Ago 29 2011, 20h22
We live in a miraculous age where music is concerned. In virtually any area of music, at any given moment, there is a wider selection of recordings available today than at any time in the past. This sounds like a wonderful thing -- except when you look at an area of music that you know nothing about and wonder, where do I start?
Even more to the point, where historical musical forms are involved, if you really want to understand a particular form of music, it helps to know something about the people that made it and how they and their audience understood their music.
This should be pretty straightforward, with blues as with any other form of music -- start by finding an accessible introduction to the music (such as the German Romantic repertory in classical, the Beatles in British rock etc.), listen to the leaders in that part of the field, absorb the music and read what the liner notes and maybe a few reference books have to say, and take it from there.
But blues -- especially historic blues, which, for our purposes, is almost anything recorded before 1960, when the White population began discovering the music -- is fundamentally different from most other popular music that you're likely to find on album or compact disc. The differences lie in the way the music originated, the purpose it served, the way it was recorded, how it was released, and the manner in which it was intended to be heard.
For starters, the legacy of the blues is richer than casual listeners realize. But until recently, it was also among the most poorly documented.
For the rock listener, in particular, absorbing the blues on its own terms means going back to a period in which very little was standard in the recording or the music business, and even less so in the dire poverty of the Deep South. In those days, even the instruments weren't always standard. For one thing, it is highly probable that the blues as it came to be known to us in the 1920s and 1930s originally derived from banjo music, not guitar, and a few banjo players (or players of banjo-type instruments) did record during the 1920s, and that is a blues sound that is utterly different (and quite wonderful) from what most of us would recognize today. But even the guitars weren't always "standard" -- Big Joe Williams was renowned for his nine-string guitar, essentially a six-string modified so that the uppermost strings were doubled like a 12-string; Papa Charlie Jackson, the first male blues singer to record, used a six-string instrument with a banjo-type body, which created very unusual resonances; Leadbelly became best known for his 12-string "Stella" guitar (and six- and 12-string Stellas were extremely popular in the south during the 1920s), yet his first commercial recordings for the American Record Company in New York were done almost entirely with a six-string instrument.
Even the one guitar most commonly associated with country blues, the steel-bodied National Dobro guitar with built in resonator cones (which created a sound remarkably like an electric guitar), is almost forgotten today outside the ranks of blues enthusiasts. You can see John Fogerty holding what looks like one on the cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Green River album, and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straights uses one -- John Lennon also makes excellent use of one on his protest song "John Sinclair" off of Sometime in New York City.
Moreover, appreciating the blues today means forgetting a lot of our notions about how to listen to music.
For starters, anyone listening to blues on a compact disc or long-playing record should bear in mind that until 1956, there was no such thing as a blues "album."
In fact, for most blues listeners from 1920 until well into the late '50s, buying a dozen or more songs by a favorite artist at any one time would have been impossible. Records, especially blues records, just didn't get released or distributed that way. In fact, in the 1930s, if you owned five records by the same blues artist, you were an unusually resourceful fan, and -- depending upon the label they were done for -- if those records were all in good shape and fully playable, you were a downright miracle worker.
Singers and Songs, Not Albums
For starters, the long-playing album didn't even come into existence until 1948. Until then, all records were released on fragile, heavy 78-rpm shellac discs holding up to three and a half minutes of music on a side. Before that, there were "albums" -- big, photo album-like bound collections of 78s -- but they were reserved for classical music and the very biggest pop stars.
The long-playing album, from its inception until around 1960, was a format reserved for classical and jazz, and better pop music, along with some of the bigger country & western artists of the day. Blues was confined to the realm of 45-rpm singles and 78-rpm discs (which, contrary to popular belief, continued to be produced until the end of the 1950s).
The work of a handful of blues artists -- Leadbelly, Pink Anderson, and Piano Red the best known among them -- was released on album, but these were the exceptions that proved the rule. Leadbelly's following was confined to an almost exclusively to White folk music enthusiasts, who bought albums rather than 45s (and Folkways Records never did try to compete in the commercial 45-rpm market). Pink Anderson recorded for Bluesville, an offshoot of Prestige Records that, similarly, was cultivating a relatively sophisticated jazz audience, also attuned to the long-playing format. And Piano Red, on the RCA-offshoot label Groove Records, released an album made up on one side of a live performance from Atlanta's Magnolia Ballroom in March of 1955, and on the other of his previously released singles.
Red's work, however, was unique among commercial blues artists. Most blues records were aimed at an audience of poorer rural and urban Blacks, with a smattering of poor Whites. Neither group bought many long-playing records -- they couldn't afford them, and some of the really poor had never upgraded from 78-rpm players, which helped keep that format marginally viable right into the end of the 1950s.
The very first "album" by Muddy Waters, the biggest star on the roster of Chess Records, and the closest thing to a universal star that the blues had, didn't appear until 1958, 11 years after he'd started with Chess. And that album, The Best of Muddy Waters, was a collection of existing singles dating from 1948 through 1955, not new songs.
The few blues albums released in the 1950s consisted of existing singles or, less often, concert performances. Muddy wouldn't do his first album of new recordings, Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy, until two years later, in 1960 -- and that was made up of songs by his one-time mentor. He wouldn't get to do an album of new songs of his own until Muddy, Brass, and the Blues in 1966, 19 years after he first started with Chess, and only nine years before his last album for the label. Muddy's Chess stablemate Howlin' Wolf didn't do his first album of new songs, Back Door Wolf, until 1971, just four years before he died. All of his album releases up to then were collections of singles or re-recordings of his best known songs. And B.B. King's first two albums, Singin' the Blues and The Blues, collections of existing singles, didn't get released by his original label, Crown Records, until after he'd signed to another company. His first real album, Live at the Regal, wouldn't appear until 1965, some 16 years after his first recordings, and his first studio album wouldn't follow that until two years later.
And blues artists such as Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Barbecue Bob, all of whom died before World War II, never even conceived of commercial releases of their music numbering more than two songs at a time. This is important, because most of us -- especially rock listeners -- have learned to listen to albums as a whole, ten or more songs at a time that are presumably on a disc together for a reason.
This is exactly the assumption one has to avoid in listening to the early output of Muddy Waters or B.B. King, most of Howlin' Wolf, and all of Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, or any of their contemporaries. It means "unlearning" everything that we've been taught about listening to albums since at least 1964-67, the years that the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan established the album as an art form for most of us.
Individual songs, not albums, were the focus of a traditional bluesman's recording career, and singles were usually released many months apart, so that audiences discovered their music over a period of years, not hours. When we listen today, it's easy to forget that a pre-World War II performer such as Papa Charlie Jackson developed his style and repertory in the recording studio during a period of over ten years, not the two hours it might take us to go through his entire record legacy, and that he knew and played hundreds of songs. Longer lived artists like Blind Willie McTell or Bukka White recorded four or six songs at a time, over 20 years or more; and Tampa Red laid down over 300 songs, four at a time, from 1927 until 1953, before he was ever asked to do a whole album's worth of songs at one time. Big Bill Broonzy got to record as many as 24 songs a year at the height of his career -- Broonzy worked at that pace during the late '30s. But those songs were conceived separately, and heard two at a time by the public.
