Down where the Southern Cross the Dog: The Beginnings of the Blues
Those Low Down Country Blues: The Mississippi Blues | Me and the Devil Blues: Robert Johnson and His Legacy | Sweethome Chicago: Electrifying the Blues | Newport and All That Jazz: How the Blues Came to the World | A Mission From God: The Future of the Blues
American lives have no second acts.
- F Scott Fitzgerald
When F Scott Fitzgerald wrote those words, he can have had little conception of the determination of a small but dedicated group of white musicians and enthusiasts who were determined to bring the blues to the world - young men who would give miraculous second acts to some of the best of a generation of musicians.
Yet these men were not trying to bring the electric sound of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker to the masses. They were interested in finding the country blues stars of the thirties and introducing them to a whole new audience.
Armed with a collection of song titles, a few tenuous clues and determination, these young white fans set about finding a generation of musicians that had lapsed into obscurity, and set the blues on an entirely new course.
Big Bill Broonzy had already blazed the trail. Since appearing in John Hammond's 'Spirituals to Swing' concert in 1938, Broonzy had continued to play his easygoing country blues all over America. In the fifties he began to appear in Europe where a new audience, particularly in Britain, France and Germany, clasped the genial Broonzy to their hearts. His appearances on both sides of the Atlantic fired the enthusiasm of young men who had heard his contemporaries, such as Son House, and they began to set about finding these lost giants of the blues.
The main focus and stage for their various projects was the Newport Folk Festival.
All That Jazz: The Blues at Newport
Pianist George Wein had established the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 at it quickly became a thriving concern. In 1959, Wein launched the Newport Folk Festival. The first year featured artists such as The Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee1.
It was in 1964 that Newport became the focus of great curiosity as two of the biggest names in country blues were persuaded out of retirement to perform for a new and adoring audience. As well as appearances by John Lee Hooker (who was now firmly established as a player of acoustic folk blues in another phase of his chameleon-like career) and Terry and McGhee, the 1964 Newport Folk Festival played host to appearances by Son House and Nehemiah 'Skip' James.
Both artists had been rediscovered by what had become known as 'The Blues Mafia', a group of young white academics and musicians who had set about finding their black heroes, and without doubt House and James represented their biggest successes. Among the group of men were young musicians Alan Wilson and Henry Vestine (who would go on to form the seminal blues-rock band Canned Heat) and the eccentric but brilliant John Fahey, who by 1964 was already several years into a career as one of America's most fascinating, if neglected, musicians.
Ironically, though the group had looked all over the south for Son House, he had eventually been located making a living as a caretaker in Rochester, New York2. He had given up the life of a musician - he had told Lomax in 1941 that the blues 'was a young man's game', and he had completely forgotten almost all of his songs. It was the patient Wilson who sat with House and played all of House's tunes back to him while House listened and learnt his own songs from the young white man.
Skip James, on the other hand, needed no such assistance. An enigma in blues terms, James was the same age as House, and came from the small town of Benton, Mississippi. With a thin reedy voice and a guitar style that more resembled the ragtime traditions of white Mississippi, James was simply unlike any other blues musician of his generation, although his recorded sessions of 1931 had been a clear influence on Robert Johnson.
House played the main festival stage and James a wet and windy 'blues workshop'. James' guitar style was possibly not as accurate as it had been, but his haunting falsetto was, if anything, better than ever. House was rusty and out of sorts, and legend has it that one member of the party that had found House said to one of James's discoverers 'We found the wrong guy'. This was perhaps unfair: House went on to record a session in 1965 that showed his voice to be in remarkable form. His guitar-playing had never been of the best in any event, and if it had lost some of its precision, it had lost none of its power.
James also went on to record two albums for Vanguard, a record company that had been keen to record the Newport Festivals As well as other stars that had been rediscovered in the early sixties, such as Mississippi John Hurt.
The Candyman: Mississippi John Hurt
John Hurt was already seventy by the time blues aficionado Tom Hoskins tracked him down by the expedient method of following the directions on Hurt's 1928 song 'Avalon Blues', which gave clear directions to Hurt's hometown of Avalon, on the edges of the Mississippi Delta. Hurt had continued to live there, and was still playing music on an occasional basis, having decided that he could not make a living at it.
