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Early American Blues

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The blues. Everyone gets them but some get them in a completely different way and put their blues to music. It seems that every generation rediscovers the blues.

In the 1960s, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix and a multitude of others mined the blues for inspiration. In the 1980s, artists such as Gary Moore, Albert Collins, the Blues Brothers and Eric Clapton (again), reintroduced us to the blues. Some of these artists had been around for years but with wider recognition only coming later on in their careers. Texan Stevie Ray Vaughn undoubtedly had some influence on this phenomenon. Stevie Ray brought the blues to a whole new audience. They were younger, impressionable and looking for something other than Huey Lewis and the News or Poison.

But in the great scheme of things this was all just a rehashing and modernisation of a musical form that originally grew out of the Mississippi Delta region of the United States, many years previous.

For many of the original blues artists, music was their only hope of earning a living. Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie McTell would have been helpless to earn a living in rural southern America at the beginning of the 20th Century if it had not been for their music.

Blues Players

Son House was one of the earliest Blues artists to become 'successful'. Originally a preacher, Eddie James (Son) House abandoned the church and began playing music around 1927 in Lyon, Mississippi. His recording debut was in 1930 and he eventually released nine albums. He played with other well-known Blues artists such as Charlie Patton and Willie Brown. He later recorded for the Library of Congress. His music went on to influence other blues greats such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.

Charlie Patton was arguably one of the most influential Mississippi bluesmen. Born in the 1890s, he was an established blues musician by 1910. His recording career began in 1929. Patton recorded 42 titles in a single year, more than any other blues singer of his time. He passed away in 1934.

Blind Willie Johnson was actually a gospel singer whose music was percussive and at the same time very fluid. He also played bottleneck guitar. He recorded 15 albums between 1927 and 1930. His style was a 'dance hall' blues that outshone many of his contemporaries. Blind Willie died in the late 1940s.

Roosevelt Sykes was one of the original 'Honeydrippers'. He was born in 1906 and began playing piano around 1918 while living in Arkansas. He started his recording career in St. Louis, Missouri in 1929. His first hit was '44 Blues', also in 1929. He recorded over 60 albums between 1929 and 1942 and continued his success as a post-war attraction.

Blind Lemon Jefferson was born in Wortham, Texas. He originally worked as a street singer and travelled to many states during his career. He began his highly successful recording career in 1926 and began the popular 'country blues' of the era. He recorded over 40 albums between 1926 and 1929. Blind Lemon was an offbeat guitar player who used open phrasing patterns as well as being an inspired singer. He died mysteriously in 1929.

Memphis Minnie was born Lizzie Douglas in 1897. She learned to play guitar at the age of 11 while living in the Mississippi Delta. She eventually moved to Memphis, Tennessee in the 1920s. There, she and Kansas Joe McCoy teamed up musically and romantically. Between 1929 and 1941, she recorded over 75 albums and had several hit songs such as 'Bumblebee Blues'. Memphis Minnie passed away in 1973.

Arthur (Blind) Blake was born in Jacksonville, Florida. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Blind Blake moved to Chicago, Illinois in the 1920s. Also unlike other 'blind' blues musicians, he played dance hall blues. Blind Blake's guitar style was a combination of effortless sounding improvisations and polished technique, which spawned many imitators but no equals. Between 1926 and 1932, he recorded nearly 40 albums for Paramount Records.

Blind Willie McTell was born in Thompson, Georgia in 1901. He started playing guitar about 1914 and like Blind Lemon Jefferson first performed as a street musician. After nine years of that and travelling with a medicine show, he recorded his first album in 1927. Over the next nine years he recorded 24 albums for four different record labels under four different names. He was also the only member of his era to make Library of Congress field recordings and post-war rhythm and blues albums as well. He passed away in 1959.

Robert Johnson is undoubtedly the most well-known of the original Delta Blues artists. As a youth, he would sit at the feet of artists such as Son House, Charie Patton and Willie Brown. Originally he played harmonica, but he always wanted to be a guitar player. He recorded his first album in San Antonio, Texas in November of 1936. 'Terraplane Blues' became his signature song and first hit. At that time, any 'race' (black) album that sold more than two or three thousand copies was considered a 'hit'. His most famous recording is a compilation that wasn't released until 1961, King of the Delta Blues Singers. On this recording one can find everything Johnson recorded, 'Crossroads, 'Walkin' Blues', 'Hellhound on My Trail' and 'Travelling Riverside Blues' to name a few.

With Robert Johnson began the legend of travelling to the crossroads to make a deal with the Devil. In exchange for his soul, so the story goes, the Devil took his guitar, tuned it, handed it back to him and he became the greatest blues player of all time. Johnson died at the age of 28, of complications resulting from drinking poisoned whisky. Apparently the husband of one of his female partners wasn't too happy with him. He died in August of 1938.

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