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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."blank">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' 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."
What Elvis was doing didn't really sound quite like the blues, but it didn'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, but also hinted at the tumult that would arrive with the next decade.
Pressed to call to mind the image of a blues singer, most people would no doubt picture a singer holding a guitar, perhaps playing that guitar with a slide. Unless it's Eric Clapton, this singer is almost certainly African-American.
And here's another sure thing: he's male.
But, that's actually quite strange, given the first blues hit was recorded by a woman, and that the most iconic performers of the classic blues era, the 1920s, were all women as well.
So, what happened? Basically, a historical accident.
Through the 1920s, female singers dominated the blues on record. An authoritative estimate suggests that in 1921 and 1922, blues recordings were released at a rate of about one per week.blank">Great Depression. The collapse of the financial system, the Dust Bowl, and the rise of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal are familiar stories to most readers. Less known, perhaps, is the fact that the record industry basically collapsed during the Depression as well. Some performers—early country stars, for instance—found their way to radio, but the Depression effectively ended the careers of the classic blues artists, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith among them. The blues itself fell largely back to folk tradition and local Black audiences for a while, and when it recovered national prominence again in the 1960s, that recovery was driven by the "rediscovery" of rural blues artists by young, Leftist, and mostly male, whites.
These blues revivalists were most interested not in the classic blues with its vaudeville trappings and jazzy, cabaret singers but in another type of blues that had been recorded in the wake of Okeh's success with Mamie Smith. Beginning in the mid-1920s, record company A&R (artist and repertory) men and a few musicologists ventured into the rural South with field recording equipment and captured some of the folk blues of artists like Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson. These were the kinds of records that would inspire the blues revival of the 1960s. The revivalists were looking for an "authenticity" that they equated with the rural folk blues, particularly that of the Mississippi Delta region. What they were not looking for, it turned out, was the more urban, jazzier sounds of the classic blues queens like Bessie Smith.
While the folk blues went on to inspire a new generation of largely white folk enthusiasts and blues rockers, the legacy of the classic blues and the women who made it has been decidedly lower-profile. Other than Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, most of the classic blues singers—the great Ida Cox and Lucille Bogan among them—have drifted from popular memory.
And although there have been fine female blues performers in nearly every era of the blues since the '20s—from Memphis Minnie to Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt—there has never been another time when women so dominated the genre and made the blues so much their own.
The greatest and most enduring of all blues legends goes something like this:
Born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, in 1911, a boy called Robert Johnson, who was known to different folks on different occasions as Robert Spencer, Robert Dodd, and Little Robert Dusty, took to playing the harmonica and hanging around the older local bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta.
Apparently, Johnson had decided early on that he wanted to be a musician and planned to play guitar. But upon 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.
From that day forward, 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." Johnson lived the rest of his short life as an itinerant bluesman, wandering the country, taking up with various women, and playing dances and juke joints where he went.
Then in 1938, after playing a country dance near Greenwood, Mississippi, Johnson was poisoned by the jealous husband of a local woman. In some accounts, Johnson was seen in deranged and perhaps supernatural agony, down on all fours and barking like a mad dog before he died. He was only 27 years old.
That's one story. Here's another one, by the numbers.
Johnson's entire recorded legacy consists of just 29 songs and a few alternate takes that he recorded in San Antonio, Texas, in 1936 and 1937. In his lifetime, his bestselling record, "Terraplane Blues," only sold about 4,000 copies and wasn't distributed outside of the South. Then, about fifty years later, a reissue collection called Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings went gold, selling 400,000 copies in just the first six months of release.blank">Freedom Riders hoping to register Black voters and the blues revivalists hoping to find forgotten Black bluesmen. And while some of the surviving musicians of the old Delta style were welcomed into the limelight and onto the stages of the decade's great folk festivals, John Hammond pushed for the first reissue of Robert Johnson's work, released in 1961. Johnson's songs at last found their way to an audience not unlike the one he had narrowly missed at Carnegie Hall in 1938.
And that, of course, was just the beginning of Johnson's posthumous ascent. Folk blues records crossed the Atlantic to England during the revival only to inspire a new generation of blues rockers, including A-list rock stars like Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton, who would inundate the U.S. with the electric blues riffs of the British Invasion. Of all bluesmen, Robert Johnson was particularly revered, and endlessly covered, by the new rockers.
Judging by the spectacular sales of the Johnson reissue of 1990, we can assume that the record purchasing public has come to share the assessment of the British Invasion stars, and that Johnson's coronation as the dominant figure of blues in the twentieth century is more or less certain. Consequently, we can make a few points in conclusion about Johnson and the blues, past and present. On one hand, the enduring appeal of Johnson's music, now 70 years past his death, suggests that in the best blues, there exists something timelessly compelling that lets contemporary listeners feel a powerful, human connection with music that is of a decidedly different time and place. On the other, the fact that Robert Johnson—the wandering, doomed bluesman who became a cultural archetype—in particular, is so popular, and especially with white consumers, also suggests that some of that connection with a rural, pre-industrial, and even magical past may rest substantially on imagination.
For the blues as an art form, continued strong sales, surely, can be taken as a sign of substantial health and vitality, and no one can doubt that the blues cast as broad a shadow as ever.
Jack White, guitarist of the popular Detroit combo The White Stripes, wears his blues influence on his sleeve. And any of the hard rock bands that proudly cite Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, or Black Sabbath as touchstones—that is to say, all hard rock bands—well know that they're citing a long blues lineage as well. And yet, if the greatest blues figure has been dead since 1938, and the last real innovation was going electric, also a '30s event, can we really say the blues is evolving?
Maybe Robert Johnson really does hold all the clues. As deals with the Devil go, his seems to be getting better every year. Maybe, like Johnson himself, the blues is dead already but can never really die.
One great contemporary blues critic has remarked that the blues has always been about "wanting to be someplace else but making the best of where you are."
Artists like Big Bill Broonzy—who was born in Mississippi, first recorded in 1928, and wound up in Chicago in the '30s—provided a direct link with the Delta style, which was, no doubt, well received by South Side audiences largely composed of Southern transplants. The idea of the Chicago sound—small combo, electric blues—began with the evolution of performers like Broonzy, who gradually added instrumentalists to his act through the 1930s.
Then in the 1940s, as many of these barroom combos moved toward the more urban, upbeat sound that would be defined late in that decade as R&B, the Chicago blues took a definitive turn with the arrival on the scene of McKinley Morganfield, the man who had been "discovered" in Mississippi by Alan Lomax in 1941, and was better known as Muddy Waters. Muddy effectively took what he liked best about the blues as it had developed in Chicago—electric guitar and a more danceable groove—and shot it through with a fresh dose of Delta influence, the resulting style being known, appropriately, as the Chicago Delta sound.
Muddy dominated first Chicago and then the blues at large for most of the next few decades. His band churned out master blues musicians, and the sound he built helped the blues cross over to the large white audience that came out of the folk revival in the 1960s.
Indeed, as a national white market for the blues developed, many of its constituents would have ranked Muddy as their favorite. Perhaps ironically, the growth of that white blues market paralleled a gradual turning away of urban African Americans in the North, who seemed to identify increasingly with the emerging sounds of funk, soul, and ultimately rap.
But it must be said that Muddy gave them—at least those Northern Blacks who had migrated from the South—something unique. As many ultimately found the postwar cities to fall decidedly short of their hopes, the Chicago Delta sound provided them a taste of someplace else and perhaps, made it just a little easier to make the best of where they were.