Yesterday, my conversation with Ted Gioia, author of the new book, Delta Blues (W.W. Norton), centered on the blues and what makes the seemingly simple musical form so fascinating to so many fans. Much of its appeal has escaped me over the years, given the music's down-and-out themes and repetitiveness. That is, until I read Ted's captivating book, which tracks the blues' development through a series of dramatic artist portraits. [Photo of Ted Gioia by Kent Barker]
Understanding how the blues traveled from the mud roads of Mississippi to the record studios and national popularity is a saga that Ted tells expertly. If there's a date when the blues began that journey, it's likely sometime around 1903, after W.C. Handy took a job in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Handy went there to lead a band, secretly harboring ambitions of topping John Philip Sousa by becoming the next March King. But a late train changed all that. Ted picks up the story in his book:
"Late one evening, at a railway station in Tutwiler, [Miss.], as he half nodded off to sleep while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, W.C. Handy [pictured] encountered a new aspect of the Delta, a different feature of the local landscape, hitherto unknown to him. This chance interaction would change his life decisively, and alter the course of American music. 'A lean, loose-joined Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept,' Handy later recalled. 'His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars.'
Handy did not yet recognize the local Delta tradition of tone-altering and bending with bottle necks, knives and other implements that would come to be known as 'slide' or 'bottleneck' guitar. But he was instantly spellbound by the sounds he heard: 'The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly.' The lyrics were simple and evocative. Three times the singer repeated 'Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog'—all the time 'accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.' This three-line form would become a defining aspect of the blues... [Pictured: A Yazoo Delta Railroad or "Yellow Dog" locomotive]
Handy continued to think back to this meeting during the following days and months, and he came to appreciate that the guitarist's music had been more than just an isolated performance but represented nothing less than a regional style....Within a day or two [of hearing a local band in Cleveland, Miss., play music with a similar form], Handy had written arrangements for several of the local plantation songs and began featuring them in performances. He soon learned that the blues were popular with both black and white audiences."
In Part 2 of my two-part interview with Ted (conducted by email), the author and founder of Jazz.com talks about the blues and its influence on jazz. He also shares five must-own blues recordings to help get novices like me started:
JazzWax: When did the blues become such an integral part of jazz expression and performance? Or did jazz grow out of the blues?
Ted Gioia: The relationship between jazz and the blues is clearly a very old one. Jelly Roll Morton [pictured] talks about hearing the blues at a very early age, long before the first jazz recordings were made. I imagine that jazz musicians have always borrowed from the blues. But in time, everyone else did, too. And they have continued to do so. Today you can hear blues inflections in almost every style of popular music. Rockers and rappers, boy bands, Christian singers, you name it. Everybody has learned from the blues. Jazz players just went there first.
JW: Was part of the blues’ early commercial success that it was easy to steal and adapt?
TG: Once blues became codified as a 12-bar form with certain set chord changes and licks, it became fairly easy to steal. Certainly this was a cause of its commercial success. But, in a funny way, it was also a cause of its failure.
JW: How so?
TG: The aspects of the blues that are the easiest to steal are the least interesting parts. One of the reasons why I didn’t appreciate the power of this music when I was 20 years old was because I saw how simple the formulas are. What I realized only later was that the essence of the great blues players is not contained in the formulas. This is music that breaks the rules. Especially today, when so much commercial music is manipulated and packaged and homogenized, hearing these recordings will give you a much-needed jolt.
JW: Which blues artist had the most influence on Kansas City jazz artists of the 1930s?
TG: Certainly the piano blues was very influential in Kansas City. But separating the blues and jazz elements in the American piano tradition is not an easy task. For example, one of the most prominent of early blues pianists was Little Brother Montgomery, who was born in 1906. But Montgomery heard pianist Jelly Roll Morton as a youngster and was influenced by this New Orleans jazz player. So even at a very early date, jazz was influencing blues as well as blues influencing jazz. Kansas City figures such as Count Basie, Jay McShann, Mary Lou Williams and others no doubt drew on both traditions. Yet in the final analysis, they created a new sound that transcends their influences.
JW: Has the blues evolved over time? Or is it essentially the same?
TG: I recently heard a great recording of Hindustani slide guitar. It borrowed from the blues idiom but created something fresh and different. The blues vocabulary will continue to spur new musical sounds, and this is a striking example of that. But there is also an important tradition of older blues that deserves to be preserved and celebrated. I would like to think that there is room in our cultural life for both the old and the new.
JW: When did sexual innuendo first become part of the blues expression?
TG: It was probably always there, but commercial pressures likely made it more prominent. Certainly record companies liked the racy parts of race records. As did the audiences for blues music. This was true in the 1920s, it was true in the 1950s and it's true now. I think it is safe to predict, this will still be true 50 years from now. [Pictured: Bessie Smith]
JW: For listeners like me who have shunned the blues because it seems too static, what recordings would you suggest?
TG: I would recommend listening to blues recordings that transcend the formulas. Of course, you need to listen to Robert Johnson, but you also need to check out the Delta blues musicians who came before Johnson, such as Charlie Patton, Son House and Skip James [pictured, right]. If you don’t have the patience for the poor sound quality of the early recordings, track down the releases some of these artists made when they returned to the studios in the 1960s.
JW: For example?
TG: Listen to the young John Lee Hooker from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Check out the early Muddy Waters [pictured] and Howlin’ Wolf recordings. Get the first recordings of R.L. Burnside and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
JW: How about five "must have" albums that will provide a fine introduction?
TG: Sure. Here are essentials for anyone who wants to hear the blues in all its authentic and primitive glory [all are available at iTunes or Amazon]:
Son House—The Father of the Delta Blues