History of Blues. Part-2

Blues were not always sad, they encompassed all emotions, and their characteristic sound and form fused into the classic Blues. A musical genres distinguished as a matter of 12 bars and 3 stanza structure, tonality around the tonic, dominant & sub dominant and a pentatonic scale with added flattened ‘blue’ notes.


Many of the racial record artists in the 1920s were professional, and some (Fae Barnes, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Gertrude Saunders) performed on Broadway and toured Europe in the wake of the popularity of all black shows. Some used hints of blues paraphrases and intonation in their songs, but few then tried to compose their own blues or even sing in a blues manner; their songs were only called “blues”.

But there were performers who included “blues” songs in their performances, like Sara Martin, whose “Blind Man Blues” (Okeh 8090, 1923) was sung by the “Clarence Williams Blues Five”, with a young Sydney Besche on soprano saxophone. The more significant performer was Beulah ‘Sippie Wallace, whose warm voice was effectively accompanied by Louis Armstrong in “Special Delivery Blues” (Okeh 8328, 1926). She was the sister of George W. Thomas, a Houston-based composer who promoted other members of his family, including his daughter Hociel Thomas, accompanied by George’s younger brother Hersal, in the remarkable Fish Tail Dance (Okeh 8222, 1925). Louis Armstrong has played for many classical blues performers, most notably in Bertha’s “Chippy” Hill version of Richard M. Jones’s Trouble In Mind (Okeh 8312, 1926), which has become a tradition.

Sara Martin & her Jug Band – I’m Gonna Be a Lovin’ Old Soul

“Classic Blues” is an imprecise term (possibly first used in print by John Jacob Nils in 1930) that has been loosely used to refer to the songs of urban performers in New York and Chicago. To be more precise, this term describes the contralto of a wide vocal range with which the blues were played. Recorded on records, they were rarely accompanied by the accompaniment of the performer himself, usually jazz musicians accompanied him.

Lottie Beaman Red River Blues (1924)

Some are comparatively little known, such as Lottie Beamon’s “Kansas City Batterball”, whose “Red River Blues” (Paramount 12201, 1924) played along with Pruitt Twins. Another strong singer was Lillian Glinn of Texas, whose powerful “Shake It Down” (Columbia 14315, 1928) was recorded in New Orleans. Atlanta, Georgia, may have been the birthplace of Cleo Gibson, she recorded only one record, “I’ve Got Ford Engine Movements In My Hips” (Okeh 8700, 1929), deservedly called “classic”.

I’ve Got Ford Engine Movements in My Hips

Outstanding female singers Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey (born Columbus, Georgia, April 26, 1886; d. Rome, Georgia December 22, 1939), who was the first to sing the blues in 1902, came closest to the folk tradition. Born Gertrude Pridget, she began her career on the talented show ‘Bunch Of Blackberries’ at the age of 12. In 1904, she married Will ‘Pa’ Rainey and performed with him at FS Wolcott’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels and other shows. In 1916, they formed their own company.

Ma Rainey: Deep Moaning Blues

By the time she started recording, she was known throughout the south. Her recordings on Paramount are hardly indicative of the power of her voice, but the majestic phrasing is already evident in her first work Bo-Weavil Blues (Paramount 12080, 1923) and Moonshine Blues (Paramount 12083, 1923), her most illustrious works. In five years she made over a hundred recordings; her “Jelly Bean Blues” (Paramount 12238, 1924), imbued with moaning intonation, was recorded with the participation of Louis Armstrong, and “Yonder Come The Blues” (Paramount 12357, 1926), recorded with her “Georgia Jazz Band” – tragedy. She toured with her group throughout the south and even traveled to Mexico in her 20s, performing in front of large audiences. Her temper was noisy, although this quality is rarely reflected in her recordings. “‘Ma’Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Paramount 12590, 1927) is one of the few to reflect her bright side.