The songs that listeners today associate together by these artists are only established that way because some record producer chose to stick them on the same collection, years or decades after they were made. In that sense, while they are convenient, the album and the compact disc distort the origins and purposes of original blues songs. They're merely the wrapping in which the songs are packaged, and should never be mistaken for a coherent statement.
In order to understand the changes that had taken place in the blues leading up to the first blues albums, it's necessary to go back to its beginnings. The blues as an identifiable musical genre first appeared just after the turn-of-the-century, although it didn't begin to emerge as a genre with commercial possibilities in the middle of the next decade, in the music of W.C. Handy. There were musicians -- mostly working minstrel shows, medicine shows, and carnivals, or playing the Black hamlets of the Deep South -- who played blues as part of their repertory, along with ragtime, novelty songs, and all other manner of repertory.
The blues was peculiar, as music born of despair, which had the effect of making people happy. Gospel and spirituals had similar social roots, but worked differently, focused as they were on matters of redemption, damnation, and one's place in the cosmos -- blues was earthier, and frequently raunchier. Moreover, the blues had the effect -- in detailing a source of distress (frequently romantic in nature) -- of making the listener feel better; not uplifted, not "saved," but better, and always happier.
This was why Willie Dixon, perhaps the most renowned blues songwriter of the middle 20th century, always took exception to those people (especially Black listeners) who rejected the blues for being too sad or depressing. Quite the contrary, Dixon insisted, "The blues is happy music!"
And it's true -- if you listen to any good country blues from the 1920s or early '30s, or electric blues from the late '60s, it's almost impossible not to feel happy listening to the play of the words, the interweaving of the instrument and the voice, and the overall effect of the song. It's as though the song becomes the receptacle, psychically speaking, for whatever might be troubling the listener, or the composer.
Earlier in the 20th century, this was no mystery to anyone. Almost as soon as record companies began recognizing a Black clientele that was worth serving, they recognized the blues as good time music. Strangely enough, it was among female singers that the blues first emerged on record, and in a surprisingly upbeat form.
Mamie Smith (1883-1946) introduced the term "blues" to the popular music culture in 1920, with her release of "Crazy Blues" on the Okeh label. Her early releases sold 75,000 copies a month, a massive figure for the era, and Okeh followed this up with more records using the name and primordial sound of the blues, and soon other record companies moved to capitalize on Okeh's success. By the summer of 1920 Lucille Hegamin was recorded on Arto, followed soon after by Lillyn Brown on Emerson and Alberta Hunter for the Black Swan label.
All of these records were designated "race records," a safe and relatively polite way of referring to their oriented toward Black listeners. Okeh started the designation -- the company had recorded a lot of what, today, would be considered ethnic and popular music from every country that might have had a significant number of listeners in the United States, but had hesitated over what to call music for Black listeners, until they came up with the "race records" designation, which stuck for the industry until the late '40s.
Stylistically, the earliest generally accepted blues record, however, was Bessie Smith's "Down Hearted Blues," released early in 1923. There were male blues singers recorded during this period, including guitarist Sylvester Weaver and singer/guitarist Ed Andrews, who cut a track called "Barrelhouse Blues" in 1924, but it was Papa Charlie Jackson (c. 1885-1938) with "Papa's Lawdy Lawdy Blues" and "Airy [aka "Hairy"] Man Blues," who really opened the whole era of blues recording with a pair of hit records. Not long after, Uncle Gus Cannon (aka "Banjo Joe") (1885-1979), leader of Cannon's Jug Stompers -- whose music provided the Grateful Dead with the sources of several of their songs -- made his debut on record.
Jackson's recordings date from 1924 on the Paramount label, a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company that was based in New York, but also recorded in Chicago. Other major companies active in blues during the 1920s and early '30s, in addition to Okeh, included Victor, Vocalion, and ARC (American Record Company). Blues recording in those days was often an informal affair, especially in rural settings -- a company representative might come to a city such as Atlanta, posting notices about the auditions and where and when they were taking place, usually a local hotel; or they might pass through a town or hamlet to hear the local talent, and perhaps set up at a general store to listen to anyone who responded (Note: This kind of scene was re-enacted, loosely, in only one minor piece of American popular culture -- the 1962 Andy Griffith Show episode "Mayberry on Record," depicts a record-company talent scout showing up in Mayberry to audition and record local folk music talent, which, incidentally, included the bluegrass group the Kentucky Colonels).
The best bluesmen from this era frequently had repertories numbering in the hundreds of songs, and usually at least a handful that were guaranteed crowd-pleasers. If a bluesman had at least one that seemed promising, he had a shot at getting it recorded; many musicians never got past their first two-song session, or perhaps eight or a dozen songs over three sessions. Others, like Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red, worked for 25 years writing and recording hundreds of songs, enough to fill a dozen CDs each.
Those who passed muster and seemed reliable were usually signed up on the spot. Recording was a haphazard process -- microphones were crude, the fidelity sometimes doubtful, and recording tape didn't exist. The recording process in those days involved cutting a hot wax lacquer at 78-rpm, on a portable machine (that might weigh hundreds of pounds). There was no such thing as "playback," which would ruin the lacquer -- a recording couldn't be checked for errors until a pressing was prepared, as much as a month later, so it was up to the musician and the producer, faced with limited time and money, to recognize whether a song was captured at its best.
Occasionally, some really lucky and ambitious producers might even get a pair of blues legends together in those days, with historic results -- thus, Papa Charlie Jackson and Blind Arthur Blake, two of the greatest guitar players of the first half of the 20th century, cut a couple of sides together as "Papa Charlie and Blind Blake Talk About It -- Parts I and II"; and Jackson cut duets with Hattie McDaniel of "Dentist Chair Blues -- Parts I and II," decades before McDaniel won her Oscar for Gone with the Wind. And most of the first (John Lee) Sonny Boy Williamson's early recordings featured back-up by Robert Lee McCollum (aka Robert Nighthawk) and Big Joe Williams, as well as blues mandolin star Yank Rachel.
It's also easy to forget the limitations under which these blues recordings were made. All recording was done and released on 78-rpm discs, which had a maximum running time of slightly over three-minutes on a side. For blues players, this often meant abridging their performance of a work in order to fit it onto a record. A song that might last six or seven minutes as normally performed by the artist would be nothing but a shadow of itself on record -- Leadbelly, for one, was constantly struggling to abbreviate his songs to fit them onto record, until his first session (among the very last of his career) captured on recording tape in 1948. Every so often, a song might prove sufficiently compelling that the producer would divide it in two and devote both sides of a record to it -- Furry Lewis's epic "Casey Jones," one of the greatest blues records ever made, cut for Victor in the late '20s, is one of the greatest examples of this adaptation, but also a very rare occurrence.
The business arrangements behind these early recordings were "informal" by modern standards. According to the recollections of some participants, the fees, such as they were, could be as little as $50 to $100 and a supply of gin or bourbon for an afternoon's recording session that might yield four or six songs. Royalties, even if they were part of a contract, which would have been extraordinary, seem seldom to have been paid, and even if a musician were interested in formally copyrighting an original song, there was virtually no way in those days to collect royalties on its sales. (One notable exception was Big Joe Williams, who had the foresight to copyright "Baby Please Don't Go," which kept him well provided for after it became a rock and blues standard in the 1960s).
