back at least to W.C. Handy’s account of composing the “St. Louis Blues”:

While occupied with my own miseries during that sojourn, I had seen a woman whose pain seemed even greater. She had tried to take the edge off her grief by heavy drinking, but it hadn’t worked. Stumbling along the poorly lighted street, she muttered as she walked, “Ma man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea.”

The expression interested me, and I stopped another woman to inquire what she meant. She replied, “Lawd, man, it’s hard and gone so far from her she can’t reach it.”… My song was taking shape. I had now settled upon the mood.4

Handy set down this version of events in his autobiography, Father of the Blues, published in 1941. Closer to the date of the song’s composition (1914) he had however written, “The sorrow songs of the slaves we call Jubilee Melodies. The happy-go-lucky songs of the Southern negro we call blues.” Calt and Wardlow believe that the despair quotient in the blues was Handy’s invention, later taken up by Tin Pan Alley songwriters producing generic blues. As an example they contrast an early lyric of Charlie Patton’s:

Gonna buy myself a hammock, gon’ carry it underneaththrough the tree
So when the wind blow, the leave[s] may fall on me

with a commercial product of slightly later vintage:

Got myself a brand new hammock, placed it underneath a tree
I hope the wind will blow so hard the tree will fall on me.

Somehow, though, all attempts to make categorical statements regarding the blues wind up seeming reductive. It is important to consider both the richness of the blues songs that have come down to us, and the haphazard nature of their means of transmission. For all the brilliance of the early blues as they exist on record, an unknown quantity of performers and songs at least equally brilliant were never recorded, and even their rumor has not survived. Most writers on the blues, beginning with Charters, have for example simply assumed that the blues was born in the Mississippi Delta. But this deduction is based on little more than the fact that an unusually high number of exceptional performers came from there. According to Stanley Booth’s elegiac Rythm Oil:

If you describe on a map a circle with its center at Moorhead, Mississippi, the place where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog, lying within a hundred-mile radius are not only Como and Hernando, but also Red Banks, Helena, Lyon, Leland, Rolling Fork, Corinth, Ruleville, Greenville, Indianola, Bentonia, Macon, Eden Station, West Point, Tupelo, Tippo, Scott, Shelby, Meridian, Lake Cormorant, Houston, Belzoni, Bolton, Tunica, Yazoo City, Lambert, Vance, Burdett and Clarksdale, whence come Gus Cannon, Roosevelt Sykes, Son House, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Fat Man Morrison, Charlie Patton, B.B. King, Albert King, Skip James, Bo Diddley, Emma Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Mose Alison, Big Bill Broonzy, Willie Brown, Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Otis Spann, Bo Carter, James Cotton, Tommy McClennan, Jasper Love, Sunnyland Slim, Brother John Sellers, and John Lee Hooker.5

Among others,” he might have added, since this prodigious list is equally striking in its omissions (Memphis Minnie, Elmore James, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Big Joe Williams, Big Boy Crudup, Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Shines, and both Sonny Boy Williamsons, to name a few). Nevertheless, there is no proof the blues began within this circumference, no matter how rich the musical soil. The circle, which takes in a good third of the state of Mississippi and chunks of southeastern Arkansas and northeastern Louisiana, is entirely rural, excluding Memphis, Tennessee, by fifteen or twenty miles. But the blues might well have been urban in origin. Earlier than Handy’s first hearing of the blues in Moorhead were Ma Rainey’s, near St. Louis, and Morton’s, in New Orleans. The indefatigable Calt and Wardlow interviewed scores of Delta old-timers in the 1960s and were unable to find any who recalled hearing the blues before 1910. A plausible scenario: the blues was born in New Orleans, where it was only one of a number of competing marvels. Eclipsed by the success of jazz, it came into its own in the country, where it lent itself naturally to juke joints and guitars, ad hoc venues and portable instruments.

Urban blues, in the 1920s more accurately known as vaudeville blues, were the first to be recorded, and they were most frequently sung by urbane and knowing women, most of them young. The received idea that these blues were somehow slicker and less authentic than the rural sort merely reflects a provincial bias, perhaps originating with white beatnik enthusiasts in overalls. It is also true that the Delta is rivaled for fecundity in the earliest times that we know of by east Texas and western Louisiana. Could the blues have begun in two places at once? Blind Lemon Jefferson, arguably the most influential blues guitarist of the 1920s, was Texan, as was Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas, born in 1874 and thus the oldest known blues singer to have recorded. Others who owed nothing to Mississippi included the scary, rasp-voiced gospel bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, the primordial moaner Texas Alexander, and the wild King Solomon Hill, as rhythmically unfettered as any blues singer ever was.

For that matter, a distinct chapter in the history of the blues’ transmission would concern sawmills and turpentine camps throughout the forests of the deep South, settlements featuring barrelhouses, whose upright pianos engendered a particular style of keyboard blues that led directly to boogie-woogie. Nevertheless, the story always seems to come back to Mississippi. There is no denying that, from the middle Teens to the late Forties, the northwestern quadrant of that state saw an astonishing conjunction of original talents amid surroundings that are at best unprepossessing. A wayside like Drew or Robinsonville begins to sound like Paris in the same period. Four of the five books considered in this essay are primarily concerned with the mystery of the Mississippi Delta. None of them solves it, of course, but they all contribute to deepening it.

2.

Robert Johnson may be the most mysterious of all the Delta blues artists. He died in 1938, at the age of twenty-six, leaving behind forty-one recordings, twenty-nine different songs, and alternate takes. Little is known about him; even his surviving contemporaries, friends and traveling companions, describe him in generalities. He was shy, footloose, aloof maybe, neurotically concerned with hiding his hands when playing if other guitarists were around—this stands out. He comes late enough in the blues genealogy that his influences can be traced, and they range from one end to the other of the recorded blues of his time.

  1. 4

    Father of the Blues (Da Capo, 1970), p. 119.

  2. 5

    Stanley Booth, Rythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South (Vintage, 1993), p. 39.

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