"The blues ain't nothing but a good man feelin' bad."
Oddly, this line was probably first recorded by a white minstrel performer, Lee Roy "Lasses" White, and it's been used over and over and over by bluesmen and blueswomen ever since: Ida Cox, Kenny Neal, Sammy Price, Georgia White...
And, who can't relate to that?
When we think of blues, it's a lot of love songs. The girl doesn't love the boy back, there's an unfaithful lover in the mix, or a breakup's just gone down.
But in the 1890s, the blues had emerged as a distinct African-American art form, rooted in the southern U.S. and drawing on work songs and hollers, folk tradition, Black spirituals, and popular music. Though many first blues recordings are credited to whites and their minstrel groups, it was largely because of their privilege and access to record, not because of the genre's origins.
So, looking back from 1890, history tells us the African influence in the musical structure of the blues is undeniable, as it grew from slave culture and the memory of slavery.
Now, that's a different kind of heartache.
Looking forward from 1890, a time of transition in America and of dashed hopes for Blacks in the resurgent Jim Crow South, one can see the blues as a powerful force both shaping and shaped by the evolution of American popular culture.
From the "race records" craze of the 1920s—Billboard finally replaced the genre with "rhythm-and-blues" in 1949—through the blues-fueled rock revolution of the post-war years, American history and the history of Black and white race relations in the century ahead is cataloged by its music history.
And in true resilient fashion, the blues truly isn't just about the blues, or unrequited love, or man's best friend dying. The blues is about crying it out to feel better, capturing the spectrum of emotions, and can even integrate comedy.
Musician Willie Dixon said, "You can have the blues one day because your woman went away. Then you can have the blues the next day because she came back."
Crackin' us up, Willie.
Oh, that was the point. Thanks, blues.
A clever blueswoman once crooned that a prescription for the blues was the cure for her blues.
Sounds crazy, but let's think about it. If you've ever had the blues, then heard the blues on the radio, then felt just a little bit better...that's when the blues is the best medicine.
What about when your parents went crazy for Elvis?
That was the blues.
When your brother bangs his head to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath?
Those guys are blues.
Dance to James Brown?
You know he had the blues.
Enjoy the White Stripes?
Yep, Jack White plays the blues, too.
If you're starting to wonder if the blues just about defined popular music in the twentieth century, you're on the right track. Amazingly spectacular success for a style from the rural ghetto (that's right), where the most famous master was an obscure Mississippian who may have made a deal with the Devil in the middle of the road one night in the 1930s.
Whoa is right.
The history of the blues is a strange story with deep roots and a lot to say about the shape—and shaping—of American culture.
Lawrence Cohn, et al, Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians (1993)
Cohn, a Grammy Award-winning blues producer, brings together eleven essays on the development of the blues from its beginnings, marshalling some of the best writers on the subject. The book is more remarkable, however, as an incredible pictorial and documentary history of the blues with more than 300 illustrations including recording contracts, rap sheets, and historic photos of the performers themselves.
Francis Davis, The History of the Blues (1995)
If you're only going to read one book on the blues, make it this one. Davis, who has done fine writing on jazz as well, has a deep knowledge of early American popular music and writes with the grace of a novelist. Particularly noteworthy in this volume is his insistence in foregrounding race throughout his discussion of the blues rather than allowing it to be just one angle from which to view the music's history. Davis makes a strong case for the blues as "the result of one group of people being forced to enter another's history."
Peter Guralnick, Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock 'n' Roll (1971)
Guralnick is a music writer who is held in high esteem by both the academic world and the popular press (writing for Rolling Stone on occasion). Feel Like Going Home, which takes its name from a song by Muddy Waters, presents a series of major figures in the entwined history of blues and rock and roll in a way that illuminates both the subjects and the history of rock as it descended from the blues.
