[Note: This post is the companion piece to “20th-Century Blues Women.” A slightly different format this time, without an introductory essay (for those interested in one, go here.); instead, I offer biographical sketches of some favorite 20th-century Blues men and a song or two that capture the essence of each performer’s approach to the Blues. Songs mentioned will be found on the cds listed in the “Discography.” For suggested reading, go here and here.]
Buddy Guy (1936-)–Born in Lettsworth, Louisiana, Buddy Guy become one of the most accomplished Blues guitarists, acclaimed by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Clapton. Guy developed his unique style by listening to records by T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. He moved to Chicago in 1958, where his guitar-playing talent soon brought him to the attention of older Blues men like Muddy Waters and Freddie King. Guy has been recording since 1958, and his “brash vocals and incendiary guitar work epitomize the contemporary Chicago blues tradition.” (Bill Dahl, liner notes, “The Very Best of Buddy Guy,” p.9) A fine example of Buddy Guy’s atmospheric “Bayou Blues” style is “Feels Like Rain,” set in New Orleans.
John Lee Hooker (c.1917-2001)–Born near Clarksdale, Mississippi, Hooker learned guitar from his stepfather, who had performed with Charley Patton. Hooker left home in his teens, moving to Memphis and then to Cincinnati before settling in Detroit in 1943. He cut his first record in 1948, launching a recording career that lasted for more than half a century. From the beginning, Hooker’s urban Blues retained a country Blues feel. Not one to worry about rhyme schemes or consistent rhythms, he hardly ever performed a song the same way twice. Most of his songs deal with that archetypal Blues trio–money, whiskey, and, especially, women. As Hooker said, “If it weren’t for women, there wouldn’t be no blues.” (Quoted in Tom Pomposello, liner notes to “Sittin’ Here Thinkin’,” p.7) Like most Blues performers, Hooker saw his career suffer during the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll, but, unlike a number of his contemporaries, he was not “rediscovered” in old age. Rather, his career revived with the release in 1989 of The Healer, featuring duets between Hooker and a number of his “fans,” including Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, and Robert Cray. My favorite Hooker song is “I Cover the Waterfront,” especially the long, lush duet version with Van Morrison, on Mr. Lucky, but no Blues fan should miss Hooker’s signature tune, “Boogie Chillen,” delivered in a style that earned him nicknames such as “Father of the Boogie” and the “Boogie Man.” Finally, listen to Hooker at his grimmest, in “Never Get Out of These Blues Alive.”
Son House (1902-1988)—Born near Clarksdale, Mississippi, but his family soon moved to New Orleans. House returned to the Delta twenty years later. Around 1927, he began to learn the guitar on a broken down model he’d purchased for $1.50. A fast learner, House recorded his first sides in 1929. He drove a tractor in the 1930s while singing and playing the Blues in his off hours. House was “discovered” not once but twice: in 1942, while still in Mississippi, by Alan Lomax; and, after he’d given up music and moved to Rochester, N.Y., during the Blues revival of the 1960s. As a result, House hit the concert trail and began recording again, one of the last of the original Delta Blues men. Try “Levee Camp Moan,” followed by Son at his cynical best, in “Preachin’ Blues.”
Robert Johnson (1911-1938)–Born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, but bounced all around the Delta with his family before finally settling in the northern Mississippi cotton town of Robinsonville. Johnson took up the harmonica in his teens, then switched to the guitar, studying the techniques of performers like Charley Patton and Son House, while eking out a living as a sharecropper. Johnson liked to say that he got both his song-writing ability and guitar prowess after making a deal with the Devil while “standin’ at the crossroads.” Johnson’s early death meant that his recorded output was small, but his influence on later generations of Blues and rock ‘n’ roll performers is incalculable. Moreover, “searching for Robert Johnson” has become a cottage industry for generations of Blues scholars. By all means, listen to “Cross Road Blues,” but don’t miss the even eerier “Hellhound on My Trail.”
B.B. King (1925-)–Born on a plantation between Itta Bena and Indianola, Mississippi, Riley B. King honed his musical skills while working as a farm hand. He moved to Memphis in 1948, where he performed and worked as a DJ, the “Beale Street Blues Boy” (eventually shortened to “B.B.”), on radio station WDIA. His first big record, “Three O’Clock Blues,” in 1950, enabled him to concentrate on music fulltime. For the next two decades, he did some three hundred one-night stands a year, along with occasional week-long engagements in large urban theaters. By the early 1960s, his career was in a slump, from which he was rescued when rock ‘n’ roll groups like the Rolling Stones proclaimed him one of their idols. Since that time, King and his almost equally famous guitar, “Lucille,” have recorded and performed at an astonishing rate, though his advancing age has slowed that pace in recent years. Of course you should listen to “The Thrill is Gone,” King’s signature song, but my favorite is “Why I Sing the Blues,” which explores a much broader question than the title suggests.
