What gives the blues its singular character? The blues, like gospel, evolved from the deep roots of field hollers and shouts, with one transplanted to a clapboard structure filled with pews and benches and the other to a house in the deep woods filled with smoke and ‘shine.
In his autobiography, W.C. Handy offered his own definition of the blues: the music “consisted of simple declarations expressed usually in three lines and set to a kind of earth-born music that was familiar throughout the Southland.”
Bluesman Johnny Shines, who traveled with Robert Johnson, once commented on the Saturday night/Sunday morning paradox of the music; it’s fine to sing it, but the musician might not be allowed in polite company. “When I was a kid,” he says, “if a person heard you singing the blues and recognized your voice, you couldn’t go down to their house, around their daughters.” Handy himself recalls how critic Deems Taylor once described the blues: “There are two schools of thought regarding the invention of the blues. One regards it as an event equal in importance to Edison’s invention of the incandescent light. The other is inclined to classify it rather with Lincoln’s assassination.”
No matter the Manichean character of the music itself, it is darkness and light, wielding the power to plumb the recesses of our hearts and souls and to search out their darkest corners as well as the power to liberate our bodies from oppressive influences.
The guitar is the instrument that provides the blues with its special flavor. To be sure, blues musicians have woven their laments, brags, and celebrations around the strains of pianos, harmonicas, banjos, mandolins, and fiddles too. After all, Mamie Smith, whose “Crazy Blues” (1920) is the first recording of the blues by an African-American woman, was a pianist (though she didn’t play piano on that first recording). Still, in rural areas the guitar emerged as a blues player’s instrument of choice, not only because they could create a diversity of sounds with a range of open tunings but also because they could carry it with them from place to place. As Son House once said, “You couldn’t fool with pianos much ’cause they’d be too much to move all the time. Have to go and get a bunch—a team or mules and everything else to move it from place to place.”
In Early Blues: The First Stars of Blues Guitar (University of Minnesota Press), author Jas Obrecht offers an elegantly tuneful glimpse into a chapter of American music history. Drawing deeply on archives — and enhancing each chapter of the book with images of record company ads, photos of the musicians, and complete discographies — Obrecht provides appealing introductory profiles of nine early blues guitarists: Sylvester Weaver, Papa Charlie Jackson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, and Tampa Red. Each helped define blues guitar, having made enduring recordings during the 1920s.
Sylvester Weaver becomes the first blues guitarist on record, according to Obrecht. In 1923, Weaver’s fingerpicking accompanied Sara Martin’s “Longing for Daddy Blues” and “I’ve Got to Go and Leave My Daddy Behind.” In early November 1923, Weaver became the first guitarist to record blues instrumentals: “Guitar Blues” and “Guitar Rag.”
Obrecht describes “Guitar Blues” as “a slow, simple instrumental, interspersing slide melodies with sparse, sliding chords.”
“Guitar Rag” picks up the tempo, though: it’s a rollicking tune with “traces of ragtime and Hawaiian music.” Weaver re-cut the tune in 1927 and that version spawned Bob Wills’ hit “Steel Guitar Rag.” Weaver’s label, OKeh, proclaimed his originality in an ad for Sara Martin. “Sara Martin,” writes Obrecht, “discovered the clever idea of making recordings with guitar accompaniment … Sylvester Weaver plays his guitar in a highly original manner, which consists chiefly of sliding a knife up and down the string while he picks with his other hand. His guitar solos are having wide sales.”
Atlanta native Blind Willie McTell started his recording career in October 1927. According to his wife, Kate, McTell preferred to play a 12-string guitar and always bought a new one when he felt like a guitar got to “where he didn’t want to play it anymore.” He carried his guitar with him everywhere he went, and he would never let others carry it for him.
McTell cut two 78s for Victor in October 1927, including a pair of slideless blues, “Stole Rider Blues” and “Writing Paper Blues,” as well as his enduring slide success, “”Mamma, Tain’t Long Fo’ Day,” and his now-classic slideless masterpiece, “Statesboro Blues.”
Obrecht warmly describes two of McTell’s best tunes, “Atlanta Strut” and “Travelin’ Blues.” In the former, the lyrics “embark upon a journey that warps and mutates like a Dali painting … and his booming twelve-string imitated a bass viol, cackling hen, crowing rooster, piano, slide guitar, even a man walking up the stairs.”
McTell fingerpicks “Travelin’ Blues” with “extraordinary finesse, using his slider to mimic a train’s engine, bell, and whistle.” His influence faded, and he eventually quit playing the blues and followed his call to preach. No matter, though, for Bob Dylan paid tribute to him in his 1983 ballad “Blind Willie McTell” — “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell” — and then covered McTell’s “Broke Down Engine” and Delia” on his album World Gone Wrong.
Ry Cooder declares that Tampa Red “ironed out all the kinks; he made it [blues] more accessible and played it with more of a modern big band feeling — like a soloist, almost. He changed it from rural music to commercial music, and he was very popular as a result. … It’s a straight line from Tampa Red to Louis Jordan to Chuck Berry, without a shadow of a doubt.” According to Obrecht, with his “warm, sweet tone and dead-on intonation” Tampa Red was a “master of single-string melodies and streamlined chords—so much so that he came to be known as ‘The Guitar Wizard’.”
Former Guitar Player editor Obrecht warmly and affectionately introduces us to the beauty and the intricacies of these guitarists’ music. He shows us how they differ and the passion they bring to their playing and their writing. And, in loving detail, Obrecht points out the fine points of these guitarists’ performance on their records. His portraits provide an essential starting point for our understanding of blues and blues guitar and urge us to listen to these musicians’ recordings for ourselves.