In 1935, Ma Rainey returned to Columbus and was an activist in the Friendly Baptist Church for the last years of her life. They probably could have worked together, but it would be wrong to say that Ma Rainey was Bassey Smith’s mentor. They could respect and compete with each other, but the industry of performing black performers was large enough to harbor both Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey, and Lady of the Blues, Bassey Smith (born Chattanooga, 04/15/1894; d. Clarksdale, Mississippi, 09/26/1937), who began her professional career in 1912 with the Moses Stoke show, which featured the Rainey couple.

She toured with other black performers, and at the suggestion of Clarence Williams, recorded her “Down Hearted Blues” (Columbia A 3844, 1923), cementing her fame as the luckiest black singer of her time. She recorded regularly until 1928, accompanied by members of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, including trumpeters Louis Armstrong, Tommy Ladnier and Joe Smith. Touring intensely, leading a tumultuous life with her ex-cop husband, Jack Guy, she is addicted to gin. She re-appeared in the short film “St. Louis Blues”. She was last recorded in 1933. In 1936, she intended to return to the stage, but death in a car accident prevented this.

Bessie Smith – After You´ve Gone

Bassey Smith was the greatest vaudeville blues singer, with unrivaled art she brought emotional tension and emotion into the jazz repertoire. “After You’ve Gone” (Columbia 14197, 1927), recorded with Joe Smith, and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” (Columbia 14451, 1929), with Ed Allen playing the cornet, demonstrate her ability give new meaning to popular songs through sensual interpretation.

Wide phrasing, sweet intonation and flexibility of voice were her contributions to the jazz / blues performing arts of the 20s. She has made about 200 recordings, of which her excellent duets with Louis Armstrong, including “St. Louis Blues” (Columbia 14064, 1925) and “You’ve Been A Good Old Wagon” (Columbia 14079, 1925) are among the best. Although she excelled in slow blues, she also performed energetic jazz standards, including the heady Cake Walking Babies (From Home) (Columbia 35673, 1925) and Alexander’s Ragtime Band (Columbia 14219, 1927), both recorded with musicians from the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.

Bessie Smith – Back Water Blues

She favored clarinetist Joe Smith for accompaniment, but perhaps her best, famous recording of the time, Back Water Blues (Columbia 14195, 1927), was with James P. Johnson on piano. By her last session, when she was doing “Gimme A Pigfoot” (Okeh 8949, 1933), her voice had hardened, but few jazz artists were consistently outstanding.

To many blues fans, Bassey Smith’s “pitch” is too jazzy. Some people prefer the more weighted, less thoughtful Ida Cox technique (born Toccoa, Georgia, 02/25/1896; d. Knoxville, Tennessee 11/10/1967). Although she participated in negro shows as a child and sang in theaters since the age of 14, she was less inclined towards the vaudeville genre, and almost all of her records contain traditional blues. The first of these “Any Woman’s Blues” (Paramount 12053, 1923) demonstrates her sonorous, slightly nasal timbre of voice. With her material, especially her own blues compositions, she won the fame of one of the famous singers. In “Ida Cox Lawdy Lawdy Blues” (Paramount 12064, 1923) and “I’ve Got The Blues For Rampart Street” (Paramount 12063, 1923), both featuring the wonderful clarinetist Tommy Ladnier, Ida’s strong, slightly relaxed voice leads. For several years Cox was accompanied by pianist Jesse Crump, whose dull organ playing is auditioned for “Coffin Blues” (Paramount 12318, 1925).

Only a few good singers are known to the classical blues. Willie Jackson and George Williams of New Orleans were “average.” Some singers could combine blues with jazz: one of them, familiar with jazz since childhood, was Alonzo ‘Lonnie’ Johnson (b. New Orleans, 02/08/1889; d. Toronto, 06/16/1970). As a teenager, he began playing the guitar and violin professionally in Storyville, New Orleans.

