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Facts

Although it's almost certainly not true, a legend about Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, bears repeating if only for the very remarkable fact that it achieved wide currency in the first place: In an era marked by racial violence, Bessie Smith supposedly faced down a group of white-robed Klansmen who were attempting to bring down the tent under which she was performing. Allegedly, the showdown ended with Smith yelling after the Klansmen, "You just pick up those sheets and run," before berating her stage crew for being "a bunch of sissies."27

Depending on whom you ask, the blues can be all kinds of things with all kinds of meanings. But the derivation of the phrase is clear: "the blues" comes to us from "the blue devils," a nineteenth-century mental affliction that the OED defines as despondency or spiritual depression. And even before that, British authors of the sixteenth century used to write of being in a "blue funk."28

Muddy Waters, the man most associated with the Chicago blues, was actually recorded two years before his 1943 arrival in the Windy City. Alan Lomax and John Work had recorded Muddy for the Library of Congress back in 1941 when Muddy was living on Stovall's plantation in Mississippi. Supposedly, upon hearing his own voice playing back from Lomax's recording, Muddy made up his mind to become a professional musician (a decision that would have huge consequences for the history of the blues). Ironically, Lomax and Work had originally set out to find and record Robert Johnson.29

Of all the compelling figures in the blues, no one has a legend to rival that of Robert Johnson. As the story goes, the young Johnson had decided early on that he wanted to be a musician and planned to play guitar, but on hearing him play, Son House and Willie Brown, two of Johnson's elders who happened to be outstanding blues guitarists, encouraged him to stick to the harmonica and give up on guitar. Not long afterward, around about 1930, Johnson drifted away from the area, maybe for a year or so. When he returned, he asked Son House and Brown if he could sit in with them again, and when he played the guitar, far from making the mistakes the older bluesmen expected, Johnson revealed a talent that they saw had surpassed their own playing. From that day, the story arose that Johnson had learned from the Devil himself, selling his soul to learn so much, so quickly—a narrative countless fans have found supported in the searing intensity and haunting images of his songs, most famously "Cross Roads Blues". More likely, blues historians suggest, is the possibility that Johnson learned from a musician named Ike Zinnerman who played around the town where Johnson had been born. Interestingly, Ike Zinnerman has a bit of a legend about him too: Supposedly, he claimed to have learned to play guitar sitting in a graveyard on the tombstones at night.30

Although no one seems to know exactly where the term "rhythm and blues" comes from, we know that it caught on with the music industry in 1949, when Billboard editor Jerry Wexler substituted it for the older "race" tag for records by African-Americans.31

Many an early bluesman in the Delta made his first steps toward learning the guitar by nailing one end of a wire to a wall and playing the wire like a guitar string.32

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