To hear classic blues queen Ma Rainey tell it, "White folks hear the blues come out, but they don't know how it got there."12
Any discussion of the history of the blues really has to begin with race, and some would argue that it ultimately has to end there too. More than a few authorities on the genre contend that no matter how well they can play it, white folks simply can't sing the blues. Side-stepping that claim for now, we can begin with a less controversial statement: the blues evolved as a distinctly African-American art form.
In terms of chronology, most scholars start their histories of the blues in or around 1619, the year that the first Africans were brought to America as slaves. The slave trade as such continued until Congress legislated its end 1 January 1808. But over nearly two centuries, the continuous influx of Africans (several hundred thousand of them) into the American South created a dynamic trans-Atlantic slave culture that would generate a uniquely rich musical tradition and an impossible tangle of influence and innovation that would confound historians. Gaining access to the mental world of a people who, having been kept largely illiterate to perpetuate their subjugation, left little in the way of written record, stands as a problem for any student of slave culture. But historians and ethnomusicologists have had some luck looking at documents and cultural artifacts from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and by working backwards. With regard to the blues, this means comparing African-American music of the post-Civil War South with West African musical styles and looking for common ground. Some authors claim to see more similarities than others, but at the very least, there are a few striking congruencies: similar metronomic sense, flatting of the same notes in the scale, call and response singing, and the use of distinctive vocal techniques.
Clearly, Africans taken to America as slaves brought something of their music with them. In several instances, slave ship captains even forced their captives to sing and dance on board, believing that the exercise might help to keep them healthy during the notoriously harsh trans-Atlantic voyage known as the Middle Passage. What reports exist suggest that the slaves at times sang laments of their exile.13 To say the least, it must have been an odd scene—the foul, crowded ship like a floating slum, densely packed with brutalized black captives compelled to sing by whip-bearing white slave traders. The music would have been strange to the whites, and surely would have meant something entirely different to each of the two groups. That peculiar duality of music between whites and blacks would persist in the slave experience and be notable in the evolution of the blues as a music filled with double meaning.
On the plantations in the South, where slavery in the United States increasingly became concentrated, black music was a contested territory. Some owners encouraged their slaves to dance and make music, thinking that it might provide a diversion for the slaves——thereby keeping them happy and thus, less likely to rebel or runaway——and for the master and mistress. Other owners took a less benign view of black music on their plantations. Songs, they realized, could spread information, and lyrical content, whether in an African dialect or simply in the doubled meanings that became the stock in trade of the blues, was an area of slave culture that existed outside of owners' control. Where it could, then, black music flourished, and by the mid-nineteenth century, African Americans had developed a rich variety of work songs, folk songs, and spirituals——both of the latter borrowing from white European sources——that they accompanied on the fiddle, banjo, flute, bones, and tambourine.
That rich nineteenth-century slave culture came to form the heart of one of the country's most contradictory and conflicted popular traditions, the minstrel show. Beginning about the 1820s, white entertainers began performing songs, skits, and dances in blackface, often as the two stereotypical characters of minstrelsy, Zip Coon and Jim Crow. On the one hand, these routines, which were tremendously popular throughout the United States—North and South—for much of the 1800s and centered on blatantly racist, crude caricatures of African-American language and life, played for white laughs. But on the other, minstrelsy served as a vehicle for popularizing black secular music. The minstrel shows were, to borrow the phrase of the historian Eric Lott, sites of "love and theft," and the racial dynamic of showcase, appropriation, and ridicule became even more complicated as black performers——some of whom, such as W.C. Handy and Ma Rainey, would become crucial blues figures——increasingly filled the ranks of the white-owned touring minstrel companies after the Civil War.
Somewhere towards the decline of the minstrel show, which was no longer popular in the North by the turn of the twentieth century, the blues developed in the South. Historians tend to peg the emergence of the blues around 1890, a date suggested in the memoirs of various early bluesmen and women. W.C. Handy, for one, recalled seeing a black musician at a Mississippi railroad station in 1903, playing slide guitar with a knife and singing I'm goin' where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog. Handy, a trained musician himself, capitalized on that rough sound and published two early blues songs by 1914.14
In the 1910s, a couple of blues-style songs were recorded by white vaudeville singers, but for the most part white-owned record companies didn't believe that a market existed for blues or, really, any African-American music. Thus, the early blues spent its first few decades almost entirely under the radar of mainstream American popular culture. We have the recollections of W.C. Handy and Ma Rainey, but by and large, the early blues went unnoticed by the rest of America and developed in a part of the country——the bleak, post-Radical Reconstruction South——that most white Americans seemed in no hurry to notice anyway.
In February of 1920, Perry Bradford, an African-American composer of popular music, convinced Okeh Records to record the black singer Mamie Smith. Smith's recording of Bradford's "That Thing Called Love" and "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down" sold well with little promotion. Smith's next record, "Crazy Blues," became a genuine hit for Okeh and the first big blues record. Suddenly, the rush to cash-in on so-called "race records" was on.
The "race record" phenomenon, with the paternalism of its white entrepreneurs and the economic exploitation of poorly compensated black talent, represents, like minstrelsy before it, another ambivalent encounter between white America and black culture. On the one hand, the whole business and its spectacular success suggests a broad recognition of the value——in large amounts of real dollars, even——of black cultural production, but at the same time, both the idea of specialty "race records" and the reaction by some whites to their release (the boycott of Mamie Smith's first record threatened by several white store owners, for example), make evident the fact that much of white America was still unready to countenance black music as something other than a taboo, if tantalizing, cultural backwater.15
All of which just about brings us up to Elvis Presley and back to the earlier question of whether or not white folks can, indeed, sing the blues at all. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, blacks had been flowing into the cities of the South in increasing numbers. But, beginning about 1910, they began a tremendous internal migration to the urban centers of the North——notably for this story, to Chicago. As blacks settled into the cities, the blues settled in with them, and by the 1940s, the blues had spawned an urbanized off-shoot called rhythm and blues (R & B), a very, very close relative of rock and roll.
One white recording entrepreneur who was unequivocal in his admiration for black music (specifically, the electric blues and R & B) was Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips. Phillips played an instrumental role early in the careers of the bluesmen Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King, but he is best remembered for being the first to record Elvis. One of the most repeated quotes in the history of American popular music is Phillips's fateful musing that if he could "find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, [he] could make a billion dollars."16 That man, of course, turned out to be Elvis Presley.
And while he certainly wasn't black, Elvis was very much of the South; as several prominent blues critics have argued, if the blues was black first, it was southern second. Elvis was a southern country boy, had grown up poor in Tupelo, Mississippi, and was steeped in the sounds of black music. The song that launched his career, a version of "That's All Right" replete with the blues-derived vocal tics that make Elvis's songs instantly recognizable, had first been recorded by the Mississippi-born, Chicago bluesman Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and borrowed from Blind Lemon Jefferson's "That Black Snake Moan." That what Elvis was doing didn't really sound quite like the blues doesn't mean that he wasn't a fine white blues singer. In fact, Elvis didn't really sound quite like anything that had come before him, black or white. He sounded, above all, like the future of American popular music, a future that would see white America enthusiastically adopt black styles, whether——as Ma Rainey would surely have pointed out——they got it or not.
If it is merely coincidence that Elvis Presley debuted the same year that the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education, then it is one of the great coincidences of history. The advent of Elvis was one of the early shots in the musical revolution of rock and roll, and Brown marked the dawning of the social revolution of the Civil Rights era. Both landmark events heralded a new era in the interaction between black and white in America, and both hinted at the tumult that would arrive with the next decade.