Folk Blues

Blues Country


Folk music was always communicated aurally, it was taught through performance and learned by ear rather than from written material. This was the type of music that was found all over the world, intensely participative and using the same musical devices (rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre) but varying in detail with different cultures.

The music was usually performed by community members who were not trained professionals. It was closely related to life activities - work, religion, love, despair and child rearing. Folk songs were passed from singer to singer, constantly changing reflecting differences in creativity, faulty memory and other variables. A folk song therefore tended to develop gradually over time. Many people participated in determining the shape of a folk song, it was a communal creation. Folk music was also inevitably influenced by nearby cultures.

The Blues was a folk music but very different, an propitious blending of music from two very distant cultures. The Blues were a very personal music, a baring of the soul, deeply ingrained in African rhythm and jazz; the Blues formed the 'backbone' of the evolution of jazz and popular music, feeding in characteristic sounds to all genres.

The location of the origin of the blues was a remarkably specific triangle of invention running from Broadway in Nashville to Beale Street in Memphis to Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

In 1867 a collection of 137 songs was published as 'Slave Songs of the United States', but they were mainly spirituals not Blues.

In the late 1800s the Blues were developing as a musical genre in the rural South, a process complete by 1910.

Folk Blues or Country Blues -

riveting laments of the rural South, from the fields and the hollers, to the churches and the line outs  

the blues migrated from the fields to the churches and to the cities with the jobs

most experts agree that the blues form evolved from the formal structure of the folk ballad, using African rhythms and melodies combined with European harmonies. The European aspects of the folk ballad and harmonies provided a structure in which the African stylistic aspects could grow

church and work fed a music which became a powerful antidote to Jim Crow laws - a strange mix 'the devil's music', with roots in field songs, spirituals and the Irish / English / Scottish ballads, (the flip side of black gospel)

initially the blues were a melancholy compliment to a hard life expressing the slaves' views on oppression through music, a distinction that is a trademark of the blues - but the vehicle was so flexible it appeared and reappeared everywhere for every mood, including 'good time' music of the 'Saturday Night Function'  

playing the blues removes the pain of life, the stories are as important as the music

the blues inspired the fusion of the New Orleans dance hall bands with the hot parade bands

the blues inspired country music and all jazz, always staying close to popular taste - boogie woogie, rhythm & blues, rock 'n' roll, soul, rock, gospel and hip hop - a continuous golden thread throughout the 20th century

guitar accompaniment, not banjo, finger picking repetitive driving rhythmic patterns, jumping a 5th and slowly descending

banjos for dance rhythms but the singing guitar for the  blues, the guitar could sing back to the vocalist

tonic and dominant, the big notes, both with flattened 3rds, with a less dramatic subdominant in the second stanza, essentially rhythmic not harmonic

feeling and technique, you can do a lot with the blues because it is simple ... plenty of space ... the whites were impressed but the black blues was hard to catch on paper

the white Minstrels claimed authenticity in imitating black music but they didn't catch the blues - the black singing was irregular, not clear part singing, but nobody appeared to sing the same thing, delicate intonations and subtle rhythms impossible to imitate or write down

the iambic pentameter was the ubiquitous heart beat, di DUM di DUM di DUM di DUM di DUM, the familiar tick-TOCK from the Renaissance poets and may have been absorbed by blues singers through their often limited schooling. But a line like 'I got the blues and can't be satisfied' would never be sung by a blues singer in a strictly metrical manner. Instead, its accents would be displaced, giving life and strength to syllables and words that would otherwise have a weak impact on the listener.

From this we can infer that although some of the basic fundamentals of the genre were derived from European roots, they were ultimately a product of the African slaves in America.

Starting in the rural south, in the first decade of the century, folk blues remained hidden in black culture, heard maybe on street corners and after midnight in the dance dives but of no interest to music publishers or recording companies. Eventually the treasures were tapped by a handful of black song writers who pushed them onto Tin Pan Alley.

When the blues migrated to the city of New Orleans and the horn men started playing, the blues feeling became the essential ingredient of jazz. The 'pomp' of the military brass bands was replaced by the soul of the blues, vibrato, dirt and emotion.

Clearly by the time the old Folk Blues were recorded in 1924 they had been influenced by the commercial success of Classic Blues and Vaudeville Blues.

Samuel ChartersThe Blues Makers by Samuel Charters ... there were many names and fine traditions beautifully written up.

Papa Charlie Jackson (1887-1938) from New Orleans and out of Minstrelsy was the first blues man to record in 1924, as Paramount followed up the success of Mamie Smith's 'Crazy Blues' at  Okeh ... 