The business of selling records was very different then. Record stores existed, but they were really music stores that carried sheet music and even piano rolls in the early days, as well as 78-rpm platters. Records were less important than sheet music, and most of what the biggest of these stores stocked was classical music and Tin Pan Alley type popular music, and jazz. If blues records were carried at all, it was only in stores in neighborhoods -- such as New York's Harlem and Chicago's South Side -- that had large numbers of customers for them. And that was only in the biggest cities.
Elsewhere, and especially in the Deep South, there were no "record stores." Records were sold through general stores, furniture shops, and other completely unrelated businesses, usually by the same places that sold phonographs. Distribution was uneven, and within the same state a record might be available in one county, but not another.
Still, against this backdrop, several records by Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897-1929) easily sold as many as 500,000 to a million copies during the late '20s, a phenomenal number (and he saw precious little good for it -- Jefferson froze to death on a Chicago street during the winter of 1929-1930). Indeed, on at least a handful of Blind Lemon Jefferson's songs, the sales were so high that the lacquer master wore out from overuse in pressing copies, and the singer had to re-record those songs again. Additionally, for all of its relative isolation in the poorer rural south or the ghettos of northern cities, the blues audience of the 1920s was sophisticated enough to be expected to respond to advertisements emphasizing such matters as electrical recording, which Paramount began pushing with its advent in 1925. (Note: Electrical recording, which is to say recording through an electronic microphone which could amplify sound, as opposed to an acoustic recording horn.)
Paramount Records, in particular, had some dubious means of ensuring that its records sold in even greater numbers than their musical qualities alone dictated. The company's pressings of 78-rpm shellac discs, which were noisy and prone to wear under the best of circumstances, were unusually scratchy and pressed so cheaply that they would begin to wear out after as few as a half-dozen plays.
This ensured that listeners would have to repurchase Paramount releases that they liked. But it also meant that clean copies of most Paramount discs are all but impossible to obtain today, and that many modern, digital transfers of Paramount artists such as Charlie Patton, Papa Charlie Jackson, and Blind Lemon Jefferson all require major noise reduction to be made listenable. This has blighted some of the most dedicated efforts at reissuing the complete work of numerous Paramount artists, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Papa Charlie Jackson, the Beale Street Sheiks (aka Frank Stokes and Dan Sane), and Charlie Patton (1887-1934) -- even the best digital clean-up work can only accomplish so much. Added to the fact that the fragility of shellac discs, and the fact that relatively few people took the history of blues very seriously until the 1950s, and the rarity of these discs becomes obvious. Paramount wasn't the only company guilty of these lapses in quality, but given the quality of the artists on its roster, the deficiencies become quite vexing.
Spearheaded by Blind Lemon Jefferson's success, blues records sold in ever increasing numbers during the late '20s, and producers and talent scouts fanned out across the South looking for talent that could emulate that success. Alas, all of this came to a halt with the Great Depression. This economic upheaval fell even more heavily on the rural South than it did elsewhere in the country, and by the early '30s, Paramount Records had gone out of business; before the end of the '30s, the American Record Company would be taken over by Columbia Records; and Okeh would also become part of Columbia. And very few talent scouts for the commercial record labels would make the trip across the Mason-Dixon Line much after 1931.
The disappearance of the scouts limited the chances for any new local talent being discovered, and coincided with several other events that slowed any recording activity involving the blues. The insolvency of recording companies such as Paramount, coupled with their exploitative business practices when they were in business, left many blues artists distrustful of the recording process. Some of the best players who were still alive at the end of the 1930s realized that, as successful as their records might have been, they were going to see precious little in the way of monetary reward -- some consciously despaired of ever being anything but poor, while others continued to record and play, realizing that this was probably a better life than anything else that might come their way.
Evolution: The 1940s
Some acoustic country-blues artists such as Blind Willie McTell and Curley Weaver continued to record into the late '30s, but changes were coming that cast doubt on the future of this brand of blues, mostly involving the Black population of the South.
The Depression wiped out many of the jobs that poorer Blacks in the South had relied upon for survival in years past. The Black migration north had already started during the teens, and during the 1920s cities like Chicago and New York had viable Black communities, and were already the sites of many blues recordings. The Depression simply made the migration more of a necessity.
And as the Black populations in Chicago, New York, and other northern cities gradually surged, the audience for the blues changed. A new, more sophisticated brand of blues, akin to big-band jazz, began to manifest itself alongside acoustic country blues. By the middle of the 1930s, rural acoustic blues was on the decline, along with the economic situation of its audience.
The record companies happened to find this form of smooth, urban blues easier to absorb into their catalogs and their recording schedules -- "blues," such as it was in the late '30s and early '40s, became an offshoot of the remnants of the swing orchestras, and sounded a lot like jazz except that the voices still had a rough, down-home quality and the lyrics tended to be raunchier; in fact, some of what was out there uncannily anticipated rock & roll by a decade or more. The result was that artists such as Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy, who had started their careers as solo acoustic performers, were suddenly leading groups of six players or more, and sounding very "un-country." The development of the electric guitar, which first turned up in blues on the records of T-Bone Walker (1910-1975) -- who was just as respected by jazz audiences as he was among blues listeners -- hastened this development as the 1940s began.
The producer who was probably most responsible for helping to push this sound was Lester Melrose, who'd started with the Vocalion label in the early '30s and moved through several labels. During the early '40s he was closely associated with Victor, where he was responsible for signing many of the acts on the Bluebird label -- indeed, he was called the mastermind of the "Bluebird beat," having devised the notion of establishing a rotating group of six players at a time, who would perform on each other's records. This ensured a high level of quality in the work that he recorded, but also -- according to many critics of the sound -- a sameness in many Melrose-produced records, especially when he would have his artists record each other's material. Of course, you really only notice this today, when listening to the records side-by-side.
Melrose's way of doing business, however, would, today, likely be considered just short of criminal. He usually signed up artists such as Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup directly under contract himself, paying them flat fees for their recordings while he held onto the recording contract with the label, which allowed him to collect any royalties himself. He also took the song copyrights himself as well, where there was original material involved -- this is why originals such as Tampa Red's "Love with a Feeling" turned up on recordings by Merline Johnson, Sonny Jones, and Tommy McClellan, all Melrose artists. He kept his artists busy and money coming into them, in lieu of royalties, by using them as session musicians on each other's records. In other words, he became a one-man musical "company town" -- an artist who said something about the business arrangements on his own records might well lose the income from the session work.
The recordings that Melrose produced were so successful, that he became a major influence even among companies competing with Victor, as they sought to emulate his work. Putting together this kind of small-band blues was not only a good way of smoothing out the music's roughest edges, but also gave labels and producers the chance to use some of the swing bands held over from the early '40s. By the mid-'40s, however, a lassitude had entered the music, as well as a high degree of predictability. Sales had begun declining as the market became saturated. And as it turned out, this kind of blues wasn't what the listeners wanted, either.
