American Music, Part 4: The Blues, Part 2.
by Pril Stevenson
Sometimes the blues sneaks up on you so fast and so easy, you can’t help but look around to see if maybe R.L. Burnside came up behind you and hit you on the head with a frying pan or something.
This article is going to be about the women of the blues, but first, I’d like to say goodbye to Paul DeLay, one of the great modern blues harp players, who passed away a couple of weeks ago from leukemia. His last show was right here in Klamath Falls, and I managed to miss it.
As I’ve mentioned before, the first blues recording was of a woman, in 1920. Her name was Mamie Smith, and the song was “Crazy Blues”, on the Okeh label. Mamie Smith was previously a Vaudeville performer. The record was a huge hit, and Columbia took note and released the same song by another singer, Mary Stafford. Columbia, by the way, asked that the writer of the song waive his publisher’s royalties (the writer was Perry Bradford), which he would not. Of course, Columbia re-recorded it anyway.
A reader wondered how blues got from the early vocal-based performances to being mostly guitar-driven. Technology, probably, at least part of it. In 1925, microphones were introduced. There’s a noticeable difference in clarity of recordings made prior to 1925 compared to post-’25.
But, more about the ladies, because that’s what this one is about, after all.
Female singers dominated the blues until around 1930. Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith are part of a core group that has come to be called Classic Blues. That link has a really great, short history of early twentieth and late nineteenth century blues, by the way, which revolves entirely around the women.
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins. She’s one you’ve got to hear. She recorded from the ‘50s all the way up to the new century. There’s a woman who went to hell and came back to sing about it, a couple of times. Her voice oozes the blues. Etta is to vocal performance as BB is to guitar.
Koko Taylor, I’m familiar with through a friend who might as well have “hardcore Koko fan” tattooed across her forehead. When she sings Koko’s songs at our blues jams, she’s in another place. I swear she channels Koko right here to Klamath Falls, and wonder if maybe Koko might feel a little energy of hers heading in our direction in the middle of the night or something. Koko’s voice comes from her feet and blasts right through the back wall. Her version of Melissa Etheridge’s “Bring Me Some Water” will make you kneel. Koko don’t mess around, and she’s written some of the most simple yet powerful songs there are.
I have to cut this one short, but I hope I’ve given y’all a couple of good starting points. Thanks for paying attention.