Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blues saga : Before the blues (1)

I'd love to post about the blues history, because it is a genre I really love and know.
So, let's begin this saga with a great mystery : what was there before the blues ? Where does it come from ?
Everytime the question is raised, the automatic answer is : WC Handy, who named himself "father of the blues", because he was the first one to introduce the blues to the music industry.
The legend of his first encounter with the blues is now very famous, but I wouldn't call WC Handy a blues artist.
The few recordings he left sounded more like New Orleans jazz, and the guy was a litterate, urban man that could read music. Nothing to do, IMO, with the real blues, that was a rural music played most of the time on the guitar, the harmonica or the piano, by one man or a few musicians.
The first blues recording ( Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues) is from 1920, and was recorded in the North by a woman backed by a jazz band.

But where and when this music came to life remains a mystery.
There was no "blues big bang" in my opinion. This music is for sure the result of the segragation that came after abolition, and that was sometimes harder than slavery itself for a lot of Afro-americans.
Historians agree that the blues appeared somewhere between 1895 and 1914. This music , made by Afro-americans for Afro-americans, came from everything the bluesmen heard : Irish and British ballads, American indians rhythms, Spanish influences (use of the guitar), etc..
I guess that songsters (those itinerant singers who carried folk songs from place to place) turned to bluesmen when their songs got more personal, were centered around their personal lives, their strifes and their pleasures, and not only the old folk ballads and the novelty tunes they sung and adapted.

A great compilation in three volumes released by Yazoo, Before the blues gather a few recordings going back to the 19th century tradition : mostly songsters (Henry Thomas, Mississippi John Hurt), gospel choirs, and string bands.

String bands were very popular among black and white audiences from the early 19th century on. They had violins and banjos (the 2 most popular instruments before the guitar was introduced at tehe end of the century). The Dallas String Band made wonderful recordings in the late 20's of that kind of very old music.

Dallas String Band - Dallas Rag (buy)

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