Mississippi Fred McDowell (1905-1972)–A native of Rossville, Tennessee, Fred McDowell began teaching himself the guitar when he was about twelve years old. He was inspired by an uncle to use the slide technique to extract a variety of whines and twangs from his instrument. Beginning with a smoothed down beef bone his uncle gave him, McDowell experimented with other types of slides, finally settling on an inch-long lip of a Gordon’s Gin bottle. In 1940, McDowell moved to Como, Mississippi, where he continued to farm during the day and entertain his friends and neighbors at night. Somehow, the talent scouts who prowled the Delta before World War II searching for Blues performers overlooked McDowell. Like a number of others, though, he eventually was “discovered” by the peripatetic Alan Lomax, during a swing through the Delta in 1959 for Atlantic Records. Although McDowell stated emphatically that “I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll,” his fantastic slide guitar work was admired by many rock groups in the 1960s, including the Rolling Stones. When he was buried in 1972, according to one account, McDowell wore a lime green leisure suit the Stones had given him when he performed with them on a European tour. For a fine example of McDowell’s talent as both a guitarist and a story teller, try “Baby Please Don’t Go,” a Blues standard that opens with a wonderful introductory monologue combining autobiography and a lesson in playing the slide guitar.
Blind Willie McTell (1898-1959)–A native of McDuffie County, Georgia, Willie McTell was blind at birth. Despite his disability, he traveled throughout the Southeast playing his twelve-string guitar. He recorded regularly between the 1920s and the mid-1950s, becoming perhaps the leading performer of “Piedmont Blues,” and he played on the streets of Atlanta after that. I’m a big fan of “story songs,” and McTell recorded one of the best, “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues.” And, speaking of great story songs, check out the best Bob Dylan song most people have never heard, the powerful “Blind Willie McTell,” where the ’60s icon ponders the question of what made Blind Willie such a great Blues artist–and answers it as only Dylan can.
Charley Patton (c.1887-1934)–Charley Patton grew up on the huge Dockery Plantation near Cleveland, Mississippi. He was not interested in farm work, and, once he had begun to record (1929), he was fired from his day job and spent the rest of his life as a professional Blues man. Patton’s voice, while gruff and plaintive enough to suit the purist, presents problems to newcomers, because many of his recorded lyrics seem unintelligible at first, the result of primitive recording techniques and Patton’s deep Delta accent. Despite this difficulty, even the tinny recordings that have survived still manage to convey the power of his guitar work and the mesmerizing sound of “his whiskey-and cigarette-scarred voice.” (Cub Koda, in Michael Erlewine, et al., eds., All Music Guide to the Blues [1996 ed.], p.209) Check out Patton’s two-part epic “story song” about the terrible Mississippi River flood of 1927, “High Water Everywhere”; another great tune is “Dry Well Blues,” about a drought in Lula, Mississippi, where Patton was living in 1930.
Muddy Waters (1915-1983)–Born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Mississippi; taught himself to play guitar and harmonica as a youngster. By the early 1940s, he drove a tractor during the day and performed at night as “Muddy Waters, Stovall’s Famous Guitar Picker.” He too was “discovered” by Alan Lomax, who recorded him at Stovall in 1941 and again in 1942. Encouraged by Lomax’s enthusiasm, Muddy left for Chicago in 1943 . He purchased his first electric guitar in 1944, and, perhaps more than any other performer, was responsible for introducing the “electric Blues,” which in turn exerted a major influence on rock ‘n’ roll. To get an idea of how he grew as a performer and of what a difference the electric guitar made to the Blues, listen to three versions of the same song: the first, “I Be’s Troubled,” was recorded by Alan Lomax at Stovall Plantation in the summer of 1941, and Muddy played it on a borrowed acoustic guitar; the second version, now called “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” was recorded in 1948, early in his career; finally, listen to the 1977 version, from Muddy’s comeback album, Hard Again, with backing from an all-star aggregation of Blues men who are clearly having a whole lot more fun than should be legal.
Howlin’ Wolf (1910-1976)—Born Chester Burnett in West Point, Mississippi. Among Wolf’s early teachers was the “Father of the Delta Blues,” Charley Patton. Like many Blues men, Wolf gave up farming and left the Delta, moving first to Memphis and then to Chicago, where Muddy Waters helped him get established. Physically imposing, Wolf in performance was flamboyant and energetic. He was not a particularly accomplished musician; what made him memorable and endeared him to audiences was his voice: in the words of historian Francis Davis, he “didn’t so much sing as cackle with malevolent glee.” (Davis, The History of the Blues, p.193) Only have one chance to listen to the Wolf? Then, make it his signature song, “Smokestack Lightnin,'” perhaps garnished with a sidedish of “Evil.”
Buddy’s Baddest: The Best of Buddy Guy. Silvertone (J1 1677)
John Lee Hooker, Mr. Lucky. Charisma/Point Blank (91724-2); The Healer. Chameleon (D2-74808); The Very Best of John Lee Hooker. Rhino (R2 71915); The Best of John Lee Hooker. MCA (MCD 19507)
Son House, Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions. Columbia (C2K 48867)
Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. Columbia (C2K 46222)
B.B. King, Why I Sing the Blues. MCA (MCAD–20256)
Mississippi Fred McDowell, I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll. Fuel 2000 (302 061 158 2)
Blind Willie McTell, Atlanta Twelve String. Atlantic (792366-2); Bob Dylan, “Blind Willie McTell,” The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3. Columbia (C3K 47382)
Charlie Patton: Father of the Delta Blues. Yazoo (2020)
Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings. Chess/MCA (CHD-9344); Muddy Waters: His Best, 1947 to 1955. Chess/MCA (CHD-9370); Hard Again. Blue Sky (ZK 34449)
Howlin’ Wolf: His Best. Chess/MCA (CHD-9375)
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: