Published Jan 01, 2006It's been called America's greatest art form. Its influence crosses innumerable forms of music, from classical to metal, reggae to rock, soul to jazz. It is almost impossible to define and its origins are a topic that rarely arrives at a definitive conclusion. Most often identified with the Southern United States, its roots extend from Western Africa to Hawaii and parts of Europe, establishing it as the original world music. Its association with the chains of slavery came close to burying it as the proud musical tradition that it is, but a new generation of practitioners has returned it to the level of respectability it has always deserved..
The heart of the blues stems from the pre-WW II era and the Delta blues of Southern Mississippi, best portrayed in all their acoustic glory by legends including Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Son House. Romanticists insist this is "the land where the blues were born." Delta blues is characterised by individuals playing solo, accompanying themselves on guitar (often slide) and singing emotionally and passionately about their lives and times. This music was born in the field camps and work gangs of the cotton fields, and refined nightly in the neighbouring shantytowns and juke joints. When the electric guitar was introduced, the Mississippi Delta region adapted its raw sound by turning it up in an effort to be heard over the enthusiastic crowds.
Defining moments: Charley Patton Founder of the Delta Blues (Yazoo, 1969); Son House Delta Blues: The Original Library of Congress Sessions ('41-'42) (Biograph, 1991); Various Blues Masters Vol. 8, Mississippi Delta Blues (Rhino, 1993); Muddy Waters The Complete Plantation Recordings (Chess/MCA, 1993); Mississippi Fred McDowell Mississippi Delta Blues (Arhoolie, 2001)
Highway 61 connected the Delta to the promised land of the North and its rich industrial economies attracted many black migrants to centres like Chicago the undisputed capital of the blues. Developed in the late 40s and early 50s, Chicago blues took the Delta blues, amplified it and added the context of a band (drums, bass, piano and harmonicas or saxophones). Later variations (late 50s, early 60s) were built around the lead of a hot soloist like the lead guitar of a B.B. King or T-Bone Walker a featured performer surrounded by standard instrumentation. Chicago's popular "West Side" sound boasted horns in front of a standard rhythm section. The older school sounds of Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy were soon challenged by the electric sounds of newcomers Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and Otis Rush. This new aggressive approach ultimately triggered rock players like Hendrix and Clapton toward their own hybrids of blues-based hard rock.
Defining moments: Muddy Waters His Best (47-'55) (Uni/Chess, 1997); Various Blues Masters, Vol. 18: More Slide Guitar Classics (Rhino, 1988); Jimmy Rogers Chicago Bound (Chess/MCA, 1976); Koko Taylor What It Takes: The Chess Years (Chess/MCA, 1977); Various Chicago/The Blues/Today!, Vol. 3 (Vanguard, 1967)
Better known for Motown, gospel, jazz and mainstream rock'n'roll, the blues were alive and well in Detroit. Steeped in the blues of the Delta, Detroit blues were similar to those established in Chicago, carried north by the Southern blacks attracted to employment offered by Detroit's auto makers. The blues hit their prime here in the late 40s and 50s in and around Hastings Street and the Black Bottom neighbourhood and, although there were local heroes including Eddie Burns, Alberta Adams and Johnnie Bassett their fame was restricted to the local scene. The notable exception was John Lee Hooker, although his style was distinctly his own and not associated with the Detroit sound. With the advent of Motown, Detroit blues was practically destroyed, although it is making a comeback with the reborn popularity of the genre.
Defining Moments: John Lee Hooker Detroit: 1948-1949 (Savoy Jazz, 2000); Andre Williams Jail Bait (Fortune, 1960); Nolan Strong & the Diablos Fortune of Hits, Vol. 1 (Fortune, 2000); Andre Williams Black Godfather (In the Red, 2000); John Lee Hooker Very Best of John Lee Hooker (Rhino, 1995)
Generally categorised as having a laid-back, swing-oriented feel, Texas's brand of the blues has a long and impressive history, beginning in the mid-20s. Originally distinguishable by its rich acoustic guitar work, it embraced the songster and country-blues. Post WWII, it developed an elaborate electric style that boasted jazz-oriented, single-string soloing over horn-driven arrangements.
Defining Moments: Freddie King Hide Away: The Best of Freddy King (Rhino, 1993); Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown Texas Swing (Rounder, 1988); Johnny Copeland Texas Twister (Rounder, 1983); Blind Lemon Jefferson King of the Country Blues (Yazoo, 1985)