Where Did It Come From?

Published February 22, 2018 in Warp & Woof


Where Did It Come From?

How Delta Blues Morphed into All the Music I Like

William Sundwick
What is the music I like? I call it “blues-something” or “something-blues” – roots music critics and historians have many names for many variations of blues. But, since the Music I Like is artistic expression, I’m wary of any taxonomy of styles or “schools.” Artists are entitled to mix and match different styles as they see fit.
Most historians agree on the definition of blues as a style of folk music that was common in the Mississippi Delta in the early 20thcentury. It emphasized rhythm and simple lyrics revolving around economic and romantic difficulties, sometimes with magical (mystical, voodoo) intimations. Its primary vehicles were homemade percussion instruments, harmonica, and slide guitar – and an emotive vocalist.

The first recordings of this music date from the 1920s. But, there’s no reason to think that its origins don’t go back much further.  Alan and John Lomax, ethnomusicologists at the Library of Congress in the 1930s, embarked on field trips to record much of the music of the Delta Blues tradition.  They used primitive magnetic recording techniques with a hand lathe to press wax cylinders or discs. No electricity required, because there wasn’t any in rural Mississippi then. The music was thus preserved — and distributed both in the U.S. and Britain — even if not commercially recorded. 
Also, the music, at this time, was always performed by non-white artists. They were poor black sharecroppers, usually illiterate, and their songs weren’t written down. They learned guitar chords by demonstration and practice. Without the Lomax efforts, few songs would have been recorded.
My own fascination with the genre began in high school, when I decided to let my musical taste make my stand in the civil rights era. I abandoned the classical repertory imposed by my parents – since I clearly was not going to be a musician myself (my father, a failed violinist turned engineer, insisted that I, too, could never make it). The primitive alternative called. These artists had nothing, nobody recognized their talent, they were shunned by white society. And, the social milieu of Flint, Michigan made me pathologically averse to white country music. Those “hillbillys” were the real dregs in 1960s Flint, it seemed. Whatever musical tastes I carried away to college would certainly NOT be theirs! The cultural disconnect was just too great.
In college, I soon discovered that there was a fascinating blues tradition that had bubbled up from the South, making its way during the “Great Migration” into my part of the country.  It was analogous to my own family’s migration, in the opposite direction, from the mining and logging country of the Keweenaw Peninsula to the industrial heartland further south in Michigan. But, they were first generation immigrants from Swedish-speaking Finland, not descendants of slaves.
The Great Migration from the rural South to Chicago and Detroit was driven both by economic and cultural hardship – the black sharecropper was a refugee, not too different from the escaped slave of a few generations earlier. It continued into the 1940s, and WWII. Blacks began to make up a significant portion of the home-front industrial and service workforce in these cities.
They brought their music with them, intact. They performed it in clubs. But, few artists found recording contracts, despite high demand for live performances in both cities. The business side of “Rhythm and Blues” was not very well developed, though. Radio air play (and “payola”) was still in the future – and would find white rock-and-roll or “doo-wop” artists first, when it did arrive.
Friendly record labels and radio stations did exist, however, in selected markets. There was Billboard’s “R&B hits” list, just like there was the “Hot 100” (distilled to “Top 40”).  Two of the larger early labels were Chess Records and Okeh Records. They had already taken chances on some delta blues artists in Memphis, and had a presence in Chicago, as well.
It’s fair to say that there are three distinct generations in the lineage of this music. The first was R&B transplanted from rural Mississippi to Chicago and Detroit (mostly Chicago – only John Lee Hooker is recognizable from Detroit blues in this period). It showed little influence from any other musical styles outside that folk foundation.
The second generation did show some eclectic influences, depending on where it was performed. Most notable was British Blues, this generation’s archetype. It borrowed from delta blues, but there was also something vitally different emerging on the other side of the Pond in the early ‘60s. It was an urban, industrial, white blues — without that peculiar American country flavor. A second generation also reached California, epitomized by a fusion of rock-and-roll with more back-to-the-roots folk blues. The second generation put blues rock into the mainstream.
As rock became more sophisticated, there arose a countervailing desire to simplify and “get back to the basics.” Blues was waiting. The beat, the emotional power of the lyrics, and those guitar riffs got our juices flowing. We wanted more of that, less of the fancy stuff. The third generation took off. It was a revival of traditional blues. In this more diverse time, however, blues had to compete with roots music in the country/folk vein. Lineage is genealogy, after all. As the gene pool has more inputs, the original markings often are obscured.
My iTunes library includes examples from each of the three generations of blues (or “bluesy” rock): 
  •     From the first generation there is John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon. Hooker and King had the longest performing and recording careers of any first-generation blues musician. They were both known as guitar players. The slide guitar was their weapon of choice well. Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf made the harmonica their centerpiece, although Howlin’ Wolf also impressed audiences with his imposing physical presence and voice. He literally howled like a wolf in some of his most famous pieces, covered by many blues rock bands over the years. Little Walter is the only artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame specifically as a harmonica player. Willie Dixon was a bass player, but had an impressive body of songs, covered by multiple blues and blues rock artists. All but Hooker and King were associated primarily with Chicago.       
  •     Second generation blues came from both Britain and California. Good examples are early Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and Cream. On our own Left Coast, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and maybe Creedence Clearwater Revival, carried on the tradition. Although CCR’s background makes them seem more like third generation revival – arriving early. Bob Dylan must be mentioned here, as well. He uniquely in cracked the New York folk scene in Greenwich Village with roots blues music. It was difficult on the East Coast, because of competition from other established pop forms. His audience was ready when he discovered blues, then rock.
  •     George Thorogood and Jack White are examples of third generation blues. They both consGciously brought delta blues and boogie into the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Thorogood with his band, The Destroyers, combines traditional blues/boogie with original songs done in that style. Early in his career he was based in Washington, D.C., often performing in Georgetown opposite the Nighthawks, at places like The Cellar Door. Jack White, a native Detroiter, discovered blues in elementary school. He started an upholstering business before beginning his music career with his wife Meg, forming The White Stripes. They divorced before White Stripes reached its peak popularity in the early aughts — calling themselves siblings for PR purposes. White now lives in Nashville. He sits on the board of the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Foundation, where he is a fervent proponent of following the Lomaxes in the 1930s. His work with the PBS series, American Epic, speaks to his interest in roots music, especially recording apparatuses. 

A fourth generation of blues artists can be imagined, begat by the children of millennials waxing nostalgic for their childhood exposure to the heavy metal and alternative rock of their parents. Those styles aren’t entirely devoid of blues roots. And, there might even be a folk revival, reflecting synergy of African-American and white country roots. One candidate is the British group Mumford and Sons. They feature an interesting mix of R&B, folk, and Gospel in many of their numbers.
Our affinity for the Music We Like seems to be driven mostly by nostalgia for our respective youths. Hence, age becomes the main predictor of one’s musical tastes. But, cultural affiliation also plays an important secondary role, some would say equal role.
If we remember first generation blues, it might be because of performers of great longevity, like John Lee Hooker, or B.B. King. If we are either slightly younger or were just focused on Top 40 songs in the sixties, we’re likely drawn to second generation blues. Gen-Xers may have fond memories of the third-generation blues revival associated with their youth.
My millennial offspring only know the blues form from me (youngest had never heard of John Lee Hooker until I told him about this post). I’ve succeeded in exposing them to early Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream. I’m not sure it has supplanted their own youthful experiences with hip hop and techno/electronic music, though. My oldest knows Jack White but thinks he’s “over-rated.”
Hmmm. Perhaps they’re missing the proper cultural affiliation?

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