NewsStand    Festivals    Gigs    Clubs    Interviews    History    Research    Books

(Introduction to Blues for the Newcomer)
‘Mississippi’ Max Haymes and Alan White

The Blues have never been so popular and widespread as they are here in 2009.  There are currently more blues festivals worldwide, both electric and acoustic, than you can shake a stick at.  Everybody it seems, can quote the above main title of this piece in connection with the Blues.  Even if they know nothing or very little about the genre.  It is the latter section of the community this brief survey is being aimed at.

The Blues evolved from slavery times at the tail- end of the 19th. C. in the southern states of the USA.  The earliest candidates for its place of ‘birth’ are the Mississippi Delta (in the northwestern part of the state!) and the East Texas piney woods.  It was sung and played BY working-class blacks FOR working-class blacks.  The Blues, most importantly, is primarily a vocal music.  More than just another genre, the Blues became a way of  life for many of the singers – and indeed their audiences.  The latter would be  a live audience before the advent of recordings.  Originating in the logging camps, cotton fields, railroad and levee camps; the Blues soon gravitated to urban centres in the South. 

This process was speeded up considerably in 1920 when the first genuine blues (i.e. black) singer entered a recording studio.  After a promising debut in January backed by a white orchestra, Mamie Smith was brought back by the Okeh record company in August.  This time she was accompanied by a black band which included such jazz luminaries as Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith.  They cut a blues number: Crazy Blues.  A surprising and  immediate success, financially for the record company and Ms. Smith, this opened the flood gates for other black singers.  Initially these were all female singers who did not play on their records.  These included Edith Wilson, Lucille Hegamin and Alberta Hunter.  By 1923 some of the heaviest (aka the finest) of these made their disc debut.  The ‘big four’ are Bessie Smith, Clara Smith (no relation), Ma Rainey and Ida Cox.  Often backed by some of the top jazz musicians of the day; Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, James P. Johnson and Buster Bailey among them.  Other singers of only slightly less talent also made records around this time: Rosa Henderson, Sippie Wallace and Viola McCoy, for example. 

Therein lies the irony.  This was an early urban form of blues in various grades of authenticity.  Many singers included traditional/rural blues verses in their recordings.  The rural singers themselves only came into their own when the record companies were seeing a decline in sales and started looking further afield- often literally!  By the end of 1925 and the start of 1926 the rural/country/downhome blues entered centre stage. 

Some of the giants were captured on disc from this period on to the early 1930s.  Names like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, Son House, Bukka White and Barbecue Bob hit the black record-buying public; with titles such as Lemon’s Matchbox Blues in 1927.  Nearly 30 years later rock-a-billy star Carl Perkins would re-record it as Matchbox for Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.  A decade or so further on the Beatles would also cut a version.  These earlier blues artists, and many more, usually played solo featuring vocals and a myriad of guitar sounds and styles.  With few exceptions they did not read music and drew on a strictly oral tradition.  There were also some pioneering harmonica (‘harp’) players who recorded solo: Jaybird Coleman, Noah Lewis, DeFord Bailey and Alfred Lewis. The first two played in jug bands such as the Birmingham Jug Band and Cannon’s Jug Stompers.  

Another essential strand of the Blues.  These groups were part of a strong black string band tradition in the South.  Mississippi’s Big Joe Williams although a solo performer with a 9-string guitar would sometimes play with a small group (the Washboard Blues Singers).  At his debut on record in 1935 he was accompanied by a one-string fiddle and a washboard: Dad Tracy and Chasey Collins respectively.  Their first track was the first version of Baby Please Don’t Go on record.  Many years later British blues and r ‘n b groups would perform this and sometimes record it.  The Animals from northeastern England and even later still Van Morrison's band Them cut a very creditable performance – the fastest I’ve ever heard.  Other bands to cut versions were AC/DC, Aerosmith and even Bob Dylan. A myriad of other examples of the Blues’ awesome influence on music today, including jazz, could be cited.  But limitation of space rules, OK. 

The Blues has always been a genre of music with a FEELING.  Lacking this essential ingredient cannot be compensated for by technical prowess alone.  The earlier singers would relate subjects and situations well-known to their original audiences and an unassailable rapport and feeling of solidarity was forged; one that had beginnings back in slavery days in the early 19th. C. and beyond.  One verse I recall from memory was put down by Buddy Moss from Georgia in 1933: 

Some people talk about money, but I haven’t got none. (x 2)
But I’m so glad that I ain’t the only one. 

One of many universal themes in the Blues. 

