Learn About the Blues
2008 Steve Cheseborough
The first blues was sung around 1890 to 1900, somewhere in the U.S. South. When PBS designated 2003 the Year of the Blues with it’s The Blues series executive-directed by Martin Scorsese, it was commemorating W.C. Handy’s first hearing of the blues 100 years earlier at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi. Other early reports of the blues come from around that same year: Ma Rainey heard a young woman sing the blues in Missouri and Jelly Roll Morton heard a woman play a piano blues in New Orleans. Handy, Rainey and Morton all were professional, Southern-born, African-American musicians, yet none had heard the blues before those instances, and all described it as strange. So we know the blues was a new sound at that time.
The Mississippi Delta may or may not be where the blues started. But many of the great blues performers are from the Delta. That includes virtually all of the giants of the Chicago blues scene. They are almost all transplanted Mississippians.
What is it about the Delta? After eons of flooding by the muddy Mississippi River, the Delta has some of the deepest topsoil and richest land on earth. That made it prime agricultural land. Huge plantations attracted sharecroppers, tenant farmers and laborers, who moved in from the surrounding hills. While most of these farm workers didn’t get rich, they did have some cash to spend, especially around harvest time. Musicians – along with bootleggers, gamblers and prostitutes — came around to help relieve them of some of that cash. Also there are gaps in the cotton season, during which people had plenty of time to practice and enjoy music.
After World War II the mechanical cotton picker eliminated a lot of farm work. Later technological developments, such as chemical herbicides, continued that trend. Many farm workers left the Delta and moved north, especially to Chicago, to work in factories. Many Mississippi blues musicians, including Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker, moved up to play for the transplanted Southerners.
Technology also affected the music directly. Electric guitars, basses and microphones came onto the scene. The complex fingerpicked blues guitar style of the 1920s and ’30s did not translate well to electrified bands. A simpler, louder style of blues took over, and continues to be popular today, becoming simpler and louder all the time.
But you can still listen to and enjoy the sounds created by people like Memphis Minnie, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell and the other incredible musicians of the prewar era. Their 78-rpm records are available in CD reissues or as downloads. And there are active musicians – including Steve Cheseborough – who study the old records and re-create the sounds for you.
If you want Steve’s help in learning about the blues, come to one of his shows (especially the library programs, where he talks more, although he is always ready to give explanations and stories between songs), bring him to your home for a house concert, attend his beer-and-blues lessons, or just drop him a comment or an email!