B.B. King Is King of the Blues--Black Music That Whites Now Dig
Everybody is talking about the great "Blues Revival" of 1968 but there is much confusion as to what exactly Blues is and what is being revived. The bald term "Blues" covers an incredible number of musicians ranging from Robert Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton to B. B. King and Eric Clapton and it encompases therefore a corresponding diversity of styles. Isolating a common element out of this richness of musical product is necessarily a hard task.
As a starting point we might consider the essential musical structure of most of the music we call the Blues. In its basic form it has a three chord structure in a 1, 4, 5 progression. It usually has 12 bars though this can be varied to 8, 16 or any multiple of 4. It is usually in 4/4 time but it can be fitted to other rhythm patterns as well. There is a Blues chromatism or Blues scale which has African origins and differs from the West European scale. In order to play the correct Blues notes it is necessary to bend or flatten certain notes. This is achieved in different ways on different instruments. On the guitar the Blues notes are played by bending the strings which raises the note up a quarter tone into the Blues scale.
Certain notes are primary to the Blues. In any key the most important notes are the third and seventh scale degrees which are played naturally or flatted. Thus if you're playing in the Key of E in the chord of E the third scale note is G and the seventh is D. Another Blues note is the fifth scale degree (B in the Key of E). These notes give the music the distinctive Blues sound. Out of this basic framework black musicans have created over the years the remarkable body of material that one chooses to lump under the term "Blues."
To approach the question, What's Blues?, in another way, one could say that Blues is the history of America's 22 million oppressed black citizens. The Bluesman sings about his personal problems, of love--won, lost and forgotten--and of men and women crushed by the brutality implicit in the conditions in which they are forced to live. The Blues is about suffering but singing, dancing and listening to the Blues is one way of escapng from feeling "blue" for the moment. As Blues singer Albert King says "if you have ever been hurt by your main squeeze, down to your last dime, deceived by friends and ready to call it quits then you should dig the Blues."
Outside of the musical nature of the Blues, one can't get any more specific about the meaning of the word "Blues." The next question then is, just what of all this Blues is being revived today. This is a simpler matter because one can say with reasonable confidence that the Blues coming out of the contemporary rock-scene is a version of the Blues form which has been developing in Chicago and other Northern urban centers sinces World War II. However, this Blues, primarily dominated by electric guitar, had its origins, in turn, in the Mississippi Delta. We must examine the Mississippi Blues form first.
The most famous of the Delta Blues singer-guitarists are Robert Johnson, Son House and Skip James. These men played unamplified steel string guitar and sang about everything from bad women to Boll Weevils and droughts. Many of the songs of these people are sung by such contemporary supergroups as Cream, who have done Johnson's "Four Until Late," and "Crossroads" and James' "I'm So Glad." This Blues style reached its peak of popularity in the 1920's and 30's. Though many of the Blues men of this era are dead, their music was revived in the late fifties and early fifties during the folk music area, being copied by people like Tom Rush, John Hammond, John Fahey, Dave Van Ronk, Eric von Schmitt and even a singer named Bob Dylan. Few of these names, however, mean very much to the current Blues revival.
This Mississippi Delta Blues style began to lose its importance just before W.W.II as the blacks and their new Blues moved from Mississippi to Chicago in search of a better life. In Chicago they found a new, but not necessarily better, life. Life became industrialized, mechanized and electrified--and so did the music. In Chicago, Blues was played in bars and clubs and it was impossible to hear the music of unamplified instruments above the din of the people at the bar, of the cars in the streets, and of the elevated trains overhead. The result was that Blues became amplified. Guitars were electrified, the singing was carried over a public address system and drums, extra guitars, bass piano and other instruments were added to increase volume and provide music for dancing as well as listening.
This music is raw, rude and visceral and is delivered with relentless power. Yet in its own way it reflects the hard, fast, brutal realities of the modern urban ghetto which produced it. This music reached its peak in the late fifties and early sixties when Bluesmen like Elmore James, Sonny Boy Wiliamson, The Muddy Waters Band, B. B. King and others sold thousands of records in the black ghettos of the North and dusty darktowns of the South. Depits its success in black communiites, it was considered too raw, earthy and sexual for the white teenage audience and was black-balled by Top-40 radio stations.
It is this Blues alternately called Chicago Blues, Urban Blues or Rhythm & Blues, which is being copied in the Blues revival of 1968.
