Story of the Blues
if you’ve got plenty of feeling but your technique lets you down - try playing the blues
If you like your music to have plenty of feeling, look no further than the blues. They're easy to play, and contrary to popular belief they don't have to be simplistic, monotonous, or miserable.
THE BLUES WERE BORN under a bad sign. Often the victim of misconception and bigotry, or dismissed as simplistic, the style has never received the critical or commercial acclaim it deserves. Its importance, however, should not be underestimated. Without the blues, there would be no soul, no rock, no funk.
Of all the stereotypical images of the blues, the most enduring is of an old man sitting in a log cabin, strumming a guitar made from the bits of wood that weren't needed to build his home. But blues contains such a diversity of styles, and is played by so many musicians of different backgrounds, that this image could not be further from the truth.
Many people view the blues as miserable. Not surprising, since it does contain endless references to death, despair, alcoholism, infidelity, and any other number of subjects guaranteed to make you want to top yourself. But blues can also lift the spirit and, most importantly, make you want to dance. There is also great humour in many blues songs. Listen to B B King coming to terms with his lady friend's ingratitude in 'How Blue Can You Get?' as he cries "I gave you seven children, and now you want to give 'em back!" or to Sonny Boy Williamson vowing never to get romantically involved again in his song 'Fattening Frogs and Snakes'.
One of the best things about the blues is that you don't have to be a musical genius to be able to play them. It's no coincidence that most music tutor books begin with basic 12-bar blues progressions to introduce students to playing music.
But blues is not simple or one-dimensional. It's possible to get a lot out of the blues in a relatively short time, yet it can take years of playing to just scratch the surface of all the possibilities the music can offer. Countless musicians begin their careers by learning to play "a blues in E" and still end up, years later, wondering how B B King or Albert Collins do it.
In blues, feeling is more important than employing a brilliant technique. True, you don't have to have been to the bottom of the black pit of despair and back again - but it helps! I know because I find I play the blues best just after Crystal Palace have suffered another crushing defeat...
You'll discover that even a brief look at blues will help your playing, whatever your chosen style of music. It may seem difficult today to see how somebody like Blind Lemon Jefferson could in part be responsible for Napalm Death or Extreme Noise Terror, but the link is definitely there.
The blues are first and foremost American, but the style derives its traditions from the African music brought to the United States with the slaves of the early 19th Century. Despite their emancipation after the Civil War, they remained mainly in the South in conditions of poverty and continued racial segregation. For many, life consisted of hard labouring on the plantations, with little or no education and a comparatively limited life expectancy. Their only escape from this hardship was Christianity and the music they used in their worship. Gospel and spiritual styles of music had a profound effect on many blues players. B B King, for example, wanted to be a spiritual singer before he became a blues singer.
Like many of his contemporaries, King began singing in the congregation at local church services and played in a gospel band. As a youngster he was also influenced by the leading bluesmen of the day such as Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin' Wolf. They inspired King in much the same way as he would later inspire the guitarists of the rock generation.
The 1940s saw the beginning of a massive migration of America's rural black population into the industrialised cities of the North and West. This provided the catalyst for significant changes in the style of blues music. As the new urban black population filled the bars and clubs of the cities, they looked for a musical style more in keeping with their new surroundings. So, although rural blues continued in the country, it was replaced in the towns by a harder, more aggressive sound. This happened partly because of the desire for something more relevant to city life, but also because the musicians found themselves unable to be heard above their audience and began switching to amplified instruments. With the increased volume came a more "rocking" sound, accompanied by driving rhythms. The music also became rougher in content, and subtlety was less important.
The '50s were a fertile time for blues music. Many artists had to come up from the South to record companies that had sprung up to cater for the blues market. The major record labels of the day weren't interested in r'n'b, and they left the market to be exploited by such labels as Chess, Veejay and Specialty.
Among those at the forefront of blues in the '50s were Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker. Muddy Waters is probably the central figure in blues history, and in his heyday produced hits that would go on to become standards for blues bands all over the world. They included such classics as 'Hoochie Coochie Man' and 'Got My Mojo Working'. Waters' music was as aggressive as it was arrogant. The result was brilliant. His band featured talents such as Little Walter on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on guitar and pianist Otis Spann, all brilliant players in their own right. And Muddy Waters also played a significant part in the British blues boom, inspiring many with his playing.
As well as the independent record companies, the 1950s also saw a proliferation of US radio stations seeking to cater for a black audience. These proved vital in providing airtime from which it could be heard by (increasing) numbers of white listeners. The music also found an outlet in the desegregated clubs of the West Coast, particularly in Los Angeles, giving whites further opportunities to pick up on the music. The seeds of rock 'n' roll were being sown.
While white musicians were beginning to combine the influences of rhythm and blues with their own traditions of country music, blacks such as Little Richard and Fats Domino were adding a slightly country feel to their work. That they did so eventually enabled them to cross over into the rock 'n' roll market and gain commercial success. Along with Chuck Berry, they were regarded as stars of rock'n'roll, even though their music is blues.
