One steamy summer night in 1930 outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi, a young man with a guitar stands at the intersections of highways 49 and 61 at midnight. He waits for a while, then a long black car pulls up. The driver is a dark man with soulless eyes and a terrible, snarling grin. The young man knows, almost instinctively, that it is the Devil.
There is an awkward tension between them for a moment, then Old Scratch finally speaks. "Is this the way to Oxford?"
"Pardon?" responds the stunned young man.
"Oxford. My kid's at Ole Miss. Going up for parent's weekend."
"Oh. No, sir. You got to go back the other way. I'd probably take 49 south, then hit route 3. You'll see the signs."
"Thanks a lot." says the Prince of Lies. He starts to drive away when a thought occurs to him. "For your trouble, from now on, you're going to be able to play that guitar in a fashion no one has ever heard. You'll be among the greatest, influencing scores of other musicians and changing the face of music as we know it. They'll still be speaking your name into the next century."
"I appreciate that, sir, but this ain't even my guitar. I'm just carrying it home for my cousin." the young man explains.
"Whatever. Have a nice evening." says Papa Legba, throwing a hand in the air and waving as he drives away.
And thus, the legend of Robert Johnson is born and American popular music has never been the same.
It is virtually impossible to estimate the impact of the blues on American music. Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University have been working on the question for decades, and are no closer to a resolution now than they were when they began (mostly because if they ever come up with a definitive answer, they can pretty much kiss their sweet NEA grants goodbye). It would not be an overstatement to say that pretty much all American popular music of the 20th century owes its existence at least in part to the blues. From rock to country to our beloved jazz (6-4-3 double play), there can be heard at the heart of them some portion of the music born of the plantations and evangelical churches of the rural South.
The deceptively simple structure of the blues was most likely born of the shouts and hollers of Southern blacks at work in the fields that were the heart of Dixie's economy until we figured out how to make stock car racing really pay off. The distinctive call-response-turnaround pattern at the heart of the blues can be seen in early examples of field hollers documented by oral historians, folklorists, and other upper middle-class white people who balked at working for a living.
In his seminal work Actual Negroes I've Met in Real Life (1938, University of Mississippi Press), oral folkstorian C.E. Lively records perhaps the definitive example of a representative exchange in this transcription:
"What time you goin' to dinner?" (Call)
"I said, WHAT TIME YOU GOIN' TO DINNER?" (Repeated call)
"WHAT?" (Repeated response)
"JUST WALK YOUR ASS BACK OVER HERE!" (Turnaround)
Set to music, over the traditional I-IV-V blues chord progression, you can see not only the fundamental construction of blues, but the common beginnings of rock, country, and jazz. You also get a fairly catchy little tune that would chart in the top 100 easily, with enough bass and a decent video behind it.
> Almost from the beginning, the archetypical instrument associated with the blues was the guitar (it has been claimed that the banjo was the primary instrument of the blues prior to the twentieth century, but I don't want to encourage that sort of thinking). Portable, flexible, relatively easy to obtain, and an absolute chick magnet, the instrument was well-suited to the sometimes impromptu and itinerant lifestyle of early bluesmen.
The veritable forest of guitars found in the inner sanctum of the Geniusdome owes its existence partly to the fact that the guitar remains the definitive voice of the blues, and partly to the fact that my ability to play the euphonium and trombone just wasn't getting me anywhere with the ladies.
The blues as a set form are widely considered to have been born from the pen of composer W.C. Handy. Handy was long considered the Father of the Blues, until recent advances in DNA technology revealed that the actual biological father was a Mr. Reggie Deeks, a barnstorming accountant from New Bern, North Carolina. But the Blues Foundation has been awarding its coveted W.C. Handy Awards for over a quarter century now, and never let it be said that I rained on anyone's parade. Handy it is, and damn the man who says different.