The major record companies, especially Victor and Columbia (which had absorbed the American Record Company and the Okeh label), responded by cutting back on the number of blues signings and blues sessions among their remaining artists. Tampa Red, who'd been with Victor since the mid-'30s and had often recorded as many as 26 songs a year, was only going into the studio once or twice a year by the end of the 1940s, and only laying down a handful of songs. By the end of the decade, neither label was doing much with the blues anymore. One irony of this situation came in 1951 when Piano Red (aka Willie Perryman), newly signed to RCA, became the first blues artist in the label's history to reach the pop charts, and became one of the label's top-selling artists for a time with "Red's Boogie," "Rockin' with Red," "Right String but the Wrong Yo Yo," and "Layin' the Boogie."
Still, the major labels were in something of disarray when it came to blues, as well as R&B. The independent labels were closer to the public that bought the music, and it would show in the years from 1946 through the end of the 1950s.
But the 1940s, despite the commercial burnout of the blues, had seen a little order come to the business of the blues.
Royalty payments to the artists were still inadequate, when they did occur, but the concept of royalties was at least now understood, even if producers took steps to keep them to a minimum. Arthur Crudup, signed to Victor's Bluebird label by Lester Melrose, didn't learn until far too late that his contract took away his publishing royalties he might've been entitled to, and left him with virtually nothing in the way of artists royalties, despite the substantial success of his records during the 1940s. Even after he was rediscovered during the 1960s and began to be paid something close to what his music and performances were worth, he despaired, telling one listener, "I was born poor, I've lived poor, and I know I'm gonna die poor."
So, one might ask, if that were the case, then why record, or keep making music?
One answer might be because the music still mattered, and still brought pleasure on some visceral level to men like Crudup, Blind Willie McTell, Buddy Moss, and Skip James, men who knew they'd been cheated and exploited, and probably robbed of any chance any of them had for a life of relative ease.
Yet they kept playing the blues, possibly because it was the blues -- and if Willie Dixon was right, then the blues only sound sad, but make you happy. And "happiness" could refer to the satisfaction of holding crowds spellbound, of doing something with music that told people that these men had passed this way with something to say, and about the way life had treated them; that the money was coming too little, and probably too late to really matter, but people, Black or White, were still listening. Additionally, some of these musicians simply loved the music, and kept at it even though they knew they were being cheated -- "Right String but the Wrong Yo Yo" was a hit at least three different times for Piano Red, but he never saw any money for his success as a recording artist; on the other hand, he never minded the money he received as author of the song through the years.
The situation for songwriters didn't get much better, but the means for making it better in the future was put in place in 1939 with the founding of Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), a performing rights organization that could oversee the collecting of songwriters' royalties. Until then, the only such organization had been ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Producers. For decades, ASCAP had seen to it that its member songwriters were paid for the sales and broadcasts of their work. But ASCAP was run like an exclusive club, and deliberately limited its membership to the more "respectable" sides of composition: Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, classical, and the more sophisticated jazz. It was virtually impossible for anyone writing blues to become a member.
BMI was created to represent everyone creating worthwhile songs who wasn't represented by ASCAP, including country & western, hillbilly, jazz, and blues songwriters. Competition between the two was ferocious, so much so that a war initially broke out between them, which resulted in the disappearance of all ASCAP songs from the airwaves during the early '40s. Even afterward, with a truce more or less in place and BMI established and accepted, ASCAP remained restricted in membership, and it was considered the more upscale of the two organizations for many years. (Note: It was because of this prejudice that BMI, which had lagged behind ASCAP in both membership and revenues, suddenly came to challenge the older rival during the middle and late '50s, as rock & roll, an offspring of country & western and blues, suddenly came to dominate the airwaves and record sales; most rock & roll songwriters were members of BMI. This resulted in attacks on BMI by people who hated rock & roll, for supposedly foisting this "low quality" music off on the public, rather than the good music controlled by ASCAP.)
With the creation of BMI, an organization at last existed to represent the blues songwriter. It didn't do a lot of good at first, as producers driven by greed simply got their artists to sign away their publishing, and the publishers themselves sometimes worked in collusion with the record companies to cheat the songwriter, but at least the mechanism to do something about making money from songwriting was there.
Certain artists did concern themselves sufficiently over songwriting to secure rights that would serve them and their families well in the future. Among the first was Leadbelly, aka Hudie Ledbetter. "Discovered" by folksong collector John Lomax and his son Alan on a Louisiana prison farm, Leadbelly was released from prison with help from Lomax and given a chance to record commercially.
Probably thanks to his contact with John Lomax, Leadbelly was among the first bluesmen to comprehend and take an interest in the business side of songwriting. Not that Lomax was entirely benevolent in showing any of this to Leadbelly -- in the course of trying to secure a career and stardom for his discovery, Lomax simply registered numerous Leadbelly songs for copyright in both his name and Leadbelly's, thus ensuring himself a piece of the royalties that might result. As a result, the singer/guitarist arrived in New York knowing a bit more about that side of the business of songwriting than most of his contemporaries, and while he didn't live long enough to benefit from this knowledge, his widow did see some publishing money that made a difference in her life.
Big Bill Broonzy was another performer/songwriter who was aware of the importance of copyrights but never had a real chance to secure or protect his work. But the man who probably did the most to remind his fellow musicians, as well as listeners, of the importance of the blues songwriter and to establish some security for himself and other members of his generation, was Willie Dixon.
A natural, spontaneous composer who'd been writing songs since before he was a teenager -- and who'd often sold them outright to various local bands when he was in his teens -- Dixon in the early '40s had a sense of the importance of song copyrights. Although he would end up signing up with Arc Music, the publishing arm of Chess Records, as part of his relationship with Chess, he never lost sight of the songs he'd written. With help from an aggressive manager in the 1970s, when the 28-year renewals on many of his 1940s songs were coming due, Dixon did reclaim ownership and the financial rewards from many of his best songs. Dixon became the first -- or, more properly, the oldest -- songwriter in the blues field to see a significant amount of money from his work writing blues songs.
Postwar Blues: The Modern Era
Even as the major labels withdrew from the blues, there were businessmen who believed that there was still a market for blues, if only they could figure out what kind of sound would see. The most notable were Phil and Leonard Chess in Chicago, Sam Phillips in Memphis, and Saul, Jules and Joe Bihari in Los Angeles. All three labels were on the look out for talent, and on at least one occasion, engaged in a three-way tug-of-war for the work of Chester "Howlin' Wolf" Burnett.
Chess Records is the label most familiar to the largest number of people, partly because of the sheer number of blues stars and superstars on its roster, and the label's later successful entry into rock & roll with the music of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and into jazz through the work of Ramsey Lewis. Chess started after World War II, initially under the name Aristocrat, and at first the records that the label made were very much in a mid-'40s, big-band blues style, not much different from the majors, and also what founders Leonard and Phil Chess were booking in the club they owned.
Blues in Chicago had been dominated by various personalities since the 1930s. At that time, from the very end of the 1920s until the end of the '30s, Tampa Red had been the major figure in Chicago blues as a bandleader, guitarist, singer, and composer. By most accounts, Red's apartment was a mecca, meeting place, and hangout for all manner of musicians at all hours of the day or night, with Red's wife happily serving anyone who happened to be present. Later on, from the late '30s until the end of the 1940s, Big Bill Broonzy had been the major figure in Chicago blues.
