Muddy Waters. Ma Rainey. Jimmy Reed. John Lee Hooker. B.B. King. Stevie Ray Vaughan. To the uninitiated these names mean very little to nothing, but to lovers of the Blues, they are the Renaissance painters of their medium. Where Rembrandt used dramatic differences of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) in his paintings to add complexity to a scene, these masters of six strings used dramatic bends of their guitar and unconventional finger styles to add raw emotion to a song. They could paint a picture with every pluck of a string and tell a story with just a few notes. When words are uttered, they are rarely done in an angelic trained voice but are often sang with a roughness that is the long, hard history that is the Blues.
Blues originated like most “new” forms of music as a conglomeration of existing musical styles. In the case of the Blues, it originated with African Americans in the Deep South of the United States around the end of the 19th century. Its roots are deeply ingrained within African-American work songs from the era of Slavery, as well as Spirituals, Hymns, and European American Folk music. Because of the Blues originated in a post Civil War United States within African American communities, it is often seen as a chronicle musical style, that recorded the plight of African Americans during that time. The Blues literally refers to “blue devils”, which was a colloquialism for melancholy and sadness. Blues artists have often said that to be a great performer and musician (of Blues music) you have to be happily sad, referring to the fact that Blues music was often used much like a coping mechanism in early African American society. They sang of their united plight, delighting in their unity of lamenting their situation. This mindset is what led to its spread outside of African American circles bridging a gap, if only slightly, between the segregated groups in the United States.
The first publication of blues sheet music was in 1908. Antonio Maggio’s “I Got the Blues” was the first published song to referenced the word blues. Mamie Smith was the first African American to be recorded in 1920 with her rendition of Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues”. The “Roaring 20’s” brought decadence and opulence to the upper class and anger to the lower. While the rich had big bands and jazz, the lower class had the Blues. The following decade was ravaged by the Great Depression. Blues music had become a nationally beloved genre, not just a regional style. It spoke to the hearts and minds of the times. Its roots in slavery and the working class struggle of the downtrodden captured a hurting nation. It let others, through the advent of the radio, feel unified in their discontent for the state of the world. Words speaking of loneliness, through the power of the Blues, were the very thing that brought togetherness.
In post war America, the Blues found new life in the budding incomes of the urban migration. Terms like “race record”, a popular exclusionary term used by the music industry, were soon replaced by “Rhythm and Blues”. This change was reflected by Billboard Magazine‘s new Rhythm and Blues chart. Blues music adopted electric guitars and amplification and became the cornerstone of modern Rock and Roll was born. Many of the bands that have dominated the charts for the past fifty years such as Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and the Who all drew inspiration from the Blues. That being said, many people have never taken the time to listen to the pioneers that paved the way for these artists. Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues”, may fade into obscurity while Janis Joplin’s name remains. The Rolling Stones will continue to sell albums long after they are gone while Jimmy Reed disappears from public memory.
MOXIE Cafe isn’t a place that like to let the past drift too far from the present. A love for history is apparent from the moment you step through our doors. We remember where we came from and think everyone should have the change to see and hear the stories from our collective past that have helped to shape our shared present. We are happy to announce our BLUES & BREWS event this Friday, August 26th, 2016. We will be welcoming long time friends About Time, Joe Payne, and others for a night of good music and great food.
If you have never listened to the Blues, or perhaps this piece just got you in the mood to shuffle along with the bass, here are some songs to get you started:
B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel”
Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City”
Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughn “Blues Jam Session”