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.
The blues spread nationally after World War I, due mostly to the exposure of troops from all over the country to white soldiers from the South who had grown up with the blues. In return, Northern troops exposed their Dixie counterparts to such Yankee staples as pastrami and obscene hand gestures. Returning from France with a taste for the exotic pleasures of their own country, America saw an explosion in the popularity of both blues recordings and packaged luncheon meats. This may explain the striking similarity of the popular Oscar Meyer jingle ("My bologna has a first name...") to an eight-bar blues, but it probably doesn't.
Wynton Marsalis has said repeatedly that jazz is nothing but blues speeded up (which is why I rarely have him over for dinner any more. Roundheaded bastard's like a broken record on the subject), and while the blues are indeed a primary influence on jazz, it was the popularity of jazz that ultimately enabled blues recordings and led to the inextricable place of both blues and jazz into the lexicon of American popular music. Thus, whitebread folk songs were forever relegated to campfire singalongs or wherever overeducated Caucasians with acoustic guitars gathered.
The burgeoning recording industry in the 1920's found one of its first superstars in blues singer Bessie Smith. Though the blues had primarily been considered a masculine art, like map-folding and lawn care, Smith's bold, soulful voice leapt off those primitive discs and sold millions. Spotting a trend, record companies began releasing anything even remotely bluesy and thus began a long tradition of beating a fad until it drops and then selling off the carcass piecemeal that continues to this day (Thursday, April 22nd).
With the blues firmly ensconced (ensconced?) in the collective consciousness of all right-thinking Americans, it is perhaps no surprise that the influence crept into every part of our culture from Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue to the widespread use of the word blue to denote any feeling of sadness, loss, loneliness, weariness, dizziness, numbness, nausea, shortness of breath, short-term memory loss, ringworm, psoriasis or tetter (for which a topical application of the aptly-named Blue Star ointment is also recommended).
The 1930's began with the onset of the Great Depression (I personally don't think it was all that great. I like the Depression of 1893 better. It had all the drama, and none of the snotty Woody Guthrie songs), the national mood was ripe for the raw, plaintive wail of authentic Mississippi Delta blues. Artists like Charlie Patton, Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson, and the aforementioned Robert Johnson came to prominence, and with them the image of the bluesman as a solitary soul wandering the countryside with little more than his trusted instrument and a mojo. Ostensibly some sort of mythical voodoo charm, the mojo was perhaps a manifestation of the influence of the varied occult traditions that converged in the Mississippi Delta. Or, it may have just been an early version of the Leatherman™ multitool.
One of the most striking features of the Delta blues was the kinetic and surprisingly complex guitar style that developed. Delta musicians would often tune their guitar to an open chord, rather than the standard tuning (EADGBEADGBkeep going in a like fashion until you run out of strings), and play both lead and accompaniment. They would also use a slide, a piece of glass or metal (or sometimes bone) that was used to give the instrument an almost vocal quality. Owing heavily to the Hawaiian "slack key" guitar style, a debt the South would later repay by sending our beloved Elvis to do his part for their vital film and tourism industries, the Delta style would become in itself one of the most influential trends in American music since an unknown woman threw her panties on the stage during a performance by Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Well, kids, this seems as good a place as any to pause our odyssey. Uncle Genius has a Carolina League baseball game on deck, and the city of Salem has a desperate beer surplus that must be attended to. Next month, we'll get into the development of the Chicago-style blues, the worldwide impact of the music, and how the blues continues to get geeky white guys laid to this very day (Thursday, April 29th).
Till next month, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.
Kids! Win the one-of-a-kind editing copy of this piece! Each month, your Own Personal Genius prints out a copy of his work to make his final changes. You can win it, complete with handwritten edits and Italian food stains (sure to add to the collectibility value), just by submitting the most compelling reason why you should have it. Click here to enter.