Both Red and Broonzy did most their recordings in their prime for Victor's Bluebird label -- Tampa Red turned up as a sessionman in some Chess recordings, and Big Bill Broonzy cut a few sides for the label in the early '50s alongside his cousin, Washboard Sam. But it was their successor, as the major bandleader/guitarist/singer/songwriter, who gave shape to the familiar Chess Records sound: Muddy Waters.
A transplanted Delta bluesman, McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) began recording for Chess in 1947. He had previously recorded a single for Columbia, and before that had been captured on a field recording in the Mississippi Delta by John and Alan Lomax (Muddy was the only bluesman so introduced to recording to make it to the top of the commercial blues world, bridging both worlds) before coming to Chess, with the help of Sunnyland Slim, as a sessionman on one of Slim's records. Soon after, Muddy Waters was making his own records. His mix of powerful guttural vocals and electric guitar was based on Mississippi Delta blues, and a direct offshoot of the kind of acoustic country blues that Robert Johnson had been playing before the war, only louder and more aggressive.
What's more, it sold. Chess Records suddenly discovered a market for this new brand of raw, surging electric blues, completely different from the kind of commercial, dance-band-type blues that had been dominant in Chicago for ten years. Soon they were recording major blues stars of the next generation like Little Walter Jacobs, Howlin' Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson II, and, later on, gifted players and singers like Jimmy Rodgers, Buddy Guy, and Koko Taylor. Early in its history, Chess also gave an opportunity for older blues stars such as Robert Nighthawk to lay down some sides, one of which, "Sweet Black Angel," marked the Chess recording debut of Willie Dixon on bass.
The Bihari brothers on their various labels, including Modern, RPM, and Crown, never had quite as coherent an operation as Chess, but they had their share of stars, including B.B. King, Elmore James, and (briefly) Howlin' Wolf. Their operations lacked some of the unity of Chess, and they were also more ambitious in the way that they tried to sell their records, especially as time went on -- after B.B. King left Crown in 1960, not only did the Biharis assemble two excellent albums of some of his most popular songs, but they also redubbed some of his singles, remastering them with added brass instruments to create a stereo effect.
Sam Phillips' Sun Records is best known as the label that discovered Elvis Presley (and for which Presley cut his best music, in many peoples' opinions) and as the early home of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison, but Phillips also cut lots of important blues. Phillips founded Memphis Recording Services in 1950, the first modern studio in Memphis, and cut any number of songs by local blues and R&B artists, which he would license to labels in different parts of the country -- primarily Chess in Chicago and Modern or RPM, owned by the Biharis, in Los Angeles. To this day, Phillips considers Chester "Howlin' Wolf" Burnett to be his greatest discovery, and always felt that if Wolf had stayed with him, he could have made him as big a rock & roll star as Little Richard. As it was, Wolf cut his first sides for Phillips before the Memphis producer lost his new star, first to the Biharis and then to Chess, as part of a very complicated set of artist trades and contract disputes. Wolf's very first record, "Moanin' at Midnight," opened with a sound -- crossing feedback and a basso moan from the six-foot-four Wolf -- that nobody, in or out of the blues, had before, and he never stopped surprising people over the next 23 years. Other important artists recorded by Phillips included singer Jackie Brenston and guitarist Ike Turner -- who, as part of the same band, recorded "Rocket 88," often referred to as the first "rock & roll" record, in 1951 -- and, at the end of the 1950s, when Sun was established as a label, guitarist/singer Frank Frost.
Other labels that contributed in major ways to the history of postwar blues included Los Angeles-based Imperial Records, which recorded Texas bluesmen T-Bone Walker and Li'l Son Jackson, among others -- Walker's playing on his sides for Imperial were a direct inspiration to Chuck Berry who, in turn, would become a star at Chess; Mississippi-based Trumpet Records, which gave Sonny Boy Williamson II and (briefly) Elmore James their starts; and Chicago's Cobra Records which, from 1956 until its demise in 1958, tried to rival Chess Records. Not only did Cobra have Otis Rush -- who'd been rejected by Chess because he sounded too much like Muddy Waters -- but Cobra was the first label to sign Buddy Guy after he arrived in Chicago, and they also had guitarist Magic Sam and Ike Turner's, Kings of Rhythm; and the label scored a major coup in 1956 when it acquired the services of veteran Chess Records producer, arranger, songwriter, and bassist Willie Dixon.
Imperial's commitment to the blues didn't outlast the 1950s, and none of the smaller labels lasted too long. Trumpet was out of business by the early '50s, which proved fortuitous for Chess when Sonny Boy (Rice Miller) Williamson's contract ended up there, and Cobra closed its doors in 1958, after only two years of operation. Nor was either of them very well or widely distributed -- Cobra's output didn't get true national distribution until the 1993 release of the Capricorn Records boxed set devoted to the label, some 33 years after the company ceased to exist. Nor did the Biharis or Sun continue as going concerns much past the early '60s. But they all became, along with Chess, the basis upon which modern blues recording was founded.
These labels found success during the late '40s and early and mid-'50s, selling blues singles to what they thought was mostly a Black audience. What they didn't recognize, however, was that among their listeners, especially from the early-to-mid-'50s on, was a tiny group of younger Whites, who tuned in to Black radio stations and occasionally bought the records, and even attended the concerts. "We don't play for White people," B.B. King said in 1957, adding, "Of course, a few Whites come to hear us on one-night stands."
None of the labels, and even fewer of the artists were quite certain of what to do about this tiny but growing phenomenon. After all, nobody could say what method could be used to reach the White audience without alienating the already substantial Black audience for the blues. Moreover, these were all small, independent labels -- even Chess, the most successful of the bunch, remained a family-run operation until the end of the 1960s -- their resources were limited. When the long-playing record came along in 1948, producers in most fields did something about it immediately. Classical music was the obvious primary beneficiary, as listeners would no longer have to put symphonies on collections of six or more shellac 78s -- the classical labels scrambled to make new recordings, but also transferred many 78-era performances to LP. Eventually, the jazz labels caught up, as players and producers saw the potential of being able to do works running up to 15-to-20 minutes in length without breaks. Popular music came along, exploiting both equally new 45-rpm disc as the basic format for songs, and the LP as the medium for collections of songs.
But the blues was different. Its audience was much poorer -- 78-rpm players were still common until late in the 1950s -- than the pop or classical listenership, and there just was no perceived demand for long-playing records. Moreover, there was not yet a sense of history of the blues in place, the way there was with classical and jazz -- blues was put out to make money, and its past didn't yet matter in the way that classical and even jazz's past did to their respective listeners or the companies trading in them.
This meant that a lot of blues that had been recorded before the war, especially country blues from the 1930s, was neglected -- those masters meant nothing, and a lot of them were lost with the demise in the mid-'30s of labels like Paramount; even masters from the vaults of labels that had been absorbed by the majors, such as ARC and Vocalion, were often missing. The companies that were active in blues were all postwar-founded operations, without access to prewar blues.
The birth of rock & roll during 1954-56 diverted some of the potential white interest from the blues proper. By the same token, rhythm & blues began to draw younger Black listeners away from the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf in growing numbers. Thus, at the end of the 1950s, doing business with the blues had become a lot more difficult.