Charley Patton (1891-1934) founded the 'Delta Blues' of Mississippi. Son House (1902-88) was one of the group around Charley. Big Joe Williams (1903-82). Skip James (-) another Delta Blues man. Booker T Washington 'Bukka' White (1906-77) learned to sing in the church. Rhythmic percussive intensity and hollerin'.

Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929) was from Texas, 'Texas Blues' were special. Henry Thomas (-) 'Ragtime Texas'. Texas Alexander (-) had a cousin, little Sam Lightnin' Hopkins, he was from Texas also and he played on the road with Blind Lemon and he says, 'The blues was a lot like church? When a preacher's up there preachin' the Bible, he was honest to God tryin' to get you to understand these things. Well, singin' the blues was the same thing'.

There were others; Tampa Red (-), Mississippi John Hurt (1893—1966), Furry Lewis (-), Frank Stokes (-), Sleepy John Estes (-), Memphis Minnie (-), Peg Leg Howard (-) from Atlanta, Willie McTell (-), Blind Blake (-), Buddy Moss (-), Blind Boy Fuller (-), Blind Rev Gary Davis (1896-1972). Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958) from Arkansas. ...

Samuel Charters talked about how these guys played -

'they played with the soft guitar, not the African banjo, there were lots of discarded guitars around. It was a finger picking style to complement the voice, but there was also frailing, the 'straight wrap'. Rhythmic freedom was needed for these guys to tell their stories, a sort of tonal drumming. The tuning was whatever suited, functional harmonies didn't come to the blues until later, but they played what sounded OK for their rich & vital songs. The OK sounds focused on the tonic, dominant & subdominant. The voice tended to be hard and intense with lots of descending phrases. The rises tended to be steep and the falls gentle. And there were lots of repetitive rhythmic patterns and irregular hesitations for the axe from the work songs and breaks for the field holler. The scales were loosely pentatonics of all folk music with the intriguing blue notes thrown in. as melodies meandered. Pleasing tendencies established themselves like the introduction of the subdominant in the second line, the tonic and dominants were strong but the third strangely ambiguous. The left hand changed the tones to follow the voice and the right hand picked a rhythm. Sometimes they'd alternate the tonic and dominant in a base line. These guys were experimenting, a bit irreligiously. There were bottle necks and tinges from Spain, vocal embellishments, doubling up, mordents, melismas, and ambiguous thirds & the altered seventh were everywhere. The style was strong. intense & unrelenting. There were also little breakdown bands all over the south ... but especially at the musical crossroads in Memphis. these bands were exciting, playing comedy songs, minstrel songs, and instrumental breakdowns, with banjos high brilliance ringing out, with 'hammering on' and 'pulling off' and all manner of Medicine Show hokum, brilliant, irascible, sensitive, irrepressible and musical'.

Cowboy SongsJohn Avery Lomax (1867-1948) the Lomax family knew Mississippi and settled in Texas in 1869. They were cowhands and grew cotton and corn and all around them were freed slaves and their captivating music. Of course there had always been cowboys songs but now competing for attention were the rhythms of the blues. John Lomax became a teacher and developed a life long interest, even obsession, with Ameerican folk songs and blues. In 1910 he published his first book, 'Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads'; an introduction by Theodore Roosevelt guaranteed the success of a major contribution to Afro American music. In 1912 John A Lomax became the president of the American Folklore Society. The obsession was to compile a body of folklore before it disappeared. The eventual result was a collection of 10,000+ recordings for the Library of Congress. The recordings were funded by the library and grants from the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation. The project started in 1932 and occupied the whole of the Lomax family for 10 years.

Alan LomaxAlan Lomax (1915–2002) the second son, followed in his father's footsteps and became not only an 'authority' but also a prolific recorder of the Blues ... and the guitar ... 

The 'commercial' recordings of the blues from 1920 did not reflect the rich history of 'folk blues' which preceded them. The dates were important, because the Lomax recordings of 1932 identified the beginnings of a musical evolution which had long since spawned a new genres of Afro American music ... including Jazz, Classic Blues and Gospel ...

 Josh White & Burl Ives as well as the raw Woody Guthrie were also recorded ...

The Lomax legacy was an important complement to the commercial race recordings which were proving to be very popular.

The black folk blues market developed for the urban middle class. The white rural working class in the south went for hillbilly.

All these guys listened and they played the music they heard around them ... the style differentiations only appeared with hind sight ... was there a difference between Delta Blues and Texas Blues, between Country Blues and Folk Blues, or did everybody just play their own thing? For certain, what ever label stuck as a descriptive, the label itself only appeared long after folk played the music? Classifying the music was a distraction, folk had to understand what the blues were really about ... but so many questions always remained ...