Lonnie Johnson – Another Night To Cry

By 1917, he was working with Charlie Krayt’s Jazz-O-Maniacs on the St. Paul riverboat, later joining Faith Meurble’s ship group. He became famous as a guitarist, brilliantly winning solos in “Stomping ’em Along Slow” (Okeh 8558, 1928) or in duets with Eddie Lang (Salvatore Massaro), for example “A Handful Of Riffs” (Okeh 8695, 1929). Johnson played with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra in Move Over (Okeh 8638, 1928), with Louis Armstrong in the famous Mahogany Hall Stomp (Okeh 8680, 1929) and with King Oliver in Jet Black Blues (Okeh 8689, 1929 ). He began his long career with Mr Johnson’s Blues (Okeh 8253, 1925), where he played the violin.

Johnson’s voice was piercing, somewhat insinuating, and the lyrics to the songs were usually interesting. “Low Land Moan” (Okeh 8677, 1927) is typical in this respect, as well as in the use of a melody that he “exploited” too often. He loved sentimental themes such as “Baby Please Don’t Leave Home No More” (Okeh 8754, 1929), yet tasteful.

Lonnie Johnson – Baby Please Don’t Leave Home No More

He was an empathetic accompanist, providing spiritually “backing” to Alger ‘Texas’ Alexander’s unconventional singing in “Bell Cow Blues” (Okeh 8563, 1928), and with Victoria Spivey he recorded many entertaining, not-so-decent numbers, for example Furniture Man Blues (Okeh 8652, 1928).

Victoria Spivey & Lonnie Johnson – Dope Head Blues (1927)

Victoria Spivey (born Houston, 10/15/1906; d. New York, 10/3/1976), daughter of a string orchestra leader, performed at the Lincoln Theater in Dallas at the age of 12. She began recording in St. Louis with “Black Snake Blues” (Okeh 8338, 1926) with her own piano accompaniment. Her voice was flexible and vile. Collaboration with Lonnie Johnson has spawned many outstanding recordings, including “TB Blues” (Okeh 8494, 1927) and “Murder In The First Degree” (Okeh 8581, 1927). In 1929 she starred in King Vidor’s black film Hallelujah and made several recordings with Henry Allen’s New York Orchestra, including the song Funny Feather Blues (Victor 38088, 1929) and the characteristic Moaning The Blues (Victor 38546, 1929 ).

As one of the youngest classical singers, Spivey had the opportunity to pursue her career in the 1930s and 1940s; when most singers stopped performing professionally, since the popularity of the vaudeville genre, in which they were mainly heard, began to decline in the 30s. The same fate befell the members of vaudeville duets: Butterbeans and Sunsire, ‘Coot’ Grant and ‘Kid Sox’ Wesley Wilson, who used blues vocal technique in their comedy numbers. And only tent and mobile performances, in particular, “The Rabbit Foot Minstrels” and the Silas Green show from New Orleans, attracted the attention of the public for a long time during the Depression.


Many classical blues performers were from the South or border states and were familiar with the folk singers whose blues they played. The early development of the blues is not difficult to recreate, but there is little evidence to explain the rapid spread and origin of the blues form. Blues poetry was collected in both Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas in the early years of the 20th century. But, despite the popularity of female singers, folk began to be recorded for commercial reasons only at the beginning of the second quarter of a century – a time when its form clearly took shape, vocal and instrumental techniques developed well, and regional styles and approaches to them were already clearly outlined.

Living Country Blues Vol.1 – Bowling Green John & Harmonica Phil Wiggins (Full Album)

Called “country blues”, “rural blues” (rural), or “downhouse blues”, the blues played by local performers had the characteristics of folk music: they were played by mostly illiterate or only partially literate singers, and the traditions of phrases and stanzas developed almost independently of the professionals. However, blues performers played a role in the diffusion of blues lyrics and technique, while lines or poems to commercial recordings of classical blues could be heard in the first recorded examples of folk blues. Although most of the folk blues singers were born in rural areas and worked on farms, many of them moved to the “black” neighborhoods of nearby cities to sing on the streets and benefit from the life they were simply “burning”. The blues were an equally urban and rural phenomenon, and “southern folk blues” can be considered a more accurate umbrella term.