There was some hope, however, from an unexpected quarter. A somewhat older group of White listeners -- mostly of college age, who had little patience or need for songs of teenage angst -- was increasingly fascinated by the blues. They were beginning to attract notice from the Chess or the Bihari brothers (although to his credit, Sam Phillips at Sun was convinced they were there from the early '50s onward), but nobody was sure how many of them there were, or how to reach them. And they didn't seem remotely capable of making up for the Black listeners being lost to the blues.
The change came at the end of the 1950s, and it happened in stages. Records by Muddy and the Wolf were selling well, and B.B. King had a big enough audience to attract the attention of numerous major labels once his contract with the Biharis had run out. In 1958, Muddy Waters was booked to play England for the first time, and was utterly astonished by the reception that he received, as tens of thousands of fans who'd only heard on record or of him from across the ocean cheered him at his concerts, and listened with rapt attention to every note he sang and played. Then, a year later, came Muddy's appearance at the Newport Folk Festival -- now it was many thousands of Americans, the largest single audience that Muddy had ever played to in person, and almost all of them White, cheering wildly over his set. The resulting live album became a steady seller in the Chess catalog for over 30 years.
By then it was clear that the audience for the blues was bigger than anyone had previously thought, but reaching that audience was also going to be more complicated than anyone had guessed. The White listeners enjoyed modern Chicago bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and started attending B.B. King concerts in droves, but a lot of them also wanted to hear really old time bluesmen like Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and, perhaps most of all, Furry Lewis, who'd re-emerged after 30 years out of the recording business with an album, and a good one at that, and went on to a film career.
The situation was all as confusing as it was encouraging, especially with the Black audience changing at the same time -- older fans still listened to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, but younger Blacks were turning toward more sophisticated and modern urban sounds, and political sounds. To them, musicians like Muddy, the Wolf, and Furry Lewis, and all of the acoustic blues players who were rediscovered during the early '60s were reminders of a time and a history that they wanted nothing to do with. And the rise of the Civil Rights movement, and the Black Power movement, seemed to make the blues irrelevant.
Already, in an effort to make his records sound more sophisticated and soulful -- and less down home and "country" -- Muddy Waters had ceased playing guitar on his studio recordings after 1955. This was especially ironic, as Waters, one of the great guitar players in postwar Chicago, didn't have his instrument on hand when he recorded his very first original studio album, Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy, and had to wait until his 1963 album Folksinger to turn up with his ax (actually, an acoustic guitar on that record) on a studio album.
Chess and Cobra always needed good songs, and Willie Dixon had a proven knack for writing clever songs that seemed to catch the public's ear. In the 1960s, this would be proven out geometrically, as his songs ended up in the repertories of White artists ranging from Peter, Paul & Mary to the Cream. From the mid-'50s onward, his songwriting abilities were increasingly pressed into service on behalf of Muddy, the Wolf, and anyone else who would record his work.
Sometimes, the players themselves were confused by all of this activity and the demands being placed on them. Muddy Waters had been playing electric blues since arriving in Chicago in the mid-'40s, and knew that no Black audience to which he'd played since would sit still for him playing an acoustic country blues set. Even he'd come to consider such a sound hokey and out-of-date. But when Muddy toured England for the first time in 1958, for dates that paid him more money than most any individual shows he'd ever played before, he was forced to turn down his electric guitar because British audiences were utterly unprepared for Chicago-style electric blues.
But when Muddy next visited England four years later with his acoustic guitar in hand, he found that all of the blues being played there was now electric. And, yet, in 1963, when it was time to do another new album, Chess Records, in an effort to cash in on the folk music revival that was in full swing, had him pick up his acoustic guitar and record his Folksinger album, his first acoustic tracks since the 1941 field recordings that John and Alan Lomax had made of him back in the Delta. After that it was back to electric blues for his singles, with Sammy Lawhorn and PeeWee Madison on guitar, and the full electric Muddy, Brass, and the Blues album.
Muddy's Chess stablemate Howlin' Wolf, by contrast, seemed oblivious to the demands of these contradictory audiences and demands. A giant of a man, with a unique voice and special talents on the harmonica (which he'd learned from Rice Miller aka Sonny Boy Williamson II) and guitar, he went on playing the same kind of sets from the late '50s until his retirement in the 1970s. Indeed, even after songs of his such as "Smokestack Lightning" and "Sitting on Top of the World" became staples of White rock bands, he never specially programmed them into his sets, even when he played a gig before a White collegiate crowd. Thus, contrary to what some blues guides say about the Wolf's 1971 concert album Live and Cookin' (At Alice's Revisited), is a not a late career cash-in effort, but an honest representation of his concert work during the final years of his life (and it's still a powerful record, especially with the CD bonus tracks). But when Chess Records tried to get the Wolf to re-record his music in a psychedelic style, on The New Howlin' Wolf Album, imposing a sound on him that wasn't his own and forcing him to pander, that was a disaster from the get-go, with Wolf himself publicly describing the record as "dogshit."
Between 1960 and 1963, Muddy Waters released three albums counting his Best Of collection, three more than he'd had out in his first 13 years with Chess Records. B.B. King's audience had gradually expanded to include White listeners during the late '50s and early '60s. The Biharis' Crown label (which reportedly sold their LPs for as little as $1.99 each) released two collections of his singles during 1960, and ABC-Paramount issued an LP on King in 1963, but the first album of his to achieve real crossover success was Live at the Regal in 1965. There was a certain irony in this, as Live at The Regal was one of the last opportunities to capture a blues show like that, in front of a rousing Black audience, but the album served as a magnet for White audience once they discovered King (primarily through his crossover hit "The Thrill Is Gone," as well as a series of crossover engagements, most notably in Vegas playing the lounge to headliner Frank Sinatra, who had to give his personal approval for the gig). Even more than Muddy Waters, King was one of the top blues artists of the 1960s, and became a major draw for White listeners increasingly fascinated by blues as one of the main sources for rock music.
By the mid-'60s, blues was a big business and album sessions were a fairly routine matter for most performers, even rediscovered stars from the prewar era such as Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Arthur Crudup, who had left the music business decades earlier. The Rolling Stones visited Chess Records in Chicago, and cut some the best music of their careers at those 1964 sessions (the product of which, including "It's All Over Now," "Mona," "I Just Can't Be Satisfied," and "Confessin' the Blues," can be found spread among several of their early London albums, compilation records, and assorted bootlegs).
All of this coincided with a change in the nature of the blues audience -- Whites gradually became the mainstay of the blues, while younger Blacks came to avoid it. In keeping with this change, it was far more likely that a Muddy Waters or a Howlin' Wolf would make the Top 100 album charts, selling their music to college students, than that they would ever hit the R&B charts again after the first half of the decade.