It occurred to the Lomaxs that the prisons might house practitioners of the old Negro blues and they set out to record work the songs, reels, ballads and blues of the prisoners themselves, partcularly those who had been isolated from the many popular developments and were still singing the past!

In 1933 they visited Louisiana State Penitentiary and discovered a twelve-string guitar player, Huddie Ledbetter, 'Lead Belly', and an influential part of the history of Negro folk songs was opened up ...

Leadbelly largely played a simple thumb and strum style not very distant from Maybelle Carter's folk style. Broonzy, Josh White, Lonnie Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt were similar, perhaps with a little more single string melody lines. This was a gentle sound and more acceptable to white audiences. The raw edge had gone. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson played a more driving, rhythmic style with dominant fills between the lines and innovative speed-up & slow down rhythms which created a groove. This was the line that led via T-Bone to the electric blues of Muddy Waters & Elmore James and also fed into Rock'n' Roll via Chuck Berry & Buddy Holly. This blues style in the end was much more influencial than Leadbelly's early efforts.

Some of the great blues guitar players -

Lead BellyHuddie Ledbetter (1888-1949) came out of prison & dropped folk songs for the blues and played duets with the great Blind Lemon Jefferson - 'Midnight Special' - 'Goodnight Irene' was his signature tune ... Lead Belly's style included a combination of wonderfully rhythmic bass lines and chords in accompaniment and solos; damping of the bass strings & chords; fast call & response of the index finger & thumb, syncopated bass runs; bass triplets; use of dissonance; the blues & major chords with minor inflections; full chord slide playing; index finger melodies alternating with thumbed bass patterns; a distinctive approach to chordal harmonic accompaniment. Lead Belly's music was soft and appealled to white audiences.

Lead Belly did not record until 1934-42 for the Library of Congress.

british skiffle in the 1950s was inspired by Lead Belly ...

Lonnie Johnson (1889–1970) born in New Orleans. He accompanied his singing on guitar in a country blues style. After working in Storyville and on Fate Marable’s steamboats, he took the folk blues into jazz. He played blues guitar with success and recorded some classics.

 It was unusual, at the time, for a country blues artist to cross over and make jazz recordings with artists like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Even more unusual, Johnson made a series of recordings with the white guitarist Eddie Lang (1902–1933) ...

Johnny St Cyr (1890–1966) was a jazz banjoist and guitarist. Born in New Orleans where Baptist church rhythms intrigued him from an early age he played in bands from the start but often only two instruments -

'there'd often be only two instruments; violin, trumpet or clarinet and guitar. To compensate for having no bass or drums he used a lot of bass figures in his playing. Enough bass line on guitar to balance the band. Playing the chord with his fingers and his own accompaniment with his thumb. Personally I prefer the guitar to the banjo. It's the first rhythm in a Dixieland band. The banjo was popular since 1917 but before that the guitar was always the foundation'

In this way as a band player St Cyr ended up in the same place as the blues and country guitar players!

Charley Patton / Charlie Patton, his only known photograph.Charlie Patton (1891-1934) was born in Mississippi and moved to the Dockery Plantation sawmill and cotton farm near Ruleville, in 1900. Here both John Lee Hooker (-) and Howlin' Wolf (-) fell under the Patton spell. It was also here that Robert Johnson played and was given his first guitar.

Charlie become an accomplished performer and songwriter and wrote 'Pony Blues' the seminal song of the era.

With power and showmanship his guitar style was essentially rhythmic with typical bottle neck slides and ragged interjections. There was not yet the driving propulsive continuity of the blues groove.

He also played deep blues, white hillbilly songs, nineteenth-century ballads, and other varieties of black and white country dance music with equal facility.

Charlie Patton recorded for Gennett in 1929.

But he wasn't the first of the blues singers to record, Papa Charlie Jackson from Minstrelsy recorded in 1924 for Paramount. In 1925 Paramount invited Blind Lemon to record some 'Race Records' ... he was the first to record the 'old' blues ... as Paramount tried to build on the success of the Classic Blues recordings of Mamie Smith and the girls from 1920.

Although Charlie Patton was a couple of years older time has proved that it was Blind Lemon Jefferson that led the field ... 

Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929) was from Texas and sang the early blues. In the 1920s he recorded long intricate solo lines as accompaniment to his distinctive high pitched voice. Innovative guitar playing with intricate hot melodic lead lines and single string arpeggios, punctuated by irregular phrasing & repeating dynamic bass runs on the lower guitar strings; fascinating jazz like improvisations.  All manner of bent notes & imitative effects and call & response interactions with his lyrics & leads ... in all keys with all tunings ... perhaps too advanced to be widely copied but nevertheless highly influential - 'Matchbox Blues' ...

