The Art of Country Blues
Country blues is an essential part of America’s musical history. It is an art form that transcends its original times, offering a lasting body of material, techniques, and approaches to improvisation. Though its heyday in the 1920’s and 30’s is a distant memory for most musicians today, time has not diminished the musical contribution of the early masters. The instrumental, vocal and songwriting techniques, as well as their approaches to improvisation were central to the development of America’s roots music as well as the early jazz styles.
Historically, country blues traditions developed from the collective work of individual musicians. In the 1920’s, itinerant musicians traveled throughout the South and mid-west playing on street corners, at local dances, and in churches. Their music was a confluence of sounds from African chants to the pop music of the day to Appalachian and English folk ballads. As a result, each artist developed his or her own sound, repertoire and technique. The result was a genre rich in sounds and approaches defined by the individuality of the artists.
The basic framework for either appreciating or dissecting country blues comes from the records the musicians produced in the 1920’s and 30’s. These tell us nothing about the origins of the blues and other such matters that plague the historian. For all the fascinating tidbits they reveal (such as the perceptible tinge of Spanish guitar-playing found in the work of Texas bluesmen), they are often as bewildering as they are enlightening. Some of the most historically significant records resulted from seeming nonentities like Willie Walker of South Carolina and Henry Spaulding of St. Louis, who were both able to suggest the sweep of entire regional styles through a single recording. Whether they clarify or confuse, the records will always remain to demonstrate that a music whose popularity has deteriorated with the passing of time does not necessarily diminish in importance or cease to afford pleasure.
Country blues is often overlooked as a type of music that existed in a contained time and space that no longer resonates with contemporary aesthetics. But the instrumental and songwriting techniques as well as the approaches to improvisation are central to the development of America’s roots music. It represents the beginnings of the jazz story and pre-cursor to the early styles of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bix Biderbeck and the musicians who recorded in New Orleans in the late 1920s. Though it’s initial audience is gone, it is a genre that should not just be acknowledged but expanded.
As guitar students, we understand that studying both classical music and jazz allows us to hone our musical skills. Similarly, the concepts specific to country blues provide the basis for a wide variety of playing styles from the early country traditions to jazz and contemporary music. Country blues is an art form defined by a precise craft. Just as we study the music of the jazz “greats” to develop our skills, learning the techniques of the original blues masters is a curriculum for musical inspiration and creativity.
There are many ingredients that make up the music of a particular artist — most of which we may never know. It becomes an easy trap to broadly group the musicians and assign a certain technique or musical definition to a regional territory. These boundaries, mostly created by historians’ speculation can be misleading. Like any musical tradition, the blues can sometimes be a bewildering and wonderfully confusing music that rarely conforms to a definition. The recordings themselves do not necessarily represent the complete picture of the music at the time. How many gifted musicians went unrecorded we will never know. In addition, it is difficult to view the music outside the environment in which it was played. Whatever was required for a playing situation — be it dances, the streets, the church, or the clubs — was probably the main factor in developing an individual style and sound.
The musicians spotlighted in this book lived all over the South from the rural areas to cities like Memphis, Jackson, St. Louis. and Chicago. In some areas there was one guitarist who was so influential and popular that many other players copied his style. These guitarists may have similar qualities in their playing but it does not necessarily outline a style. It is easy to hear the influence Charlie Patton had on his contemporaries in the Mississippi Delta or the impact Blind Blake had on his contemporaries in the Carolinas. And, for example, certain specifics of guitar tunings and harmonic ideas are common to the playing of most guitarists from St. Louis. But when one listens to the music of Charlie Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Bo Carter, and Robert Johnson — all from the Delta — it is easy to hear how completely different their playing was. The music of Texas musicians Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mance Lipscomb, Blind Willie Johnson, and Henry Thomas exhibit vastly differing approaches. Even in the playing of guitarists whose styles are more closely related, such as Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, and Willie Walker (all from the Carolina area) one can easily discern significant differences. The nuances of sound and touch as well as the choice of harmonies — in short, all the things that make up the essence of the music — are unique to each player.