There have been Blues revivals about every 5 years in the history of American pop music. To be arbitrary (Rock-Blues freaks will forgive me for not mentioning the Yardbirds, who were about 4 years ahead of their time) the present Blues Revival started around early 1966 with the release of three albums, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, featuring Mike Bloomfiled on lead guitar, and Paul Butterfield on harp, The Blues Project at the Cafe Au Go Go, with Al Kooper on keyboards, and Danny Kalb on guitar, and from England, John Mayall and His Bluesbreakers, with Eric Clapton on guitar and John Mayall on keyboards.
These three groups have provided the fountainheads for the Blues supergroups which are now flourishing, in England and America. These groups are Cream and the self-proclaimed "Super Sessions" group with Bloomfield and Kooper. This nucleus of Blues groups (including the Yardbirds) are in some way responsible for the development of most of the contemporary popular groups, including Blood, Sweat and Tears (Kooper), defunct Electric Flag (Bloomfield), the Jeff Beck Group (Yardbirds), Led Zepplin (Jimmy Page of the Yardbirds) and Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green of the Bluesbreakers).
Despite the profusion and popularity of these Blues bands, a close scrutiny of the personnel of these groups will reveal few if any black faces among all the shoulder-length hair, mustaches, and midwestern, New York or English accents. This then is a white Blue srevival. Many of these bands play heavy funky music which sounds very Bluesy and technically it is Blues. But when Clapton opens his mouth and sings a line like, "I'm going down to Rosedale with my rider by my side," you can be sure he has never been to Rosedale, probably doesn't know where it is (it's in Mississippi), and obviously didn't write the song. The lyric is from Cream's version of "Crossroads," written in 1936 by Robert Johnson and the line itself doesn't actually appear in Johnson's "Crossroads" but is from another Johnson song, "Traveling Riverside Blues."
I'm not exactly knocking Clapton or white Blues. I like the stuff and I have bought albums by most of the groups that I have named. Many white Bluesmen are technically excellent and their music is far better than most of the garbage that is called Rock today. Nevertheless, white Blues is fundamentally imitative, and while Bloomfield and Clapton can play and charm the groupies, when they try to imitate the vocals of Mississippi sharecroppers they just don't make it.
If they don't make it who does? First, let us look at those black musicians who have gained recognition in this revival of an interest among whites for listening to, and playing, the Blues.
There are the familiar names like B. B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, and Muddy Waters. All these men, some of whom have been playing Blues for over 25 years, have benefited from this Blues revival. They have made the long trip from one night stands in the roadhouses of the South to weekend gigs at white rock palaces like the Fillmost East. After many years of hardship these men can now pay their debts and take a couple of nights a week off.
But for every one of these established Bluesmen who plays the Fillmore there are hundreds of beautiful musicians who play 6 hours a night, seven nights a week on Chicago's South Side. While Cream and Eric Clapton rake in $10,000 for one show, J. B. Hutto plays all night at Peppers Lounge and goes to work in a body shop in the morning to make payments on his guitar and feed his kids. You've probably never heard of J. B. Hutto but superstars like Clapton and Butterfield have and they know that without Hutto and hundreds of anonymous Bluesmen like him there would be no Blues, not to mention a Blues revival.
But lets go back about 10 years to the South Side of Chicago and some of the original stuff played by the men who made the Blues revival possible. The list of unsung heroes of the Blues is endless; but I have chosen to emphasize 3 of my favorites--keyboard man Otis Spann, Harp man Sonny Boy Williamson, and slide guitar man Elmore Jones.
Of these only Otis Spann is still living. Spann is the keyboard man and co-leader of the legendary Muddy Waters Blues Band. I saw them at the Jazz Workshop about a month ago. Since Muddy likes to take it easy these days and the crowd was sparse, Spann did most of the singing. Spann lived a lot of his life in Mississippi and his singing and piano style reflect his past. His Southern accent is heavy and his voice is a mixture of pain and suffering--and the ironic sense of humor which is essential to the Blues. His style is relaxed and easy. One of his show piece numbers is called "My Home is in the Delta" and can be heard on his Bluesway Album, The Blues is Where its At; Spann sings:
My home is in the Delta--you know way out there on the lonesome road
I'm leaving Chicago and lord I hate to do
I'm leaving the morning child and I won't be back no more
You know my baby she don't know the shape I'm in
Lord I ain't had no loving in lord I don't know when
Women ask where I'm going, you tell her where I've been.
