R&R: The Origin of the Blues

Tuesday, 19 March, 2013
By Richard Gevers

This is a tale of origin: Africa.

Around two hundred thousand years ago humankind began to formulate language, music and art. A little time later, little red berries were found in the highlands of Ethiopia possessing the bean that has generated so much interest. As music started to take shape and form, West and Central African musicians began crafting instruments like the reed pipe, and the “Akonting”, the ancestor of the banjo. Language, music, art and spirituality formed the basis for culture and expression.

This is where the tale takes a darker turn, as expansion and colonisation collided with the tribes of Africa and the slave trade started its decimation. It was in this way that the reed pipe, the Akonting, and the people of Africa found themselves working the fields of America, singing the call and response work songs as they toiled. It was at this time they encountered gospel, and the message of hope and freedom was incorporated into the music. But evil cannot last forever, and at the turn of the 20th century slavery began to give way to a slightly better situation.

It is here that we find ourselves at the birth of modern blues, as the early bluesmen started to be heard by a larger audience, and some forward thinking producers started to understand there was something special about this music of hardship and toil, a music borne out of suffering and pain. The African American minstrels had gravitated to new tools of the trade, the guitar and the blues harp, developing sounds and styles that would be copied and added to by musicians up to the present.

One of these early blues musicians was Son House, a former preacher who incorporated the emotion and drive of his preaching into his music craft. Most of what is known about guys like House and the other early bluesmen comes from word of mouth, partly as a result of lack of effort put into the records or history of the previous slaves, and partly due to the rudimentary nature of the time.
Although House was popular with his following and is seen as a formative influence on players like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, his early recordings were before the wave of mass interest in the style that came with the Chess Records period. Nevertheless, Jack White on “It Might Get Loud” lists “Grinnin’ In Your Face” as his favourite song.

The heart and soul that comes out of House singing the blues and clapping (technically) out of time inspired White, as it did many musicians before him, to realise the raw force of the blues, even as stripped down as it is.

The song offering here is John the Revelator, a Blind Willlie Johnson cover (Johnson also wrote Dark Was The Night, recently the inspiration for the compilation album of the same name, and Its Nobody's Fault But Mine covered by Led Zeppelin).

Son House – John the Revelator*
The list of artists that Sonny Boy Williamson II has inspired and influenced reads like a list of all time greats, with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, The Alman Brothers Band, The Doobie Brothers, Canned Heat and many more covering tracks such as Bring It On Home (below)

Eyesight To The Blind and Nine Below Zero. If you don’t watch the other videos in this post, please watch this. It shows everything about Williamson, his natural style and charisma, the blues harp an extension of both his hand and voice, this man just oozed the blues, right down to the “oh yeah’ as he starts.

Sonny Boy Williamson II – Nine Below Zero*
Myth and truth dance around each other in the narrative of the early blues, and no one is more central to that narrative then Robert Leroy Johnson. Immortalised through the ‘rediscovery’ of his recordings between 1936 and 1937, the details around his life are shadowed by contradictory civil records and the fact that his career was short and intermittent. When he first became aware of Robert Johnson, Son House described him as a competent harmonica player but an embarrassingly bad guitarist. Johnson seemed to disappear for about two years, and when he returned he had transformed into the quintessential blues musician. Drawing inspiration from various styles he shaped the path of modern music through his voice, harp and guitar, and was a master in all three.
This almost impossibly quick improvement didn’t escape House and others around Johnson, who began to understand that ‘Cross Road Blues’

and ‘Me And The Devil’ might be more than just songs, and that there may have been something supernatural about the big, dark man that Johnson met at the crossroads, who took his guitar from him, tuned it, and gave it back. Great music, and certainly great blues, transcends the physical plane into the spiritual. Perhaps rather than the chessboard or the game of poker, God and the devil chose the blues as their battleground, and Johnson was chosen to level it. Son House certainly thought so, and wasn’t afraid to share it.

The song below, Rambling On My Mind, gives both an appreciation for Johnson’s music and playing, and recognition of his influence on those that came after him. It has the pain and longing of love, the rough edge that was so much a part of Johnson’s life, and an insight into his journeyman lifestyle, not staying in one place too long, no ties to hold him back.

Incidentally, Johnson is alleged to have been killed by a jealous husband. Sonny Boy Williamson tells how he knocked a poisoned bottle of whisky out of Johnson’s hand, only for Johnson to accept another one. His death in 1938 makes him one of the earliest and most significant of the 27 Club, and like Hendrix after him, it is astounding to see the impact such a short and interrupted career had on music.

Robert Johnson – Rambling On My Mind*
So this is a story of the early bluesmen, the men who made the music that inspired Hendrix, Page and Plant, Richards and Jagger, and many more. It was the music that came out of the Dark Continent, the continent that was the cradle of the blues, and the cradle of the bean.

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