Hurt's blues were a strange mix of the Delta tradition as exemplified by Son House and Robert Johnson mixed with a strong dose of white Delta music, which owed much to the ragtime tradition. Hurt's most common associates when he played were fiddle player Willie Narmour and guitarist Shell Smith, both of whom were white. When one puzzled blues historian asked Hurt how he had arrived at his unique style, the reply was both charming in its simplicity and redolent of Hurt's modesty;
Well, sir, I just make it sound like I think it ought to.
John Hurt was immensely flattered by the attention he was given by his new fans, but at the same time he was a little puzzled by it. As a poor farmer from the south, he was unused to white folks being interested in what he was doing, and certainly not used to the idea that some white folks were actually interested in his wellbeing and were acting completely altruistically in an attempt to bring his music to a wider audience. Indeed, he admitted that he had initially thought Hoskins to be from the FBI or another such organisation.
It was a dichotomy that the folk blues boom of the sixties threw into stark relief. Increasingly black audiences were turning away from the blues in favour of the new sounds from the Motown and Stax studios. The audiences they now found themselves playing for were white, which was a strange experience for them. For city-dwelling men like Hooker and Waters it probably did not require much of an adjustment - Waters continued to play his electric Delta boogie throughout his career. Hooker spent the best part of a decade playing an acoustic guitar, which he had not done since he first arrived in Detroit during the war.
Howlin' Wolf was perhaps the least prepared to compromise for this new audience. Indeed, as the number of whites in his audiences increased, he often used to precede his own show dressed in dungarees, sweeping the stage. It was a subtle and powerful comment on the situation of the black population as a whole. As other artists were persuaded to record 'Folk Blues Albums', Wolf refused to compromise his sound – the Chess 'Real Folk Blues' issued in his name was a collection culled from a decade's worth of performances, all of them solidly electric, and - in the case of the classic 'Killing Floor' - defiantly urban in origin and style.
The End of an Era
The folk blues boom gave many an artist who was believed to be dead or who had simply sunk into obscurity a last chance for recognition. But by its very nature, dependent as it was on elderly stars, it could not last.
Skip James had been ill when John Fahey had found him. After recording two albums in 1966 and 1968, he died in 1969. Son House recorded one album's worth of material in 1965, and although he lived until 1988, he was rarely seen in concert after the end of the 1960s. John Hurt recorded three albums for Vanguard records but died in November 1966. Only one of the rediscovered old masters had a career that lasted into the seventies, and that was Booker T (or Bukka) Washington White, and his story is perhaps the strangest of all.
Bukka White had recorded sides for Victor Records as early as 1930, but they had sold poorly. He made a living as a farmer, a professional baseball pitcher and a prizefighter before recording again. When John Lomax recorded White in 1939, he was serving a life sentence for murder at Mississippi's notorious Parchman Farm prison. Upon his release (it is unclear what earned this early release, though the Mississippi penal system was a law unto itself) he went to Chicago and recorded further sides, but by the 1960s he was long assumed to be dead. In fact, if the white fans of his music had not been so obsessed with the rural folk blues, they might have realised that White's nephew was forging a career as an electric blues player of some note, under the name BB King. Uncle and nephew were very close and doubtless King would have been more than happy to tell anyone where they might find his uncle.
It was more in hope than anger, then, that John Fahey and Ed Dennison wrote a letter to 'Booker T White, Old Blues Singer, c/o Aberdeen Mississippi,' working from an old songtitle of White's). They were surprised and delighted when White replied, and White went on to enjoy a prosperous second career as a blues singer until his death in 1977.
However, as the sixties progressed, it was obvious that the blues was changing. Faced with the massive onslaught of new styles of music, blues was losing sales and its audience. Young urban blacks saw the blues as an historical artefact in the face of music being produced in cities such as Atlanta (Atlantic Records and particularly its Stax subsiduary) and Detroit (Motown). White audiences started to drift away as early icons such as Eric Clapton and Tony McPhee - as well as newer performers like Johnny Winter - began to play more rock numbers in order to play bigger and less intimate arenas. To be fair, the blues did little to help itself - innovation was thin on the ground during this time, and what there was was often disastrous - the pairing of a Texan country blues artist with a psychedelic-rock band, for example, was guaranteed to please nobody. Salvation was to come in the 1980s from the most unlikely of sources, as two white comedians went on a mission from God and put the blues firmly back at the centre stage of popular culture.