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American Music Part 3, the Blues
by Pril Stevenson
You knew this was coming.
What does a barreling-towards-middle-age white girl with an SUV that grew up in the more rarefied suburbs of Los Angeles during the ‘70s and ‘80s know about the blues?
Not a fucking thing.
It doesn’t matter, though.
You could argue for days- nay months- with people about what the blues is and isn’t. Or whether it matters what is and what isn’t. Or if so-and-so was blues or more like jazz, and where does one draw the line, because it blurs a lot. But it’s a thing that you have to listen to yourself, and draw your own conclusions about it.
The story of blues is a long and winding journey through American history, beginning with the first slave ship in the late 1600s, passing through the Civil War and spreading through the country slowly, very slowly, so slowly it was nearly forgotten during the Civil Rights era, when it went overseas and came back a few years later as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Cream, etc. It was almost forgotten again, but still out there, buried in the funk and the disco. In 1980 or so it reappeared again in a dingy bar in Texas, going by the name Stevie Vaughn. That was right around the same time that John Belushi had seen Curtis Salgado in Eugene, Oregon (as unlikely a place to be bit by the blues bug as any) while he was filming “Animal House”. Curtis was the inspiration behind “The Blues Brothers”. When Dan Akroyd helped open the House of Blues chain, the blues was finally mainstream.
So, there you have the short story. It’s easier, of course, to look at the most recent 50 years. But I’m going to show you the past. Like old country, there’s a definite root to what you now recognize as blues. Robert Johnson is probably the most famous of the real early blues players. Only two pictures of him exist. The songs he recorded were often reworked and rereleased as something else, but if you heard the originals, there was no mistaking where so many other songs came from.
Get thee a Robert Johnson album, and listen well. From then on out, you’ll hear his ghost in almost every Led Zeppelin song, nearly every song Eric Clapton has ever recorded, and in just about any other blues song you listen to.
Muddy Waters. You know what Jimi Hendrix had to say about Muddy? “The first guitarist I was aware of was Muddy Waters. I heard one of his records when I was a little boy, and it scared me to death”. Muddy was one of the first bluesmen to work with an electric guitar. I figure, if he scared Jimi, he’s worth hearing and there ain’t no more to say.
Ledbelly, also known as Huddy Ledbetter, did crazy blues shit on a 12-string. I have a hard time with some of this blues stuff on a 6 string. But I guess if all you have is a 12, then that’s what you play.
There are the Kings, who are not related. Albert, BB, Freddie. “Born Under a Bad Sign” is an Albert King song, and the solo on Cream’s “Strange Brew” is almost entirely swiped from Albert’s “Cross-Cut Saw”. Some folks call “Disraeli Gears” the Albert King Tribute Album.
BB, oh BB, where would we be without this man. BB is to electric blues as Parker is to jazz. If you ask the average person who they think of first when you say “The Blues”, I’d bet the answer is either BB King or Stevie Ray Vaughn. More likely BB. BB is the definition of modern blues.
And now Freddie, a Texan, and we all know everything in Texas is big. Freddie’s blues comes from guys like Lightnin Hopkins and T-Bone walker. To hear Freddie King is to hear a real nice blending of the western part of Country and Western and the blues, in the style of Blind Lemon Jefferson. Who himself influenced both genre’s on his own.
So these are some of the big guys, and you hear them whenever you turn on the classic rock station. You probably just didn’t realize you were hearing them. But there you have it.
Other people who are absolutely worth listening to are Skip James, Charlie Christian and John Lee Hooker.
I never even touched the women, but the first blues records were recorded by women. They were mostly vocal albums with a backup band. Koko Taylor- you must hear her. Bonnie Raitt, you already know her, but she’s more accomplished than a lot of people (myself included) ever realized. A red-headed blueswoman, who would have though of such a thing. Damn.
I haven’t touched Okeh records, either, but I probably will.