This year marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the blues, or at least of the epiphany typically associated with it: W.C. Handy’s chance hearing, at a railroad crossing in Tutwiler, Mississippi, of an itinerant singer moaning a line, then “answering” himself with the slurred notes he conjured by sliding a knife over the strings of his guitar.
It would be another eleven years before Handy wrote “The St. Louis Blues”, the song in which he sought to capture the eerie sounds he heard that night. And the blues wouldn’t be codified into their familiar 12-bar, AAB format until after the first World War, when southern blacks began migrating up Highway 61 to Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago, and the booming record and jukebox industries gave the music a wider hearing. It wouldn’t be long, though, before the idiom would become one of the most durable and evocative expressions of the American musical vernacular, giving rise to, among other things, jazz, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and perhaps rap (and being colored in turn by each).
It’s therefore fitting that, to commemorate the music’s centennial, Congress would declare 2003 the “Year of the Blues.” It’s also no surprise that aficionados, opportunists and pundits — and those are hardly mutually exclusive categories — would seize the chance to promote, repackage and otherwise revisit the music and what it means.
Some would have us believe that the blues is as an endangered species, especially purists who are too busy circling the wagons to see how the innovations of, say, Blood Ulmer or Little Axe are of a piece with those of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Others just want to sell the music, notably to boomers raised on album rock, but also to their kids, many of them collegians for whom the last word on the blues is either Stevie Ray Vaughan or the White Stripes (or maybe Fat Possum).
Then there are those who want to put their stamp on the music. Most notable at this latest juncture of remembrance are the directors, from Martin Scorsese to Wim Wenders and Clint Eastwood, who offered separate takes on the blues during PBS’ recent weeklong treatment of the subject. Marred on occasion by inaccuracies, wrongheadedness, and naivete, the series nevertheless had its moments, from Richard Pearce’s mash note to Memphis, to Charles Burnett’s tribute to the music’s foremothers, to stunning archival footage throughout. At no point was it as unctuous or self-serving as Ken Burns’ Jazz.
Writers of liner notes to the obligatory reissues that have deluged the Year of the Blues likewise have sought to “bring it all back home,” which too often has meant bringing the blues to rock. Perhaps most egregious is the cultural imperialism at work in Bluebird’s otherwise indispensable series When The Sun Goes Down, the Invisible Republic-inspired subtitle of which, The Secret History Of Rock & Roll, would have us believe the blues are primarily of instrumental as opposed to intrinsic worth. Some of this is scholarship betrayed by marketing, yet regardless of where the blame lies, it’s symptomatic of revisionism run amok.
People of course have been rediscovering and putting their spins on the blues for a half-century now — perhaps as far back as 1936, when John Hammond went looking for Robert Johnson while organizing his landmark “Spirituals To Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall. The postwar folk revival cast the widest net, prompting an unprecedented search for prewar country blues singers from Texas, the Piedmont and the Delta. It later fell to the Britain Invasion bands of the 1960s to turn on the Woodstock generation to the likes of Muddy and the Wolf.
This process of coming to terms with the blues has proceeded in fits and starts ever since, begetting a cottage industry consisting of record labels, magazines, festivals, societies and nightclubs that serve to preserve and promote the idiom. It’s also resulted in the music’s “legitimization” by the academy, as well as its commodification by Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Now as much a social construct as a shared language or tradition, the blues could hardly be farther removed from Handy’s unmediated encounter with the phantom at Tutwiler.
The title of Blues In The Mississippi Night, perhaps the most welcome reissue of the recent onslaught, is evocative of Handy’s epiphany, despite the fact that it documents an event which took place 44 years later — and not, as its name suggests, in Mississippi, but in a hotel room in New York City. Nevertheless, much like Handy’s famous composition, Blues In The Mississippi Night originally gave mainstream audiences a hitherto unseen and largely unfiltered glimpse of the blues, in this case via a confab involving Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson, recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax.
The conversation first appeared, in semi-fictionalized form, under the title “I Got The Blues” in Common Ground magazine in 1948. Lomax later released an edited audio transcription of the session on LP, on United Artists in 1959. The identities of the three bluesmen, however, were concealed, at their request, for fear they might suffer reprisals for their comments, which included stinging indictments of the racism and injustice they knew as southern blacks living under Jim Crow. It wasn’t until 1990, when Rykodisc reissued the project on CD, that it bore the names of the participants, each of whom was dead by that point.
Blues In The Mississippi Night also includes snippets of songs by the three musicians, notably Williamson (Sonny Boy #1, not Rice Miller, a.k.a. Sonny Boy #2) doing his signature number, “Good Morning Little School Girl”; Memphis Slim leading the trio in a version of “Stackalee”; and Broonzy performing his socially explicit “Black, Brown, And White Blues”. “They say if you’s white, should be all right/If you’s brown, stick around/But if you’s black, well brothers, get back, get back,” Broonzy bemoans on the wryly jaunty chorus.
Interspersed throughout the session are field recordings, also made by Lomax, many of which illustrate the ethnomusicological points the bluesmen make. A song leader at a church in Greenville, Mississippi, lines out a hymn; members of a chain gang on Parchman Farm chop their hoes in time to a work song; laborers led by a “bull” chant a field holler that typifies the African-derived call-and-response at the heart of the blues. Indeed, from ring shouts to bottleneck guitar and barrelhouse piano, not only does the album reflect the stylistic roots and evolution of the blues; with its laments about prisons and bossmen, its yarns about whiskey, women and rambling ’round, it captures the thematic reach of the music as well.