The recording industry began glorifying the blues with Papa’s Lawdy Lawdy Blues (Paramount 12219, 1924) by Papa Charlie Jackson, recorded to the accompaniment of banjo. Jackson’s style was simple and much of his repertoire is typical of blues musicians; but the song “Long Lonesome Blues” (Paramount 12354, 1926) by Blind Lemon Jefferson brought the authentic sound of the rural blues to thousands of black houses.

Blind Lemon Jefferson – Long Lonesome Blues

In folk blues, there has never been a more influential singer than Blind Lemon Jefferson (born Coachman, Texas, circa 1897; d. Chicago, circa 1930). His eyesight deteriorated in early childhood, and he began to make a living singing on the streets of Dallas and other Texas cities, sometimes with Leadbelly. His voice was high, as if piercing the street noise, but sometimes he could be low, groaning, as if continued by his guitar, producing crying or imitating sounds, which is characteristic of Match Box Blues (Okeh 8455, 1927) – his best recorded song.

Jefferson’s compositions, inspired by partial loss of vision, were often autobiographical, such as “Pneumonia Blues” (Paramount 12880, 1928); others, such as Blind Lemon Penitentiary Blues (Paramount 12666, 1928) or Hangman Blues’ (Paramount 12679, 1928), felt preoccupied with the fate of the prisoners. The high-pitched, flexible singing may exemplify the Texas approach to the blues, a style that, as well as the use of the guitar as an expressive voice echoing vocal material, was faithful to Willard “Ramblin” Thomas; however, “Texas” Alexander was so close to the “holler” tradition that he didn’t even play an instrument.

One of the most popular recording blues singers, Alger Alexander (born Jewett, 12/09/1900; d. Richards, 12/04/1954) grew up and spent most of his life in East Texas. He worked as a farmer’s assistant and storekeeper in Dallas and was imprisoned for at least two misdemeanors.

Alger “Texas” Alexander & ‘Little Hat’ Jones-Ninety-Eight Degree Blues

On his early recordings, including “Levee Camp Moan” (Okeh 8498, 1927), the working song had an efflorescence. In his famous song “West Texas Blues” (Okeh 8603, 1928), Lonnie Johnson, among others, accompanied him, complementing his non-standard singing and poetic structure with his guitar. Alexander’s singing was low, groaning; good effect was the use of a droning chorus, as in his two-part “Awful Moaning Blues” (Okeh 8731, 1929) with guitarist Denis “Little Hut” Jones. His lyrics were often quirky and poetic, but he favored a limited number of melodies, and sang almost exclusively in three-line blues form.

Other Texas singers who demonstrated fluency in guitar playing, lightness and poetry in their images included: “Little Hat” Jones, “Funny Paper” Smith, Gene Campbell.

The Mississippi blues approach was completely different. The Mississippi Delta is often considered the birthplace of the blues. Hundreds of miles north of the actual river delta is a wedge of low-lying fertile land between the Mississippi and Yazu rivers, just south of Memphis and the northern hills of the Mississippi coast. From here came many blues singers, where the black population equaled, and in many cities significantly exceeded, the whites.

The cotton fields of the delta plantations may well have grown the blues. The proximity to Memphis and the relative ease with which the record staff could get here by train from Chicago also meant that the place was well suited for recordings right there. Mississippi musicians could also travel to Chicago. Many of the earliest, least sophisticated recordings are from Mississippi. Many of the singers were guitarists, whose accompaniment to the often guttural, expressive singing was noticeably rhythmically accented.