By the end of the '50s, blues' influence was on the wane as rock 'n' roll swept America and then Britain, before settling down in the cosy, sugar coated format more acceptable to mums, dads and record companies. The monster had been tamed and the blues that spawned it forced back into the bars and clubs of the black ghettoes.
Throughout its history, however, the blues have been known for comebacks (unlike Crystal Palace). And as the charts heaved under the glutinous weight of Fabian and Frankie Avalon records, the flame continued to flicker on both sides of the Atlantic.
In English ports such as Liverpool, audiences had access to rare imported r'n'b records brought back from the States by merchant seamen. These records would eventually inspire a young wave of home-grown talent playing the music of black America.
In London, meanwhile, a small group of enthusiasts involved in the jazz scene sought to broaden the horizons of their audience by bringing over American blues players such as Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, as well as Muddy Waters who, on an earlier visit, shocked everyone with the "deafening" levels of his electric guitar.
In the early 1960s interest in the blues increased and, partly due to the reluctance of the jazz audience to accept blues, a small basement-club blues culture emerged. The young Paul Jones, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger would go to sit in on loose jamming sessions, and occasionally to back the visiting Americans. A future wave of British r'n'b groups would spring from these early sessions, with the passionate support of men like Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies. It wasn't long before scruffy bands were pounding out blues songs to enthusiastic young audiences. The Rolling Stones (named after a Muddy Waters song), Manfred Mann, and the Yardbirds were among those leading a blues boom that would eventually see the music exported back to America.
They were soon joined by bands from all over the country, as r'n'b took Britain by storm. The Animals from Newcastle and Them from Belfast, with their young singer Van Morrison, followed the path, playing songs such as 'House of The Rising Sun' and 'Baby Please Don't Go'.
Like numerous fashions since, the British rhythm and blues boom was comparatively short lived. No sooner, it seemed, had a band hit the charts than their blues style was cast aside and replaced with a more commercial sound. Very few of Manfred Mann's chart hits, for instance, could be thought of as blues songs.
The blues were once more being forced out, but steadfastly refused to die. In Chicago, younger players like Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Luther Allison appeared, while in Britain John Mayall's band, the Bluesbreakers, stayed true to the genre with almost puritanical fanaticism. Eric Clapton had joined them after leaving the Yardbirds, whom he felt were becoming too commercial. He was one of a succession of fine guitarists who served with the Bluesbreakers before going on to greater things. Others included Mick Taylor (Brian Jones' eventual replacement in the Stones) and Peter Green, founder of Fleetwood Mac.
These guitarists went on to be leaders of the "progressive" blues movement of the late '60s. But just as crucially, they were quite vocal in citing the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf as inspiration - helping those innovators finally to win the kind of recognition they deserved.
The late '60s saw Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat and The Electric Flag, among others, taking the blues into a different dimension. The result was the "progressive" music of the 1970s, in which long self-indulgent solos were allied to a previously unimportant virtuosity. Ironically, this was at a time when "traditional" blues were at their lowest ebb, reverting to the pubs and clubs, but with nothing like the strength of previous eras.
As the decade wore on, however, the energy of punk gave audiences a fresh desire to see live music played in smaller venues instead of stadiums, creating the foundation for yet another blues revival. Momentum continued to build during an ill-fated Mod revival (anyone remember Secret Affair?) which, if nothing else, at least inspired renewed interest in the work of '60s r'n'b bands.
Paul Jones, formerly of Manfred Mann, reappeared in The Blues Band, while Nine Below Zero played hot, sweaty gigs at the Marquee with numbers like 'Got My Mojo Working' an integral part of their set.
Interest in blues has remained steady since and in the last couple of years has strengthened, although many of the old bluesmen are now dead. Muddy Waters passed away in 1983; ironically, his 'Mannish Boy' has since been immortalised in the Levi's "ice-box" ad, and he's subsequently gained a new popularity. Howlin' Wolf and Lightning Hopkins are also gone, but with recent album reissues revitalising interest, the blues are booming for those still treading the boards. B B King and Albert Collins tour almost constantly, and John Lee Hooker has played gigs here in the last year or so. King's popularity has been bolstered by his appearance with U2 on 'When Love Comes To Town', and he recently enjoyed a sellout tour of the UK.
The old guard have been joined by younger players too, such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray, whose recent success has surpassed anything previously achieved by a blues musician. In British pubs and clubs, Howlin' Wilf and the Veejays, Steve Marriott, and the Wilko Johnson Band are all playing the blues night in, night out.
The best way to hear the blues is live, but there's plenty of choice on record as well. Companies such as Charly, Ace, and Edsel release new and old records at a prodigious rate. Most high street record stores have blues sections, and local independent record shops should be willing to help you find more obscure material if you want it. As with jazz, many blues record sleeves feature excellent written biographies that are also a good source of information.
Sadly, television and radio still neglect blues (they always have), but in a way this makes the discovery of a really good track all the more pleasing when you find it.
Whichever way you go about it, once you've discovered the blues, you need never be miserable again.
Feature by Tony Matthews
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