Greil Marcus, "Robert Johnson, 1938" in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll (1975)
Unlike the other authors on this list, Marcus isn't a historian of the blues per se, but he is an original thinker and a sharp critic of American popular culture. His close reading of Robert Johnson's lyrics and songs does a fine job of situating Johnson within the larger social and cultural context of time and then situating the blues of the Delta within the larger still context of American culture in the twentieth century.
Paul Oliver, et al, Yonder Come the Blues (2001)
While not as readable as Palmer, Guralnick, or Davis, Yonder Come the Blues is an indispensable resource, collecting three of the most cited works of blues scholarship ever produced (Oliver's Savannah Syncopators, Tony Russell's Blacks, Whites and Blues, and Recording the Blues by Robert Dixon and John Godrich) and publishing them together in one volume. This is where to begin for an idea of how the blues has been researched and understood.
Robert Palmer, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta (1981)
Palmer's immensely readable exploration of the blues as it flowed from the sharecropping world of the Mississippi Delta into the urban centers of the U.S. and beyond is essential reading and a perfect jumping off point for studying the blues. Have your interest piqued by a master storyteller and blues authority.
Charley Patton, Best of Charlie Patton (Yazoo, 2003)
There are countless Patton compilations out now, but this one includes all of his seminal tracks and is fine beginning to any blues collection. Hear the original "King of the Delta Blues" 80 years later, and be thankful these tunes were captured.
Various Artists, Classic Blues from Smithsonian Folkways, (Smithsonian Folkways, 2003)
There's also a Volume 2 to this guy, so Smithsonian Folkways serves up two discs of well-chosen and amply documented blues recorded between about 1940 and 1990 for the archive. The fact that the project originally targeted the folk revival market gives it a bit of a slant in that direction, so there's not much here in the way of the electric blues.
Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues (Allegro, 2001)
This is the place to start with either Bessie Smith in particular or the classic blues in general. There's a brilliant version of "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and enough of the early standards to get a good feel for the strong ties between classic blues and jazz.
Various Artists, Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith (Smithsonian, 1997)
Originally released in 1952 as a six LP set of dubious legality, Smith's multidisc collection remains, without a doubt, the greatest document of America's traditional music. Nothing else even comes close. For an idea of just how deep a heritage country continues to draw on, the Anthology is absolutely essential. The full 84-song collection includes a staggering variety of hillbilly, gospel, Cajun, and blues and showcases classic performers from musicians running full gamut from the lost to the legendary.
Various Artists, The Sun Records Collection (Rhino, 1994)
Few times and places in the history of American popular music could have been as interesting as the heyday of Sam Phillips' seminal record label, Sun. Phillips was a huge fan of African-American music and a prophet of the rock and roll revolution. He played a key role in the early careers of bluesmen B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf, and his label introduced the world to Elvis Presley. In the middle of the twentieth century the histories of blues, rock, and country all converged at Sun to produce some hugely influential records, and it's all here.
Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (Columbia, 1990)
Robert Johnson only recorded 29 songs and a few alternate takes, and his corpus gets re-packaged and reissued just about every year now. The 1990 version is listed here because it was the first comprehensive package on CD, and it became the biggest surprise success album of 1990. The quality is high and the songs, chilling—essential listening.
Various Artists, Great Tomato Blues Package (Tomato, 1989)
This two disc set seems to be premised on an expansive idea of the blues. The downside is that it can be a little bewildering in its lack of context and juxtaposition of wildly different styles. The upside is that the random approach actually does a fantastic job of conveying what the blues can be—which is not necessarily an easy thing to articulate. From rural folk to Chicago grooves to R&B and jazz blues, the offerings are kaleidoscopic.
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin (Atlantic, 1969)
The zenith of heavy British blues rock, Led Zeppelin concluded the decade of the British Invasion with their jaw-dropping debut. Jimmy Page's guitar work is psychedelic and huge while remaining clearly rooted in the blues. Later rockers who might not be steeped in the traditional blues were still likely to be steeped in Zeppelin, which is strangely similar.