The Day Charley Patton Changed the Blues

The most influential blues performer of the period was Charley Patton (born in Bolton, Mississippi, c. 1887; d. Indianola, Mississippi, 04/28/1934), he established a school of singing guitarists before World War I near Clarksdale; his role in the development of the Mississippi blues can be compared to his contributions to Jefferson’s Texas Blues. Despite his fair skin and thinness, his voice was harsh, in a “hard” version, which was loved by many bluesmen. In 1912 he came to Dockery Plantation, where he worked with Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown and other Mississippi bluesmen, exchanging songs and techniques among themselves. Patton was known for his buffoonery, but the recordings present him as a serious musician. “Pony Blues” (Paramount 12792, 1929) was the most celebrated of these, and “Moon Going Down” (Paramount 13014, 1930), with Willie Brown as guitar soloist, was one of his most memorable recordings.

His blues themes were often autobiographical, although at times the stanzas were confused, although “High Sherif Blues (Vocalion 02680, 1934) is a consistent narrative.

High Sheriff Blues by Charley Patton (1934, Delta Blues guitar)

On recording, Patton’s blues are dull, often with percussive guitar accompaniment in the open key of G. Because that his repertoire included ballads, ragtime and spirituals, for example – “Frankie And Albert” (Paramount 13110, 1929), “Hang It On The Wall” (Vocalion 02931, 1931) or “Oh Death” (Vocalion 02904, 1934), Patton may be considered a “songster”, but it was his blues that influenced the younger generation of bluesmen such as Sean House, Bacca White, Chester Barnett.

Son House – Full Live Performance (November 15, 1969)

Often considered the most significant bluesman, Eddie ‘Son’ House (born Riverton, Mississippi, 03/21/1902) did not perform until he was nearly 25. As a child, he sang in church and later preached, which may have contributed to his powerful style. After working on a farm and steel mill in St. Louis, he returned to Mississippi; since name it is pronounced in the same “team” with the names of Charlie Patton and Willie Brown. In 1930, he recorded three highly powerful two-part blues, including the influential Preachin ‘The Blues (Paramount 13013, 1930) and the Mississippi farming crisis Dry Spell Blues (Paramount 12990, 1930) , which are characterized by a “lowing” voice against the background of repeating phrases played by a slide on the guitar.

Skip James – Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues

It is sometimes assumed that the deep, “hard” voices of Charlie Patton or Sean House were typical of the Mississippi sound. However, there were also high-voiced singers in Mississippi – ‘Crying’ Sam Collins, Bo Weevil Jackson and Nehemiah ‘Skip’ James. James of Bentonia, Mississippi had an eerie, high-pitched voice and brilliant, speedy guitar technique; his I’m So Glad (Paramount 13098, 1931) aptly reflects his skill, and the lyrics in Cypress Grove Blues (Paramount 13065, 1931) are poetic like those of any Texas bluesman. Although Skip James is considered a solo musician, research suggests that he represented a local tradition centered around the unrecorded singer Henry Stuckey; this circumstance underscores the fact that recordings alone cannot provide an accurate picture of the spread of evolution or blues styles.

Cool Drink Of Water Blues – TOMMY JOHNSON (1928) Delta Blues Guitar Legend

It is debatable whether Tommy Johnson (born Terry Mississippi, c. 1896; d. Christel Springs, Mississippi, 11/1/1956) was the best of the Mississippi bluesmen. He worked on a plantation and farm in Christel Springs, played at local celebrations and toured occasionally. Influenced by Charlie Patton and others, he honed his beautiful and exciting style, exemplified by Cool Drink Of Water Blues (Victor 21279, 1928). His blues were slow, using falsetto phrases to the accompaniment of Charlie McCoy’s guitar playing an extra mandolin part.

In “Big Road Blues” (Victor 21279, 1928), traditional poetry is powerfully sung to the unconventional accompaniment of rising tones. In Canned Heat Blues (Victor 38535, 1928), a piece of great beauty, with elements from old songs, he sang about his addiction to alcohol.

