The Rebirth of Country Blues

Mike Durell By Mike Durell, 27th Aug 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Music>Genres

How country style blues music was transformed from a 'niche' into mainstream entertainment.

Delta Blues Comes of Age

In 1903, William Christopher 'W.C.' Handy, bandleader and teacher, was waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi when he was roused from his slumber by what he later described as a 'lean, loose-jointed Negro' who was playing a guitar in the Hawaiian style by pressing a bar of metal along the strings and chanting a simple vocal line in sets of three. Taken aback and somewhat puzzled at first, Handy was surprised that the sound stayed with him in his head, almost haunting him. This experience, and others of hearing the music of what one might call the indigenous music of the Mississippi Delta region, motivated him to introduce similar sounds into the repertoire of his own band. Handy relocated to Memphis and there recorded in 1914 the first known 12-bar blues called 'Memphis Blues.'
For thirty-five to forty years afterwards, blues music was very much what might be called a niche market, being played in juke joints and fish fries for the African American communities in the deep South. Rowdy, noisy audiences, often drunk and/or violent, were common, and much of the playing style of the early blues performers grew out of the necessity to be heard over the din. Hence a shouting, percussive style was the norm, as ballads and slower numbers would tend to be ignored as audiences/partygoers would simply continue in their quest for a better buzz or a romantic partner for the evening. The introduction of electric instruments in the late 1940s ushered in a change, as the amplification changed the approach of some players--now the amplifier could be played like an instrument, using volume and feedback as a part of the overall sound. But this new element in music had growing pains and it wasn't always easy for the artist to know what his or her audience wanted. When Muddy Waters toured England in 1959, he brought his electric band and played for audiences who expected more gentle country-style blues. When he returned to the UK in 1963, he arrived by himself with his acoustic guitar and played for audiences who expected the more rocking numbers that had influenced a generation of art students who would create the music known forever after as the British Invasion.
By the late fifties, blues music, especially the country blues styles favored by the musicians from the Mississippi Delta, had fallen out of style. But they were just about to make a roaring comeback, for the folk music revival of the period had resuscitated interest in the form, only this time it was white college students who were studying
and listening and in some cases playing this American art form. The impetus for the revival was at least partially the result of the popularity of the Newport Folk Festival, begun in 1959 as an offshoot of the Newport Jazz Festival. Folks sat up and took notice at the early festivals when Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performed which attracted an audience of younger music lovers, and this in turn spurred an interest in the roots of the music, which led some country blues aficionados to speculate as to whether some of the original performers might still be alive. There was a loose but passionate network of collectors of old folk and blues 78s (records that revolved on the turntable at
78 revolutions per minute) and as an offshoot of their sometimes obsessive pursuit of collectible records, several of the seminal performers were found to be still living, in varying states of health. Most of these men were working day jobs at menial labor and most of them had long since stopped playing music. Understandably many if not
most of them were suspicious of these young white folks knocking on their doors. Muddy Waters for one thought that the IRS had sent agents to collect his back taxes and went to hide before he learned the real reason for the visits.
While the younger cadre of country blues fans undoubtedly romanticized the lives of the bluesmen, the reality was quite different, especially from the perspective of the relatively sheltered existence enjoyed by their young fans. There was a certain naivety from the younger generation of fans, who might not have realized the corrosive effects
of segregation much less the constant danger surrounding a person of color in the Southern United States. Imagine the confusion of someone like Son House, who was used to playing for rowdy drunken audiences in dives selling fish sandwiches and moonshine whiskey. Suddenly he and his fellow blues travellers were playing
in large concert halls for polite, sober, young white audiences who actually sat and listened to the music. Some of the audience members were motivated to learn the guitar and solicited the musicians for lessons, sometimes to the chagrin of the older folks. Most of the first generation bluesmen enjoyed a drink or two, or ten, and sadly some of their misguided disciples felt that this was a prerequisite to making good music
rather than an anesthetic for psychic pain. Ultimately we in the second decade of the twenty-first century have benefited from the artistry of these musical pioneers, for they birthed a second and third generations of dedicated musicians who continue to play
this music that speaks to so much of the human experience. Far from being
depressing, the blues is a music of hope, and if hope isn't the universal emotion, then what is?


Blues, Country, Guitar, Music

Meet the author

author avatar Mike Durell
Antiquarian Book Dealer, musician, actor, writer. I like to write about baseball history, rock and roll music, the performing arts in general and fiction too! Stay tuned!

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