Various Artists, Country N**** Jam Sessions (Arhoolie, 1961)
These are the collected home recordings of the musicologist Harry Oster, capturing southwest Louisiana-based blues singers in the 1950s and '60s. Plenty of traditional numbers and a few great cuts performed by Robert Pete Williams, who was serving a murder sentence at Angola State Prison when he was recorded.
Muddy Waters, At Newport (MCA / Chess, 1960)
This was a breakthrough moment in blues history. Muddy brought his Chicago Delta sound full force to a whole new audience at the Newport festival of 1960. Includes great takes on "Got My Mojo Working" and Big Bill Broonzy's "Feel So Good." This was Muddy at the peak of his powers.
Down at the Crossroads
One of only two existing photos of the legendary Delta bluesman, Robert Johnson, 1935.
The Missing Link
Elvis Presley recording at Sam Phillips' Sun Records studio, 1954.
Feel Like Going Home
From the Delta by way of Chicago, the great Muddy Waters.
First Lady of Blues
Mamie Smith, the first Black singer to record the blues and the first blues artist to record a major hit, is pictured on a record cover here with her band in 1920, the same year her "Crazy Blues" would be recorded.
Skip James performs for the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1964—thirty some years after he recorded for Paramount Records. The Newport festivals of the 1960s introduced thousands of new, mostly white fans to African-American music.
The Blues: A Musical Journey (2003)
Acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese presides over this series of seven films approaching the subject of the blues from various angles. The Mike Figgis installment Red, White, and Blues (focusing on the British blues revival) and the one directed by Scorsese himself, Feel Like Going Home, are probably the standouts in this somewhat uneven, Delta-centric epic tribute.
Devil Got My Woman (1996)
Available through the invaluable Rounder Records, Devil Got My Woman is Alan Lomax's attempt to recreate the Southern juke joint in the heyday of the blues with the blues stars that appeared at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. Blues titans of the '30s meet the best of the '50s in the 1960s in a bar that doesn't really exist: Truly one of a kind with great performances.
This film, loosely based on the legend of Robert Johnson's deal with the Devil, is remarkable for two things: First, it fed the growing Johnson mania that peaked in 1990 with the release of his complete recordings by Columbia, and second, it has a fantastic soundtrack by the versatile Ry Cooder.
The Land Where the Blues Began (1979)
Alan Lomax, a crucial figure in preserving the folk blues and bringing it to a national audience, produced this film in 1979, returning to the Mississippi Delta region where he had recorded many of its blues greats over the past several decades. The entire film and an accompanying transcript are available online.
Until there's a virtual blues club, there's Pandora. Reading about the blues is one thing, but actually getting to listen to the music and the people who made it is another thing entirely (so do both). Explore new music by letting Pandora recommend artists related to the ones you already know. One suggestion: start a channel for each style of blues based on one of its representative figures (e.g., Bessie Smith for the classic blues; Charley Patton for the folk blues, etc.).
River of Song
The PBS website currently hosts some great resources related to the Smithsonian Institute project The Mississippi: River of Song. Of particular interest is the article "At Play in the Delta" by Michael Luster, a study of music, recreation, and the history of the Delta region.
It's a Southern Thing
Another Smithsonian essay hosted on the PBS website. Bill Monroe, one of the leading authorities on rural American music, has put together an article on the development of Southern music and its emergence as a substantial force in American culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Excellent reading for fitting the history of the blues within a larger context of Southern cultural production.
Time Capsule 1939
The Library of Congress offers a truly incomparable resource in its digitized version of the John Lomax southern recording trip 1939 archive. The legendary ethnographer John A. Lomax logged more than 6,000 miles recording and documenting folk culture across the American South for the Library of Congress in the late spring of 1939. This is the historical treasure trove he produced.
The Library of Congress has digitized the materials collected by John Lomax during his 1939 journey through the South. Among the many fantastic resources here are transcriptions of both a variety of folk songs and of the field notes taken by John and Ruby Lomax.
The Mudcat Café Digital Traditional Song Database has collected the lyrics to more than 9,000 songs (with the blues well represented), all searchable from their home page.