This song is in the classical Chicago style. Spann sings about his woman who mistreated him and plays lead on the piano, being backed up by Muddy Waters on bottleneck guitar and George Smith's harp, and the rest of the band. The mood created is mournful and sad, but determined. Spann's voice expresses the stoic posture so characteristic of the Blues; and his piano style is slow and shuffling as if expressing the long lonesome journey he is beginning in the song.
Sonny Boy Williamson died in 1965 and can only be heard on record. Many Blues musicians believe Williamson was the greatest harpman in the Blues. He wrote and recorded what may be the most moving Blues song of all time," Help Me." This song has been recorded by many of the popular groups of the Blues revival but it's Williamson's song and it expresses the quintessence of the Blues. Sonny Boy sings:
Help me baby I can't make it by myself You got to help me I can't make it by myself If you don't help me baby I'll have to find somebody else.
The lyrics are complemented by an insistently rhythmic organ and Sonny Boy's incredible crying harmonica. The combination of the lyrics and the music creates sadness, loneliness, and despair--the Blues--and yet the sound of his slashing harp and insistent flowing rhythm section indicate that despite his blues Sonny boy can still swing and by singing and playing the Blues he is able to transcend his blues.
One of Sonny Boy's sidemen and perhaps the most underrated Bluesman of the post war era was singer-guitarist Elmore Jones. Indicative of his anonymity is the fact that it is virtually impossible to get his albums in the United States (though some are now being imported from England). Elmore Jones played slide guitar. This means that he used a special open string tuning in D or G, with a metal ring of some kind on his little finger. Recently an English group led by Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac, have recorded albums in which they do exact copies of some of James' greatest songs. Also, Mike Bloomfield did some excellent slide guitar work on the first Butterfield album and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones used it on "King Bee." But these are all only weak imitations.
Elmore James not only invented the electric slide style, but he also sang with a powerful hoarse, shouting style which just can't be imitated.
James's most famous song has become a Blues classic like Sonny Boy's "Help Me." This song is "Dust My Blues" (written by Robert Johnson) and it opens with an explosive burst from James's slide guitar and it rocks like only the greatest rock songs. The rhythm section pounds through the basic 12 bar chord changes and James shouts out his lyric about his "no good" woman:
I don't want know no woman gonna treat me wrong all the time
I don't want know no woman gonna treat me wrong all the time
The way she mistreat me I'm about to lose my mind
I don't want no woman want every down town man she see
I don't want no woman want every down town man she see
She a no good woman but she a night owl on the street.
Following each angry phrase James plays a hard angry riff on his guitar. This song expresses the universal frustration about 'no good" women felt by every man. Few Blues songs can match the intensity of "Dust My Blues."
One of the key factors accouting for the greatness of these three Bluesmen (and one of the chief weaknesses of white Blues) is the perfect integration of the singing style and lyrics with a complementary instrumental style. This is essential, for in the Blues the instrument, like the voice, is an extension of the Bluesman, his suffering, his pain, his love, his soul and his ability to express his feelings through his Blues.
This combination of singing and instrumental break is known as "call and response" and is the core of the Blues.
Typically, the singer delivers a line or two of iambic pentameter which is followed by a complementary instrumental figure which leads into the second line which is often a word for word repetition of the first line. This second line is often punctuated at the beginning with an explanation like "Yeah, Lord have mercy," or "Baby." The third line resolves in some way the thought described in the first two lines. Thus every song or spoken phrase in a Blues number is balanced or commented upon by an instrumental response often carrying with it as important a message as the preceding words.
Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Spann, and Elmore James knew these ideas instinctively. When Elmore James shouts the lyrics about his no good woman over the driving beat created by his rhythm section and then cuts loose with a barrage of savage notes he renders literary descriptions meaningless. Every man regardless of taste in music must be moved by the emotion and power of Elmore James' performance.
Elmore James died in 1964 and though his electric slide guitar style is still played by men like J. B. Hutto and Homesick James, in the clubs of Chicago, it has declined in popularity and has been replaced by the more polished style personified by singer-guitarist B. B. King. King has said that Elmore James was one of the most important influences on his own style. However, he was never able to adapt himself to the slide technique, and instead developed a multinote style which combines the intensity of the slide technique of James with complexity of the more improvisational jazz guitarists such as Django Reinhart and Charlie Christian.