All of which serves as a lively primer, one that must have been even more illuminating before the proliferation of studies and other depictions of the blues during and after the folk revival. Most revealing, though, is the candor, a la Big Bill’s “Black, Brown, And White”, with which the three bluesmen reanimate the post-Reconstruction milieu of the Arkansas and Tennessee river bottoms in which they came of age. Here was a world ruled by adages such as, “Kill a mule, buy another one; kill a nigger, hire another one,” and where white “lawmen” had no compunction about charging a black man walking home from work with vagrancy and putting him on a chain gang — or worse.
There is, nevertheless, a whiff of naivete, and/or perhaps grandiosity, in Lomax’ comments about the session’s “authenticity” and “relaxed naturalness” in the album’s notes. Big Bill is a certainly a knowing moderator who artfully draws out his reluctant companions, especially Williamson, who is hardly as urbane as Broonzy or Memphis Slim. And there’s no question about the veracity of their disclosures, or that Lomax, apart from submitting a query to get things started, stayed out of the conversation. Yet it’s inconceivable that the three bluesmen wouldn’t have revealed even more had their discussion not been recorded, and had it taken place “down home,” and strictly among peers, as opposed to in New York and hosted by a white outsider, albeit a sympathetic one. That said, there’s no denying the power of the request, on the part of all three musicians, that Lomax conceal their identities — and that he felt compelled to do so until after their deaths.
Similarly revelatory in its day, and also not to be lost amid the glut of blues reissues, is Columbia/Legacy’s updated version of The Story Of The Blues. Originally consisting of recordings released from 1926-1947 on the Columbia label and its ARC family of imprints (OKeh, Vocalion and Conqueror), the set first appeared in 1970 as a companion to historian Paul Oliver’s pioneering book of the same name. A good two-thirds of the 29 tracks on the original double LP might be familiar to collectors and aficionados today, but back when the album first came out, they represented the most comprehensive anthology of prewar blues styles to date.
Everything is here, from songster ballads (Mississippi John Hurt’s “Stack O’Lee Blues”) and brooding Delta blues (Charley Patton’s “Stone Pony Blues”) to double entendre (Blind Boy Fuller & Sonny Terry’s “I Want Some Of Your Pie”) and vaudevillian mess-around (Barbecue Bob & Laughing Charley’s “It Won’t Be Long Now”). There’s also string band hokum (Henry Williams & Eddie Anthony’s “Georgia Crawl”), jug band music (The Memphis Jug Band’s “Gator Wobble”), habanera-tinged boogie woogie (Jimmy Yancy & Faber Smith’s “East St. Louis Blues”), and jump blues (Big Joe Turner & Pete Johnson’s “Roll ‘Em Pete”). Social and political commentary, from Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues” to Brownie McGhee’s World War II lament “Million Lonesome Women” (“Uncle Sam ain’t no woman, but he sure can take your man”), get their due as well.
Virtually all of the big names, apart from those who, like Skip James, Son House and Blind Willie Johnson, didn’t recorded for Columbia-affiliated labels, are here, too. Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly, Bessie Smith, Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell, Peetie Wheatstraw, Bo Carter, Robert Johnson, Casey Bill Weldon, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson (#1), Big Bill Broonzy, and Memphis Minnie, along with those mentioned earlier, are represented. And the set goes well beyond the canonical to include a number of singers, such as belters Lillian Glinn and Chippie Hill, who deserve a wider hearing but more or less have been forgotten.
With an additional twelve tracks that trace the evolution of the blues from the 1950s to the present, the updated version of The Story Of The Blues covers as much ground as, say, the Scorsese series on PBS, but does so largely through music rather than any overtly revisionist agendas. Unfortunately, though, by relying exclusively on material from the Columbia vaults and not availing themselves of the riches of postwar indie labels such as Chess, Modern, Atlantic and Aladdin, the reissue’s compilers couldn’t possibly have offered us a representative picture of the blues during the second half of the 20th century.
Thus while we get Lightnin’ Hopkins’ signature “Bald Headed Woman”, we also get Willie Dixon, not Howlin’ Wolf, singing Dixon’s “You Shook Me”. Similarly, instead of the definitive 1955 version of “Mannish Boy” Muddy Waters cut for Chess with Little Walter on harmonica, we get the terrific but lesser version Waters did with Johnny Winter during his mid-’70s comeback. And while the versions of blues classics by rock bands such as the Electric Flag (“Killing Floor” with Michael Bloomfield on guitar) and the Jeff Beck Group (“I Ain’t Superstitious” with Rod Stewart on vocals) are instructive, they pale next to the originals (and, in the case of the latter, sound dated). And why Janis Joplin, Santana and Keb’ Mo’ are here when so many other exemplars are absent speaks to nothing so much as marketing.
That said, the inclusion of Bob Dylan’s “Cry A While” proves just how far someone can take a love-and-theft approach to the blues when they’ve internalized the music as completely as he has. And then there’s Little Axe’s creaky, funkadelic reworking of Lead Belly’s “Ride On”, which samples Howlin’ Wolf and the Lead Belly original and features the guitarist’s former mates in the Sugarhill rhythm section plus a noted Eurasian turntablist moonlighting on percussion. It’s a far cry from “The St. Louis Blues”, but when the singers intone, “Sisters and brothers ride on/Ride on, ride on,” the record not only sounds a “Midnight Special”-like note of freedom; it transports the blues into the 21st century.