The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Friday, May 9, 2014

The 20s Blues: Both a golden age, and mythology

The 20s was a pivotal era for a lot of music, not just Blues. Nowadays it's all called Blues or traditional jazz, but that's not what they called back then.

Virtually all the music produced by Afro-Americans back then was segregated into a segment called  "Race" records and it encompassed an extremely wide variety of genres. In fact it was so wide that is beyond the scope of a single blog to even try to explain it.

The black music scene back and was extremely diverse, and included what we now call the blues, and in some ways very controversial within that community.

The general impression of blues is that it was music that came from the hardships that Afro-Americans faced in America. There's a lot of truth to that, but that also inadvertently patronizes the music.

The music that Afro-Americans listen to at that time encompassed string band music and it's close relative, jug band, ragtime, jazz and pre-jazz music, popular showtunes, gospel, and even some classical performers.

The advent of the recording industry began to document these various genres and the side effect of course was that they began to diverge into separate genres.

The Blues that most fans tend to see from the 20s was more often referred to back then as juke music, and a variety of other names, and had a more rural and rougher image.

In fact much of that music was definitely at odds with the mainstream Afro-American church, which often referred to it as devil's music. It wasn't that they sang about the devil, but the various topics such as drinking, sex (both conventional and alternative), and violence were simply considered sinful material.

A lot of the song lyrics from back then seem tame now, but terms like Jellyroll, rocking, boogie, and other now mainstream music terms were about raw raunchy sex. Even the song "Spoonful"had a different meaning back then and in the 50s.

So when Robert Johnson sang about having a Hellhound on his trail, it wasn't necessarily about the rock 'n roll lifestyle being deadly, he was also referring to the fact that the mainstream church considered him somebody who was going to hell, and lyrics also about the probable conflict he felt about living the life that he loved, and the possible spiritual penalty for it.

But the 20 wasn't all about guilt. It was also a very exciting time for black music. It was a time when all the black performers were true stars, and many made a good deal of money in 20's terms.

It was a time when it seem like the music was everywhere, and records brought that music the places that would have normally had a chance to hear it.

For example, one artist named Blind Lemon Jefferson, was a big star in his era, but is a relatively obscure bluesman now. He's now known as a bluesman who died broke, with his most famous song being one that begs people to keep his grave clean.

The concept of copyrights also makes the modern view of the era seem like it was full of ripoffs and exploited musicians. Again, there's a lot of truth to that.

The main reason was back then there was no concept of copyright publishing in the way that we know it now. In the 20s a performer was paid per side that he produced, and was paid upfront. He rarely got any royalties from it, but to be fair the recording industry back then wasn't thinking that far ahead. Plus they paid on the spot, you at least got what was promised, unlike later eras.

That's one reason why when you're looking over the discography of a particular blues musician back then, there's so many songs that are actually pretty similar. When you're being paid per side, it was common practice to change some words and come out with a new version with a different title.

Again, that wasn't some weird practice back then unique to the 20s. In the 50s and 60s, it was almost gospel that if you had a hit, your follow-up needed to be similar.

What you had in the 20s was this vast assortment of music being produced by Afro-Americans, and It covered the spectrum from G rated to X-rated, from old-fashioned string band music dance, to tap dancing accompanied by jazz music as complex as any that was made later on.

Before the 20s the primary Afro-American rural instruments were the banjo and fiddle, and ragtime was King. That died out in the 20s, particularly with the advent of inexpensive catalog guitars. It was neither good or bad, it was just Music changing as it always does.

The key thing that made that age special was that the blues and jazz had a huge black audience, it was their mainstream music. That's why some historians called it a golden age for Blues.

There's no point in trying to analyze how the term Blues came about, it's actually quite complex and there's different ideas about how it happened. It was originally primarily a jazz term for any music that use the scale that had a flatted third and seventh note. The idea that it was some sort of music of despair or sadness was an idea that came later on. Back then a Blues was just as likely to be an up-tempo dance number.

The 50 Chicago scene was also a vibrant one, with artist like Muddy Waters howling Wolf. It's peak was probably when it went electric, technology often changes music as often as attitudes, but it was primarily a club scene like jazz had become. It was often featured on TV of course, but you really rarely saw it at shows like at the Apollo theater.

One reason that the Blues was a club scene by then, was that the mainstream black audience had moved on to early R&B and soul, and popular. That was sometimes referred to as blacks ignoring their past and culture, but moving onto the next big thing is something audiences in all genres have always done and still do.

The thing that really saved the blues wasn't just the 60s folk revival, which focused on a more narrow aspect of the blues, but the fact that the English and other European countries discovered it and embraced it, and fused it into rock.

Musicians like Muddy Waters and Charlie Parker did most of their work in clubs in America, but often played in concert halls in Europe and were revered as stars and important figures in the history of music.

The rest of the story is well known and documented, blues bands were among the groups that came over with the English invasion, etc.

So the Blues now is actually fairly popular in America still, but the audience is primarily white, and that's frankly neither here or there. The banjo was discarded by Afro-American culture in the 20s, but is a staple in bluegrass music today. Things just change.

But that's why when are my favorite era for black music was the 20s. The people recording back then all felt a sense of newness, and since the recording was direct to disc, you had to be very good to make it in the recording scene. To me the quality of the music from the 20s is very high, and the musicianship as good as any that came afterwards.

Everyone who plays or listens to music has their heroes and artists they hold particularly special. My Hall of Fame has names like Blind Blake, Charley Patton, and Bukka White who did some very special things in the 20s, and they still sound special today.