In the 1930s Blues was becoming more urbanized, yet again.  In Chicago artists, who had migrated from the South, such as Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Memphis Minnie, Tampa Red, and Sonny Boy Williamson (No.1.) were increasingly using more instrumentalisation.  As well as piano, upright and imitation bass, 2nd. and 3rd. guitars, harmonicas, drums and some jazzhorns like trumpet and saxes featured on pre-war Chicago blues.  Most of these of course had featured in earlier rural blues.  The piano in particular by 1929/1930 was often the only accompaniment to such legends of boogie woogie/barrelhouse recordings by the like of Roosevelt Sykes, Little Brother Montgomery, Will Ezell, et al. 

But the rural blues were still ‘speaking’.  In 1936-37 Robert Johnson made a phenomenal set of 29 titles.  The most famous being Crossroad Blues with urgent slide guitar.  Eric Clapton and Cream would re-make (in virtually every sense of the word!) this in the UK some thirty years later. 

Blues had been labeled ‘race music’ in the early 20th. C. but was re-named Rhythm and Blues (R n’ B) by the1940s.  With the introduction of the electric guitar into the Blues in early 1938 and added saxes, rocking bands led by Roy Milton, Tiny Bradshaw, Amos Milburn, Louis Jordan, and Joe Liggins were just a few that carried the Blues onwards.  Professor Longhair, Smiley Lewis and Fats Domino carried it on into the 1950s.  Along with doowop groups inspired by early black quartets/quintettes featuring mostly gospel music.  Many whites would sneak around the outside of places they were playing at (segregation was still in force) and heard sounds they really dug.  Rock-a-Billy artists such as Charlie Feathers, Ray Smith, and Carl Perkins put their own stamp on the Blues mixed in with old-timey/country roots.  Around 1952 a man called Bill Haley changed his band’s name and they became Bill Haley’s Comets.  Soon Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, ;Little Richard, et al. would follow. 

Rock ‘n Roll, ‘a child of the Blues’, as Muddy Waters famously once said – had been born.  "Long may the Blues wake up this morning and every morning". 

‘Mississippi’ Max Haymes and Alan White
31st. July, 2009 


Addendum - Reader’s Comment 

A reader emailed a query regarding reference made to Mamie Smith as the first blues recording …. “by the time Mamie Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" in 1920, at least half-a-dozen other blues recordings had been made starting in 1914 with the Victor Military Band's recording of Memphis Blues”. This was the response from the essay’s author, Max Haymes, which we thought would be of interest as an addendum to the essay: 

Mamie Smith is still the first African American to record a vocal blues. Earlier recordings such as the example quoted were instrumentals of a very jazzy-type brass band nature and a version of the W.C. Handy composition in 1914, 'Memphis Blues'. Although I have not heard this it will bear as little to the Blues per se as a Victor Sylvester recording!  US author, Tim Brooks, noted that this number was "given a similarly intense treatment [as Handy's previous 'Hesitation Blues'] dominated by cornets and trombones, with interjected flutes, clarinet squeals, and even a little military bugle flourish."  (p.282. 'Lost Sounds-Blacks And The Birth of The Recording Industry 1890-1919'. Tim Brooks. [University of Illinois Press. Urbana & Chicago.] 2004.)  

There were attempts to cover blues songs before 1920 but all were white vaudeville singers such as May Irvin, Annette Hanshaw and of course Sophie Tucker. Good as some of these singers were, they pale (no pun intended) in comparison to Mamie's historic 'Crazy Blues'. So said David Evans at one point (cannot remember source). Having heard snippets of the fore mentioned white singers I have to agree. If you listen to a song made in 1919 by black baritone singer Edward H. Boatner on 'Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child' which contains no sacred lyric he will hear the influence of Euro-centric classical/operatic  music. Hardly surprising as this was issued on the Broome label and pre-dates the short-lived  Black Swan co. by 2 years, as the first black-owned independent record co. Produced by George Wellington Broome who dedicated the label "to black concert music." (Ibid. p.464.). Despite this, the song is much closer to the Blues, with repeated phrase 'a long ways from home', delivered in a somewhat lesser Paul Robeson style, than the instrumental Handy pieces such as 'Memphis Blues'. The Brooks tome is a weighty one but well-worth the consideration of the serious blues historian. And the white vaudeville singers referred to above have CDs on the Archeophone label, a record company based in Illinois, that also produced reissues of earliest black music.

Max Haymes
22nd January 2016


Essay (this page) © Copyright 2009 Max Haymes and Alan White. All rights reserved.



Website, Photos and Text © Copyright 2000-2016 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
Essay (this page) © Copyright 2009 Max Haymes and Alan White. All rights reserved.
For permission to copy, email:

Click on the logo for more essays

Home Page
Click on the logo for the main menu