B. B. King is the universally acknowledged king of the Blues today. While young white guitar players rave about Clapton and Bloomfield, in turn, (as well as Buddy Guy and Albert King) they all praise the master, B. B. King. B. B. King is near fifty and he has paid his dues. He has been playing the Blues professionally longer than Bloomfield and Clapton have been alive, doing one night stands which took him from Jacksonville, Fla., to Austin, Texas, to Los Angeles, Calif., and back again in a month without a day of rest, along dusty roads, in men's rooms for coloreds,' and segregated restaurants and hotels, singing and play-for people who lived the Blues every day of their lives.
When he sings "Every Day I Have the Blues," "Worry Worry Worry" or "The Night Life," he is singing about his own life and when he plays one of his incredible runs he is playing and knowing it with his whole body. He didn't learn about Blues notes from reading about them in a book or listening to them on a record, he experienced them.
And when he plays and sings he communicates. His music cuts across all the barriers of race, time, space and can reach anyone who is human and, in his own way, knows suffering. They love him at Louise's Lounge in Roxbury, they love him at the Boston Teaparty, they love him at Yale University and they love him at the Village Gate. There are very few musicians who can reach such a diverse audience and still maintain their integrity. B. B. King can and does.
Until recently I would have ended everything I could say about Blues with B. B. King's greatness. In the last couple of months, however, I have finally had the oportunity to see Jimi Hendrix in a live concert. Prior to that my impresison of Hendrix was that he put out some really beautiful hard Bluesy Rock, but unfortunately played too much acid garbage complemented by some rather frothy third-rate pseudo Dylanesque lyrics. And live, well, you've heard the stories. At the Monterey Pop Festival he turned his guitar into an all purpose sex organ alternately screwing it, eating it, and finally setting the thing on fire with lighter fluid to simulate an orgasm. Not the stuff of Blues musicians, I thought.
When I finally got to see him, however, he was a big black, beautifully dressed natural freak who held his guitar like he loved it, and much to my pleasure (and the displeasure of the audience of teenyboppers and Yalies who were screamnig for "Purple Haze") he stood up there and played some of the finest Blues sets I have ever heard. Well it wasn't exactly Blues; it was Hendrix.
Hendrix is now a superstar, the ultimate conquest for groupies and the ultimate guitar player for many aspiring superstars. Hendrix created the freak show probably because he liked it and because it gained him fame and notoriety and made him a sex symbol.
For a guitar player who almost gave up music a couple of years ago because he couldn't find steady work he has done OK. The freakshow probably made it for him, but all the time underneath his clothes, his hair, and his histrionics, Hendrix is a Bluesman. His guitar playing is not as polished or perfected as that of B. B. King but he is years younger than B.B. and is far more adventuresome. Unlike many contemporary Rock stars success seems to have improved Hendrix rather than ruining him. He now doesn't have to worry about playing for his audiences. He will now play a whole set of beautiful Bluesy stuff and all he has to do is wind up with "Purple Haze" and the audience will worship him. In his last album, Electric Ladyland, he gets into a long jam called "Voodoo Chile," which is beautiful Blues.
Hendrix is mellow now and beautiful and some Rock and Blues writer has called him the most complete guitarist since Robert Johnson.
The comparison has some interesting implications. Johnson is the fountainhead of modern Blues. He is the greatest figure in Mississippi Delta Blues which became Chicago Blues through Bluesmen like Elmore James and was transformed into Modern Urban Blues by B. B. King. Hendrix may, in truth, be the spiritual heir of Robert Johnson. He is the most innovative and modern guitarist on the contemporary Rock scene. King may be the most perfect Blues guitarist alive but his style is of another era. If Blues is to continue to exist it must evolve and Hendrix seems to be leading that revolution. If Rock is to survive it must go back to its roots and again Hndrix is there.
The comparison of Hendrix to Robert Johnson has another implication. Johnson only lived to be 24. He was poisoned to death by a jealous woman. Hendrix like Johnson became a star when he wos young. Hendrix might not be poisoned. But it may become increasingly difficult for him to improve on his successes, as it might have been for Robert Johnson if he had lived. Where does Hendrix, and all of Blues, go now that we have all "been to Electric Ladyland?"