‘Saturday Blues’ ISHMAN BRACEY (1928) Delta Blues Guitar Legend

Johnson’s sessions also featured his partner Ishman Bracey (1901-1970), whose voice was nastier and harsher, but whose records, such as Saturday Blues (Victor 21349, 1928), were hardly less remarkable. Both singers continued to perform throughout the 30s and 40s, but they did not record. If Johnson was known for his sense of humor (which, by the way, his records do not confirm), Bracey joined the church, becoming a follower of His Reverend Rabin Lacy, and his only record only hinted at the former glory of the bluesman in the 1920s.

Traveling studios, especially the Columbia, Victor and Okeh divisions, have recorded many blues singers on the margins that would otherwise have remained unknown. But parts of the vast South were not represented: hardly any recordings were made in the 1920s in both Carolina, Alabama, Florida or Arkansas. An entire school of 12-string guitar was recorded in Atlanta, Georgia. Some have used a knife, bottleneck, or other device to “slide” (slide along the strings) to produce whining, mournful sounds – just to match the mood of the blues. Some went to an open chord (such as Dadfa’-d ‘) to achieve a cross-note key, which allowed them to push a slide across all strings as they played a blues sequence. By pressing the strings across the frets, a “howling” effect was achieved; thus the adaptability of the slide to the guitar fell in love with blues performers.

BARBECUE BOB – Going Up The Country [1928]

Barbecue Bob (Robert Hicks) (b. Walnut Grove, Georgia, 9/11/1902; d. Lithonia, GA, 10/21/1931) was a central figure in a group of blues singers working in and around Atlanta; this also included his older brother Charlie and Curly Weaver. Before arriving in Atlanta, Bob worked on a farm, while in Atlanta as a cook at Barbecue Place near Tidwell. His first LP, Barbecue Blues (Columbia 14205, 1927), became a bestseller, reflecting his characteristic vocal range and the tinkling sound of his 12-string guitar played with a slide. He experimented with the blues form, constantly inventing something new, as in “We Sure Got Hard Times Now” (Columbia 14558, 1930), sometimes he played dance tunes or comic songs. With his brother “Laughing” Charlie Hicks (who also recorded a solo album under the name Charlie Lincoln) he recorded “Darktown Gamblin” (Columbia 14531, 1930). After Bob’s early death, his brother started drinking and stopped performing. Their former companion Curly Weaver and young Buddy Moss continued to play, Weaver occasionally played with another gifted “12-string player” McTell.

Blind Willie McTell – Country Blues, Ragtime & Piedmont Blues

“Blind” Willie McTell (b. Thomson, Georgia, c. 1898; d. Milledgeville, Georgia, 08/19/1959) enjoyed considerable fame. He attended schools for the blind in Georgia, New York and Michigan and traveled all the way to South America as a popular singer and musician. He was an excellent guitarist and his recordings are instrumental in variety. Even though his voice was higher than that of many Georgia singers, he was perfect for the blues, as exemplified by “Death Cell Blues” (Vocalion 02577, 1933) with his wonderful lyrics. “Mama Tain’t Long Fo ‘Day” (Victor 21124, 1927) from his first session (recorded in Atlanta) reveals his effortless slide style; “Atlanta Strut” (Columbia 14657, 1929) is a ragtime dance theme with unoriginal, impressionistic guitar breakthroughs and a spoken narration. McTell was a true “songster” whose main recordings were the blues. He was one of the most famous bluesmen of the Piedmonts, as singers from northern Georgia, South and North Carolina, and southern Virginia were called.

Willie Walker’s “Blind” also enjoyed great fame in the 1920s, but he made only one recording. He led a string ensemble that included “Blind” Gary Davis, a blues singer at the time; he later rose to fame as an evangelical gospel singer and guitarist. The fact that Walker’s string ensemble was not recorded is a great loss to the history of black music.

— History of Blues Music: Part 2 —

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