Deciphering Culture

CLASS 2: WHAT IS THE BLUES? / BLUES HISTORY (Part #2 – Regional Styles)

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Regional Styles of the blues

By the early 20th century, there were a number of different regional styles of the blues. By the 1920’s, the two most influential styles of the blues were the Delta blues of northwestern Mississippi and the Texas blues of eastern Texas. A primary musical difference between them was their use of two of the sources of the blues—work songs and hollers.

Delta Blues

The Delta blues were based primarily on work songs. Work Songs are chant like with very specific points of rhythmic emphasis and short lyrical and melodic phrases; they are functional pieces of music used to synchronize the work activities of groups of men or women. The video example of a work song is the song “Black Woman” collected by folklorist Alan Lomax in the late 1930s  or early 1940s for the Library of Congress.

Rhythmic with short musical and lyrical phrases, the Delta blues show the influence of work songs on the musical culture of the Mississippi delta area (southwestern Mississippi).

  Charlie Patton has been called “Father of the Delta Blues. Born in the late 1880s or early 1890s, he started performing as a teenager but did not record until he was and therefore one of the oldest known figures of American popular music. In 1900, Patton move to the famous Dockery Plantation and reportedly learned a new musical style from Henry Sloan, an older musician who was playing what would today be considered early blues. Sloan, who never recorded, is also sometimes referred to as the “Father of the Delta Blues.” Blues scholar Robert Palmer wrote that Patton was a “jack-of all-trades bluesman” who played “deep blues, white hillbilly songs, nineteenth-century ballads, and other varieties of black and white country dance music with equal facility” (Deep Blues. 1981. Page 133). Patton was very popular throughout the South and, unlike most itinerant musicians played scheduled performances. He was known for his showmanship, playing his guitar on his knees and behind his back. Patton did not record until 1929 when he was in his late thirties.

At Dockery Plantation, Patton influenced the development of a number of younger blues musicians, including John Lee Hooker and Chester Burnett (a.k.a Howlin’ Wolf – Patton’s gravelly voice was a major influence on Burnett’s vocal style). In the 1950s, Howlin’ Wolf became one of the major stars of the Chicago Blues. By the early 1950s, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), both from the Mississippi delta, had become the two best-known Chicago blues musicians.

Texas Blues

The Texas blues were based primarily on field hollers. Hollers are characterized by a high tone of voice at the top of the singer’s range; rhythmically loose phrasing (long free rhythms); a melodic progression from high to low. The field holler example below (a link) was collected by John Lomax (son of Alan Lomax) and Ruby Lomax in 1939 near Varner, Arkansas — the singer is Lonnie “Stick Horse” Stegall.

Field Holler

In general, Texas blues were characterized by long free rhythms and an emphasis on melody found in field hollers. The most influential of the early Texas blues performers was Blind Lemon Jefferson, a street singer who became the most popular blues recording artist of the 1920’s until his death in 1929.

Largely because the black population was less concentrated in Texas than in other Southern states, the blues style that developed there was influenced by other musical traditions: rural Anglo, Cajun and Creole, Hispanic, Eastern and Central European. By the 1930s, three basic styles of Texas blues emerged: country blues, piano blues, and urban blues. Texas County Blues was a modernization of the early Texas blues of artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson. One of the most popular and influential Texas Country Blues artists was Lightnin’ Hopkins.

By the 1920’s, if not before, the piano was prominently featured in the Texas blues — Texas Piano Blues. One of the most popular Texas Piano Blues artists was Will Ezell.

Will Ezell (selections from Paramount Piano Blues, Vol.2 (1927-1932). Black Swan #12012. 1994).  Recorded between 1927 and 1932.

In the 1930s, a Texas Urban Blues began to develop that incorporated a variety of influences, including Texas country blues & piano blues. One of the influential Texas Urban Blues artists was Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker who would be an instrumental figure in the development of the West Coast Blues. The example below was recorded in 1929 when Walker was using the stage name Oak Cliff T-Bone and had not yet begun to use an electric guitar.

The Blues Move North and West

During the Second World War, there was a massive migration of African Americans out of the South seeking employment in wartime industries and looking for a more tolerant social environment. People followed the main railroad lines out of the South, creating main axes for the migration. Two of the mains routes were from Mississippi to Chicago and from Texas to Los Angeles. The railroad lines also became a route that blues musicians traveled, moving back and forth from Mississippi to Chicago and Texas to California to perform and record.Both the Delta and Texas Blues underwent style changes in their new settings. These two axesMississippi to Chicago and Texas to California—became crucial to the development of post-World War II blues styles.

The Texas-California axis has been largely neglected in contrast to the large amount of attention paid to the Mississippi—Chicago axis. Diverse Texas blues styles that significantly influenced the development of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rhythm & Blues, and contemporary blues styles. Prior to the 1940’s, no significant African American population in California (1930: 81,000 African Americans in California). During the 1940s but during the 1940’s, thousands came to California looking for work in the shipyards of Oakland and Richmond, the oil refineries of Long Beach and Bakersfield, and other war industries (1950, more than 1/2 million African Americans in California).


Written by Jeffrey Callen

April 4, 2010 at 1:20 pm

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