Are many people interested in the Blues? Some might be asking “what is the blues”? The Blues originated on Southern plantations in the early 1800s. Slaves – African American sharecroppers – sang in the fields as they labored picking cotton. When you sing about the blues’, you sing about misfortune, betrayal, and regret.

The name “the blues” probably originated with the 17th-century English expression “the blue devil”, named because of the hallucinations that came from severe alcohol withdrawal. Shortened over time “the blues” came to mean a state of depression or agitation. Blue was slang for “drunk” in the 1800s. Blues music has evolved over the years, from the old beat up acoustic guitars – Robert Johnson – to the electric music of today – Eric Clapton/Joe Bonamassa.

Robert Johnson Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson was possible born in 1911, his father Charles Dodds was a relatively prosperous landowner and furniture maker. Together with his wife Julia, they had ten children. Charles was forced to leave Hazlehurst, MS after a dispute with a white landowner. Julia left Hazlehurst with baby Robert, but after two years sent him to live with his father in Memphis.

About 1919, Robert rejoined his mother in Tunica, MS where he attended school there until 1927. A school friend recalled that as a youth Robert was already playing harmonica and jaw harp, or mouth harp. Johnson was absent from school for long periods of time suggesting that he may have been living in Memphis part-time with his father.

Johnson was married in 1929 to Virginia Travis, who died shortly thereafter from childbirth. Surviving relatives of Virginia spread the word that her death was a divine punishment for Robert’s decision to sing secular songs, known as “selling yourself to the devil”. Throughout the years Johnson traveled the South and Midwest sometime playing for tips on street corners. He was a very talented musician but had a weakness for whiskey and women and his commitment to the road.

Johnson started recording around 1936, in San Antonio. Some of his songs were, “Come On in My Kitchen”, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”, and “Crossroad Blues”. The myth says that he sold his soul to the devil at the local crossroads of Mississippi, to achieve success. Johnson recorded many songs, most have been covered by modern-day blues’ artists. Eric Clapton has called Johnson “the most important blues’ singer that ever lived.”

Johnson died in 1938, at the age of 27 near Greenwood, MS, of unknown causes. Some say he was murdered by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he had flirted. The exact location of Johnson’s grave is unknown, but there is a consensus that he is buried somewhere near Greenwood, MS.

Devil Legend – According to legend, Robert Johnson, while living on the plantation in Mississippi had a great desire to become a blues’ musician. He was told to take his guitar to a crossroad, near Dockery Plantation, at midnight. A large black man met him there (the devil), took his guitar, tuned it, played a few songs and then returned it to Robert, giving him the mastery of the guitar. In exchange for his soul, Johnson was able to create the blues’.

Great Blues Musicians                                   

There were many early blues’ artists traveling throughout the Mississippi Delta around and after the time of Robert Johnson. Riley B. King, known as B.B, one of the best known, was born in Berclair, MS in 1925. B.B. sang, played, and toured all through the years until his death in 2015. He earned the nickname “The King of the Blues” and one of the “Three Kings of the Blues”, with Albert King and Freddie King.

King performed tirelessly throughout his life, averaging about 200 concerts per year. In 1956, he reportedly appeared in 342 show. When he wasn’t on the road King lived in Memphis, TN, and Chicago. He died in 2015 in Las Vegas, NV. Through the years King recorded 43 studio albums, 16 live albums and made 138 singles.

Buddy Guy was born in 1936, in Lettsworth, LA.and learned to play the guitar using a two-string diddley bow he made. Later he was given a Harmony acoustic guitar. Guy began performing with bands in Baton Rouge, in the early 1950s. He moved to Chicago around 1957 and soon fell under the influences of Muddy Waters, Magic Slim, and Otis Rush. Buddy has recorded or performed with about every Chicago blues’ musician around, just a few Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Koko Taylor.

Buddy Guy has been an influence on many, many blues’ artist of today and a lot of them owe their success to him.Buddy  Guy’s Legends club is one of the most well-known entertainment venues in the World. Many well-known artists perform their nightly. Without Buddy Guy, the blues’, not to mention rock as we know it, would not be where it is now. Guy has influenced artists from Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmie Page to Stevie Ray Vaughn and Joe Bonamassa.

Buddy is still touring, still performing, and still rocking audiences everywhere. He is still doing a great job of it.

Other Great Artists

Many guitarists of today can pin their success on some of these great musicians. Stevie Ray Vaughn was inspired by American and British blues’ rock. He began playing guitar at age seven and dropped out of high school in 1971. He began touring and playing with his brother Jimmie in numerous bands based in Austin, TX. AllMusic describes him as “a rocking powerhouse of a guitarist who gave blues’ a burst of momentum in the 80s, with influence still felt after his tragic death.”

In all Stevie recorded ten studio albums, six live albums, eight music videos, and 36 singles. Vaughn was well respected by fellow musicians and blues’ fans all over the world. It was a tragic loss to the music industry when he died. Blues fans wonder, with artist like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray, what would have been, had they lived? Stevie was killed in a helicopter crash near Elkhorn WI. in 1990.

Another well-known guitarist, who is influenced, by B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray, and many of the British guitarist, is Joe Bonamassa.Joe opened for a B.B. King concert when he was twelve years old. With his fresh young style, he has taken the blues’ to the next level. Bonamassa has played alongside Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Steve Winwood and Dereck Trucks, among many.

 

Joe has performed at many well-known venues, Royal Albert Hall, Radio City Music Hall, and Carnegie Hall, just to name a few. Joe has dedicated his time and a lot of his money to the Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation. This being Joe’s nonprofit organization whose mission it is to further music education by funding scholarships and providing music education resources to schools in need. So far Joe has recorded twelve studio albums, fifteen live albums, and a host of singles, collaboration albums and music videos.

Bonamassa is still touring the world, in a different city every night. When he is not touring, he is in the studio with another artist or recording on his own. There is no question Joe is dedicated to blues’ music!

In Closing

Blues has evolved since Robert Johnson. With the advances in sound technique, blues’ doesn’t sound quite like it did in the Robert Johnson days. The 12 Bar chord patterns are the same and the lyrics are still about misfortune and betrayal. During the 1800s, the Deep South was home to hundreds of bluesmen, traveling from town to town with their music, unfortunately, most of this music was not recorded and the music followed these musicians to their grave.

Blues originated in the Mississippi Delta, just upriver from New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz. Jazz and Blues interact with each other in countless ways. It is probably safe to say that Rock n Roll and Country Music would not have come about, had it not been for the Blues!!

Look Forward to hearing from you!  COMMENT below!

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2 Comments

  1. I remember hearing about the Robert Johnson “devil theory” a few years ago and found it really interesting.

    I’m glad you wrote an article about the history of the blues. Most people have forgotten about this genre or don’t know much about it. It’s often overlooked which is a shame, especially considering how influential it was on other genres.

    Joe Petruzzi
    1. Hey Joe know you have heard that before! THX for the comment! Yes I have been a fan for quite some years now. 

      Yes we could probably do a whole story on Robert Johnson all by itself. He certainly had a very interesting life.

      THX and hope to talk to you soon!     Wayne

      Wayne Towns

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