Leadbelly : Linin' Track
Nobody knows for sure, but it's admitted that the blues was born around the 1890s. In his interview about Africa and the blues, this is what Gerhard Kubik says :
" We don’t know exactly what kind of music was first heard which later would be called blues. But African Americans began to try their hands on the guitar—before that it had been the banjo—soon after the Civil War, at first imitating the current, 19th-century popular music. They imitated ballads and other European country folklore. That is how the three common chords got into the blues. The stage was set by African-American soldiers participating in the Civil War. There is a precious photograph of a minstrel show they staged during that period or later, with one guitar and two banjos. Then some younger, second generation African American guitarists began to introduce the tonality of field hollers and other former slave folklore into their guitar accompanied music. They were highly successful. But they had to find ways of adapting these different total harmonic systems to each other."
Work songs and field hollers, being a capella, didn't have to stick to a particular structure or harmonic system, and thus were very spontaneous forms of expressions, bearing a lot of African traits, and especially the famous blue notes that were totally alien to Western harmony.
A great exemple of this transformation is the music of Texas Alexander (1900-1954). Born in Central Texas, he had been working on various camps, building railroads, levees or roads, including forced-labor camps. He was also a solo singer, who didn't play any instrument. Unfortunately there's hardly any picture of him.
Texas Alexander : Levee Camp Moan
Texas Alexander was first recorded in 1927 with New Orleans guitar player Lonnie Johnson (see photo below), one of the finest players of the era, and one of the first blues musicians to play guitar solos.
According to Lonnie Johnson, quoted by Paul Oliver (1) “He was a very difficult singer to accompany; he was liable to jump a bar, or five bars, or anything. You just had to be a fast thinker to play for Texas Alexander. When you been out there with him you done nine days work in one! Believe me, brother, he was hard to play for. He would jump–jump keys, anything. You just have to watch him, that’s all.”
"Levee Camp Moan" is one of Alexander's masterpieces. Lonnie Johnson doesn't try to play the three common chords, but just tries to respond to Alexander's vocals. Alexander sung with a lot of different musicians after him, but Lonnie Johnson was the one who best understood his music.
This is the blues being born. Note that the lyrics are sung in the first person, which is typical of the blues. The singer tells his own story.
Here's another song in which Lonnie plays the tree common chords. It's really funny to hear how the guitar plays cat and mouse with the vocals, trying to catch them.
Texas Alexander : Sittin' On A Log
For musicians only : You'll notice notice that the third (or dominant chord, e.g. G in the key of C) is barely played. The blues has a problem with dominant chords. Mr Kubik (kneeling on the left on photo below), please, again, explain that to us :
"It seems this integration was reached by African American musicians in the late 19th century when they were trying to align the tonality of field hollers, many of which are in savanna pentatonic system, with a guitar chord progressions they had learned. It then turned out to be possible to first back a field holler melody with the tonic chord (C) on the guitar, and then switch back to the sub dominant chord (F). (...) The dominant chord had to be modified or omitted or substituted. And so we get through blues and jazz history the problem of what to do with the dominant chord. They rejected it. You can listen to bebop. All the time it's being substituted by something else. Bebop has blues tonality."
Texas Alexander was also accompanied by pianist Eddie Heywood, who was a little less at ease with Alexander's singing, but finally got away with it quite brillantly, although he plays cat and mouse with the vocal line.
Texas Alexander : Sabine River
If you want to know more about Texas Al (like how he was sentenced to prison for murdering his wife in 1940) , check out these links :
2 great posts by DJ and blues scholar Jeff Haris on his Big Road Blues site
Texas Troublesome Blues : The Blues of Texas Alexander part 1
Texas Troublesome Blues : The Blues of Texas Alexander part 2