Blind Lemon's style was raw and black, he developed & taught Lead Belly long lines of single note runs to accompany his singing. Just a man and his guitar in free form, there were no 12 bar 3 chord tricks at this stage.

'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean' introduced the ever present rhythms of the church spiritual ... relentless riffs.

By 1926 the first commercial recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Folk Blues started to squeeze out the Classic Blues.

'Musical Innovation in the Blues' by David Evans, Professor of Music, University of Memphis, 2000.

Blind Lemon wasn't the first to record Folk Blues, but he was the most popular and most influential. The Afro Americans loved him. The success of his records opened the door for hundreds of other guitar playing blue singers and pianists, band, jugs, skiffle, hokum ... the 1920 blues recording artists were largely from Vaudeville ... but for sure there were many like Lemon just singing and accompanying himself on guitar and plying his trade on the streets!

The style was not just a chordal accompaniment to singing with a few bass runs as fills which was a Minstrel and Vaudeville style but rather more a singing style with a responsive talking instrument. Blind Lemon elevated the guitar to a second independent voice to his blues. This was the solo blues where the voice had a conversation with the instrument, on the street corners, at the house parties & picnics, the honky tonks and even the small travelling shows. Lonnie Johnson was his commercial rival and he too established the instrument as independent voice to rival vocalist and horn players with whom he recorded. But Jefferson played something different; the real old blues, the emotional lines of sorrow and excitement with dazzling guitar responses. Here was something new, innovative & expansive within an old tradition. Typical of what hundreds were doing as the Blues tradition of the southern states. His style hadn't crystallised into the Classic Blues and Blind Lemon was loose and flexible, wide vocal range, long descending phrases, extended or stretched bar sequences and tempos, not only flexible vocal lines but also flexible guitar responses. His habit of breaking time grasped the attention of listeners but caused difficulties for dancers. But perhaps the Folk Blues tradition was largely about story telling for listeners not about grooves for dancers. Blind Lemon didn't play with a beat; you couldn't dance to his music although Ragtime, Boogie Woogie, 3 over 4 cross rhythms all featured, and this was all before the pianists turned ragtime into boogie. The harmonies were also not strict circle of 5ths although the ideas were there ... but loose ... he was his own man playing on his own ... the coherence of the Folk Blues was not really established until Robert Johnson recorded his classic sides in 1936. Blind Lemon didn't record until 1926 but the music he was playing was the Folk Blues from way back ... way back ...

Blind Lemon Jefferson was like everyone else, sounds were in the air and he heard them and then played his own thing. But for sure T Bone heard Blind Lemon and listened ... and Charlie Christian was from Texas ... but Charlie was different he was playing with others in a band!

Blind Lemon's influence defined Texas Blues and inspired Lightnin' Hopkins (-) and T-Bone Walker (1910-75). During the Great Depression bluesmen moved to cities and a new wave of popular performers appeared.
T-Bone Walker relocated to Los Angeles to record his most influential work in the 1940s.
His R&B-influenced backing and saxophone-imitating lead guitar sound would become an influential part of the electric blues sound that would be perfected in Chicago by artists like Muddy Waters.

T-Bone WalkerAaron Thibeaux T-Bone Walker (1910-75) was inspired by Blind Lemon's lines and became a teenage protégé. A pioneer in the development of modern blues and was one of the first with an electric guitar sound that influenced most of the modern guitar players. His musical roots can be found in Texas country blues and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

In 1939, Walker joined Les Hite’s Cotton Club Orchestra. He first recorded as T-Bone Walker in 1942, and 'Stormy Monday' was his biggest hit the following year.

Rolling Stone suggested that when B B King heard T-Bone Walker, he 'thought Jesus Himself had returned to Earth playing electric guitar'. Walker invented the guitar solo as we know it, building a new style on fluid phrasing, bluesy bends and vibrato. Clearly following his idol Blind Lemon. It was the clear tone and melodic invention of his 1942 single 'Mean Old World' that blew everyone's mind as Walker refined his approach. Walker himself said, 'I came into this world a little too soon, I'd say that I was about 30 years before my time'. Charlie Christian would have agreed ...

In the 1940s T-Bone was the fundamental source of the modern urban style, a star R&B player & singer and, through him, B B King learned all he knew ... and Chuck Berry ... the Blues weres different before T-Bone ...