Most of the record labels appreciated the changes, but were at a loss as to how to sustain it. They tried everything -- B.B. King released albums with psychedelic artwork, and Muddy Waters was made to sound like B.B. King on Muddy, Brass, and the Blues. Muddy and Howlin' Wolf each were given the full psychedelic treatment on a Chess offshoot label called Cadet/Concept (run by Leonard Chess' son Marshall). But despite these efforts, Leonard Chess was also slow to understand the changes taking place in the White audience of the period. He ignored the talents of figures such as Buddy Guy, who was playing in a flashy lead guitar style quite unlike Muddy Waters but which was in perfect sync with the work of Jimi Hendrix, Michael Bloomfield and other guitarists whose work college kids were devouring, until after Guy was signed to another label. By contrast, Columbia Records and Capitol Records, neither of which had done much with rock & roll, much less blues during the 1950s, began recording such blues figures as Son House, Bukka White, Willie Dixon, and Mississippi Fred McDowell in their authentic, established styles. In the case of Son House, it had been so many years since he'd played, that he had to be reacquainted with his own style by none other than Alan Wilson, the blues scholar and future co-founder of Canned Heat.
The artists themselves profited to varying degrees from all of this. The concert fees paid to Muddy, the Wolf, B.B. King, Lightnin' Hopkins, Albert King, and other blues stars rose considerably, not only when they started playing in Europe (where $2000 a show was routine -- not much, but easily ten times what many of these men got playing clubs in America) but also the college circuit in America. For some of the survivors of the first half of the century, the sudden surge in demand and money was hard to take -- Mississippi John Hurt, who had never even aspired to a performing career in the 1920s but suddenly found himself playing before thousands of appreciative fans in the 1960s, wasn't even sure how to deal with fees of $1500 a show. Most took it in stride and made the most of this late-in-the-day success, and a few, like Hurt and Furry Lewis, who'd achieved fame 40 years late, even made important recordings.
By now, royalties were expected to be paid, though this was problematic -- Piano Red, for one, recalled that his recording activity for Okeh came to a near-standstill after 1962 when the company failed to pay him any royalties against the sales of his hit "Mr. Moonlight," despite its having sold over 300,000 copies. A few artists, Willie Dixon and Chuck Berry most notable among them, began bringing in attorneys and accountants to verify that they were seeing the money they were entitled to. Songwriting, in particular, became bigger than ever, especially when superstar White bands like the Rolling Stones and the Cream began covering this repertory -- it took time, but eventually Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon achieved financial security based on their song copyrights, which proved as valuable as any of their own recordings.
The Post-Boom Years
By the end of the 1960s, the blues was big business, though not necessarily for bluesmen or blues labels. Rock music had adopted its songs, and even its nuances, in the guise of bands such as the Rolling Stones, Cream, and the Yardbirds-cum-Led Zeppelin. They reaped millions of sales and tickets sold, while most established blues players and their record labels were caught in a bind, losing their Black audience and ignored by most of the millions of Whites who would buy a Cream or a Led Zeppelin album.
Apart from the folk-based labels such as Vanguard -- which, apart from Buddy Guy, mostly recorded rediscovered '20s and '30s bluesmen such as Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt -- few record companies during the late '60s had much of a commitment to the blues. Part of the problem lay in the rising cost of studio time and recording; when costs were low, there had been less risk, but by the end of the 1960s the risks, except where established stars like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf were concerned, were much higher and the blues seemed an unattractive prospect to most producers.
B.B. King and Albert King, as recognized authentic blues stars, benefited to some degree, and played places like the Fillmore East and West, and recorded albums there. John Lee Hooker also began attracting a larger White audience, mostly by virtue of the illusion that he was one of the authentic originators of the blues -- Hooker, born in 1917, always looked older than he was, and delivered his songs in a manner far more guttural than Muddy Waters, sounding to White kids like he must've been playing in the Delta at the turn-of-the-century; his association with the White blues band Canned Heat didn't hurt, either. A few rural bluesmen still saw some recording activity -- Capitol Records chose to record an electric album by Mississippi Fred McDowell in 1969, almost in time to capitalize on the Rolling Stones' recording of his song "You Gotta Move." But it was mostly small labels such as Biograph that were recording the blues, most of it acoustic.
Of all the major blues labels active in the postwar period, only Chess Records was still active at the end of the 1960s, but the label had missed many opportunities to expand its audience. Despite his prescience in signing Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley at the outset of the rock & roll era, Leonard Chess was usually a couple of years behind a trend -- the Muddy Waters Folksinger album, for example, would've been more appropriate and successful in 1961, not 1963; and he'd missed the chance to push some of Muddy's and the Wolf's records in the late '50s as rock & roll, and to actively push them in the mid-'60s to a White audience, when their sound and songs were being covered by the likes of the Rolling Stones. Instead, he'd allowed time to go by, and then permitted his son Marshall to try and reshape Muddy and the Wolf's songs in psychedelic form, and in a series of "super blues" jam albums that didn't represent the original records or the performers very well.
But whatever his faults, Leonard Chess had been the driving force behind the company, and his death from a heart attack in 1969 left no valid reason for the company to continue, except as a conduit for the still superb releases of its remaining roster, including Muddy, the Wolf, and Chuck Berry., Muddy's singles ceased to have much importance after the mid-'60s (indeed, Chess Records never had another R&B chart hit after Koko Taylor's 1966 single "Wang Dang Doodle"), but he continued recording great albums for Chess right up to and including The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album in 1975. Wolf didn't get to do his first real album of new material until 1971, with Back Door Wolf, but it was a brilliant piece of work when it finally appeared.
Meanwhile, over at ABC-Paramount, B.B. King was just about the only veteran postwar bluesman who managed to hold onto a major part of his Black fandom even as he added hundreds of thousands of White fans. His sales skyrocketed, and his music became ever more accomplished -- but it also lost some of its freshness and spontaneity as he started to come up with concepts (some would say "gimmicks") that added new wrinkles to his music. In 1996, at age 70, he has sold his name to a group of blues clubs (including a very successful one in Memphis), among other marketing strategies that Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf could only dream of, been honored by the Kennedy Center, and played at the Atlanta Olympics, and a ten-foot tall statue of him (with his beloved guitar Lucille) stands in Memphis, right next to one of Elvis Presley, and he has recorded with the likes of U2. But these calculated concept recordings are more for purposes of making money than musical statements.
Even artists whom fame and fortune had passed by began to get major exposure. Producer/scholar Norman Dayron, who was responsible for one of Muddy Waters' most successful blues/rock fusion releases, Fathers and Sons, made a tape of Robert Nighthawk playing live at Chicago's Maxwell Street Market -- a legendary blues venue going back at least to the 1920s -- that became Nighthawk's most acclaimed album. Similarly, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, after languishing in obscurity for many years, began getting decently paid concert work and some new recordings out toward the end of his life, even playing the Newport Festival alongside Muddy Waters and Big Mama Thornton (by that time the Newport Festival was held at Lincoln Center, thus leaving behind a live recording of Crudup doing "That's All Right" from Avery Fisher Hall, no less) -- not enough to make up for what he'd been cheated out of, but enough to make people remember who he was and how he'd been cheated.
Blues records were available in profusion during the 1970s and 1980s, but to truly appreciate even the most straightforward of them, one had to look closely. The musical and historical treasures on these compilation records are as precious as they are unexpected. Muddy Waters' Rare and Unissued, for example, issued the year after his death and consisting of late-'40s/early-'50s sides, contains a track entitled "Last Time I Fool Around with You," which features some stunning interplay between the two guitars. A look at the session credits reveals this song as a seemingly one-time-only meeting of Muddy Waters with that star Chicago bluesman of the previous generation, Tampa Red. Other tracks on other reissues show off Muddy's early work with Little Walter Jacobs, while some '60s reissues show Muddy playing with Buddy Guy, the man who became the closest thing to a successor that he had. But appreciating these recordings properly on CD means taking in many of them one song at a time, and thinking of them in the context of the time in which they were done, not how they're assembled for us.