Robert JohnsonRobert Johnson (1911-37) was dirt poor and died at 27 ... but what a blues guitarist! There was a definitive set of recordings from 1936 which encapsulated the rural blues of the south. Influenced by Son House and he himself was the influence on Muddy Waters, the classic Mississippi blues, the delta style took root ... eventually running into Chuck Berry and The Beatles ...  & particularly, Eric Clapton & The Rolling Stones. The Brits got real on Robert Johnson!

It was all women, unfaithfulness, the devil & lonely travellin' ... deep sex of sadness & joy ... like all the blues ... but then Robert Johnson was always a boy, all the life ... and for sure Robert Johnson 'rocked' listen to his driving rhythm!

A loner driftin' down the sun baked road from town to town, from girl to girl - 'Hellhound on my Trail'- 'Cross Road Blues'

The Guitar ...

The roots of the guitar were in Spain and New Orleans was full of them.

Guitar BluesBlues Keith RichardsThe banjo was a bit of fun but a bit crude, dirty and embarrassing. However the guitar was for elevated musicians; it was a Spanish guitar. The guitar was too quiet to be played in bands with drums and horns but it was just right for the Blues.

The recorded bluesmen played the guitar not the banjo. The guitar was soft, low tension gut strung with a mellow sound for accompaniment ... the banjo was a statement instrument to be heard as it plonked out pentatonic scales ... the bluesmen wanted accompaniment for their voices.

For sure these guitar guys were learning as they went along and everybody seemed to have their own methods and tunings ... the guitar could do anything ... ideal for the Blues ...

It was guitar music often with open tuning and a 'bottleneck' fretted slide melismatic effect. Blues were rhythmic and rooted in the pentatonic scale but ...

Blues ScaleThe guitar proved to be more expressive as the blue inflections in the voice were reflected on the guitar; the flattened 3rd and 7th avoided the 'problem' notes on the diatonic scale and the dreaded tritone ... as the gaping holes in the pentatonic scale were filled with interesting offerings! Of course the scales they messed with were also pentatonic and the effect was electric ! A minor pentatonic played over dominant 7 chords gave an inkling of the effect.

 ... the Eb pentatonic played against a blues in C major !

Form, lyrics and timing were unsettlingly flexible as folk played what they felt ... but the Blues were always rhythmic, energetic and emotional.

The three cord trick with picked out the blue notes left the musician free to concentrate on the rhythm and the conversation.

Folk blues later crystallised into the 3 chord 3 stanza form and the Classic Blues became a specific song form. Usually a 12 bar structure with the 3 chord trick. 4 bar phrases AAB. Attack and descending phrases. Fattened third and seventh.

The blues guitar style contributed to the entire song rhythm; harmonies were strummed and melody was picked and bass lines were thumbed. An amazing and similar versatility to the piano. But being the blues it was rhythm that dominated. Above all those base lines could be played and with six strings the build up of the chord was there.

The recorded evidence of the guitar style of Huddie Ledbetter & Blind Lemon Jefferson was significant; bass lines of melody were played with the thumb on the low strings with the fingers rhythmically strumming upper strings chord notes.

Interestingly the guitar became popular in the South only from around 1910. More and more blacks abandoned their native banjo and adopted the guitar with the flexibility to play those bass lines. As the guitar went to black American Blues & Jazz music, the banjo went to white American Country music.

The blues accompaniment style reached a pinnacle with the driving rhythm and the melodic figures of the Robert Johnson guitar. All the familiar jargon was there with Johnson; the pEdal tones and the bass line root-5th, root-6th, root-flat7th. The boogie lines walking up and walking down those strings.  

There was guitar ragtime with 8 bar sequences - A A D D - G G C C ... but nothing like the blues ... it all started with the blues.

Of course others followed -

Django Reinhardt (1910-53) played in gypsy groups from 193?.

Freddie Green (1911–1987) played wonderful rhythm guitar with Count Basie for 50 years from 193?.

Charlie Christian (1916-42) started experimenting around 1939 with the amplified electric guitar with Benny Goodman and the guitar and jazz changed.

Then electric jazz - Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, George Benson, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, George Van Epps, Kenny Burell, Jim Hall, Grant Green, Tal Farlow, Antonio Carlos Jobin, Les Paul & Mary Ford.

And the electric blues - Chuck Berry, Hank Marvin, Dick Dale, George Harrison, Keith Richard, Steve Cropper, Chet Atkins, Jerry Read, Glen Campbell, Jimi Hendrick, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Peter Green, Mike Bloomfield, Johnny Winter, Carlos Santana, Richie Blackmore, Frank Zappa ... 


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