By the 1970s, the blues was an entrenched part of the popular music landscape -- Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Ten Years After, the Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a dozen other arena bands and their legions of imitators played it and sang it, and even the Doors covered Wolf's repertory. A few, like Clapton and the Stones, tried to give something back to originators like Muddy Waters by booking them onto tours with them. And Johnny Winter even gave Muddy a whole second career on his Blue Sky label, with a series of acclaimed albums in the late '70s that solidified his reputation with a new generation.
At the same time, such specialty blues labels as Yazoo and Arhoolie began making available for the first time the work of country blues artists of previous generations. Yazoo, in particular, was good at retrieving the best-known surviving 78s on people like Charlie Patton and, decades after it should have been done, getting their work out on LP for the first time, while Arhoolie specialized in recording the work of surviving country bluesmen -- Li'l Son Jackson, Mance Lipscomb, and dozens of other rural players who'd been forgotten got to make their first records in years, or decades, or ever (and, in some cases, their best records) for these and other labels.
Over in Europe -- where American blues (along with jazz and rock) is treated with the respect that only classical music receives in America -- there was even more reissue activity. Not only was the public interest established, but this activity was helped by the fact that copyright laws in Europe rendered much pre-World War II American blues public domain. The Austrian-based Document Records, Wolf Records, and RST Records have availed themselves of the collections of hardcore fans and produced some stunning blues reissues, including the complete studio outputs of Leadbelly, Tampa Red from 1927 through 1953 (on 13 CDs on Document), Scrapper Blackwell, Papa Charlie Jackson, Frank Stokes and Dan Sane, Furry Lewis, Curley Weaver, and dozens of others. Moreover, RST and Document Records' approaches tend to focus on each song individually, placing it in a valid historical context in relation to the other recordings by the same artist.
It was only in the late '80s and '90s that the major labels began issuing their historic blues. Sony Music, as successor to Columbia Records as well as the Okeh and ARC labels, began releasing indispensable blues collections as part of its legacy series, devoted to such figures as Blind Willie McTell, Leadbelly, Lonnie Johnson, and Tampa Red's early work, among many others. And MCA has done an admirable job with the Chess label, which it now owns, reissuing virtually every major release in the label's history. On the other hand, RCA/BMG, after a promising start with reissues of the work of Arthur Crudup and Leadbelly, virtually abandoned blues reissues in the early '90s, leaving it to European reissue and pirate labels to mine this vein of gold.
The whole business of reissues can be confusing in and of itself, especially where an artist recorded over decades or generations. Big Joe Williams, for example, recorded from the late '20s into the late '60s, and the sheer range of his material and its multiple re-recordings (he wrote "Baby Please Don't Go" and redid it many times during his career) could make any listener dizzy -- the Wolf Records label from Austria has issued a surprisingly good collection of his 1920s/early-'30s material, however. Most of Muddy Waters' material is on the Chess label, reissued through MCA, except for his very last recordings from the final years of his career, which are on Columbia or Sony Legacy -- but there is also Muddy Waters material (including his first recording of "Rollin' and Tumblin'") from the end of the 1940s on the Delmark label, which you won't hear much about in notes from the other labels. Howlin' Wolf spent the years 1954 through 1974 with Chess Records, but before that he recorded for Sun and Modern Records, and although the Sun material was supposed to move with him to Chess, in recent years the Bear Family label from Germany has unearthed two CDs' worth of priceless Howlin' Wolf outtakes from Sun Records, only a few of which have been issued by MCA/Chess, and Flair/Virgin has reissued his Modern Records sides. It all overlaps to some extent, but it's all worth owning if you like the Wolf., Leadbelly is another artist represented by a massive number of seemingly overlapping CDs -- the Smithsonian/Folkways releases, and the two Columbia discs are the most representative of his work, although the RCA reissue of his work with the Golden Gate Quartet is a fascinating addendum, and Volume Four of the Document Records complete Leadbelly series contains his last commercial recordings.
The range of exploration in 1996 is extraordinary -- it is possible to take a song like Willie Dixon's "Down in the Bottom," as recorded by the Rolling Stones at Chess Studios in 1964 (and featured on a very common bootleg), and compare it with Howlin' Wolf's 1961 recording of the same song. But it is also possible to go back to the sources for Dixon's song, including Buddy Moss's "Hey Lawdy Mama" and Blind Boy Fuller's "Boots and Shoes," from the mid-'30s. Or take a song like Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" as recorded by the Cream and trace it back through Wolf's original recording to Papa Charlie Jackson's 1925 original, "All I Want Is a Spoonful." Or start out with the song "Matchbox" by the Beatles, as written by Carl Perkins, go back to Perkins' own recording from the 1958, and then back to Leadbelly's recordings of "Packing Trunk Blues" and "Match Box Blues," which were Perkins' source, back to Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Match Box Blues," where Leadbelly learned it.
More likely, however, a listener in 1996 will know the Allman Brothers' version of "Statesboro Blues," and not Blind Willie McTell's original. How much the fans of the Allmans, Zeppelin or Lynyrd Skynyrd, or any of the others know and understand what they're listening to is debatable. They hear a cool sounding Jimmy Page guitar solo, but do they recognize the song or the riff as having come from a Willie Dixon song, or a Muddy Waters record? (Note: Zeppelin, in particular, has a chronic problem of being sued for plagiarism by everyone from Willie Dixon to the publisher of the late Ritchie Valens.) And do they even know (or care) that a man like Mance Lipscomb, who at age 70 could dazzle the ear and the eye with his fingers on a fretboard, was ever alive? Scholars and serious listeners could take comfort in the fact that the records were there to be found, even if few Led Zeppelin fans knew anything about the blues.
Muddy, with help from Johnny Winter and Eric Clapton and the Stones, got the word out until his death in 1983. Willie Dixon was left as the major veteran ambassador for the blues, playing in front of audiences (including presidents, judges, and senators) almost until his death in 1992 and reminding people of the blues' origins and history all along.
Today, the legacy of most of the postwar blues stars lies in their recordings. Prior to his death in 2001, John Lee Hooker remained active through much of the '90s, recording regularly with superstar rockers like Keith Richards. A few others, like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, have major followings and continue to record regularly and make money with their records as well as their concerts, and others, ex-Chess musicians like Jimmy Rodgers and Hubert Sumlin (Howlin' Wolf's best-known lead guitarist), have ongoing careers.
The music is out there on CD, more of it than was ever available at one time before, and more shows up every day. The secret is to try and discover it the way that the men and women who made it meant it to be heard: Not as a body of songs, but with each song and, perhaps, its B-side companion, as a work unto itself, with moments -- a duet between two guitar legends like Muddy Waters and Tampa Red, or two giants out of the mysterious and undocumented pre-World War II like Blind Arthur Blake and Papa Charlie Jackson, playing and singing together on a set of scratchy 78s; or Howlin' Wolf spontaneously creating a new blues sound in Memphis -- that should all be savored.