The influences of other musicians and their recordings serve to make the playing style of any single artist a composite of techniques, riffs, and repertoire from various sources. As an example, take the music of Robert Johnson, who was from Mississippi. The songs and guitar techniques of Scrapper Blackwell and Lonnie Johnson, (both from St. Louis), Blind Blake (from Florida) — as well as the many sounds from the Delta — are all part of his own style. Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Charlie Patton were able to capture a broad scope of repertoire, melodies, and guitar techniques (including different tunings and bottleneck work) from many sources. It would be difficult to describe one typical sound for any one of these artists.
Even though there sometimes appears to be a dominant song, guitar key, or melodic idea that was adopted in a certain region, categorizing blues music can miss the real mark. The main lesson is that the beauty of the music is in the individual artist: That’s the only thing we know for sure. Each song has a story all its own but is also an extension of others. Whatever connections the players shared, their recordings demonstrate that — even though the initial audience is gone — originality is always at the center of the blues and that blues music is forever full of possibilities.
The basic framework for either appreciating or dissecting country blues comes from the records the musicians produced in the 1920’s and 30’s, many of which are now available on LPs such as those listed in the back of this book. These tell us nothing about the origins of the blues and other such matters that plague the historian. For all the fascinating tidbits they reveal (such as the perceptible tinge of Spanish guitar-playing found in the work of Texas bluesmen), they are often as bewildering as they are enlightening. Some of the most historically significant records resulted from seeming nonentities like Willie Walker of South Carolina and Henry Spaulding of St. Louis, who were both able to suggest the sweep of entire regional styles through a single recording. Whether they clarify or confuse, the records will always remain to demonstrate that a music whose popularity has deteriorated with the passing of time does not necessarily diminish in importance or cease to afford pleasure.
My own understanding of blues was shaped by a man who created rather than explained them. In 1968, as I was looking for a guitar teacher (with little luck), someone suggested I call the Reverend Gary Davis who lived in Jamaica, Long Island. It was his warmth and hospitality during our first lesson, as much as his musicianship, that attracted me to blues.
Finding that his name meant nothing to me appeared to surprise and amuse him; chuckling, he informed me that he had never heard of me, either. When our laughter dissolved and he began to play, I was left with my mouth hanging open, feeling (and looking) like a complete fool. Immediately I became a convert to a kind of music I never knew existed.
It seemed a logical extension of the techniques I had acquired from Davis to imitate Blind Blake and other ragtime guitarists, who always seemed kin to him, though they might play simpler or speedier songs. Since blues is so basically eclectic, much of what Davis taught me proved applicable to other guitarists who didn’t resemble him at all. By the same token, the songs in this book are all extensions of one another, and serve as building blocks to still unpublished pieces.
BOTTLENECK / SLIDE GUITAR
Now over a century old, bottleneck guitar has proven to be one of the most enduring special effects attached to that instrument. Its allure rests on the uniquely luminous tones using a fretting implement produces: the sounds are recognizably those of a guitar, but have an uncanny vibrancy.
The ability of a bottleneck guitarist to fascinate spectators was demonstrated at the turn of the century, when W. C. Handy (then an undistinguished bandleader) found himself waiting at a desolate Delta depot in Tutwiler, Mississippi.
A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me
while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes.
As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner
popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars.
The accompaniment he produced to the thrice-sung line “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog,” Handy recalled, was “the weirdest music I had ever heard.”
Recounting this anecdote in his 1941 life story, Handy did not bother to specify what made the music he heard in 1903 sound so unusual. At a time when the leading pop hits of the day consisted of such songs as the million-selling “In the Good Old Summertime” (1902), “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” (1902) and “Ida, Sweet As Apple Cider” (1903), almost any song with an instrumental riff would have qualified as strange.
Handy did not appear to wonder how a guitar technique associated with Hawaii should reach the wilds of the Mississippi Delta, or why a guitar song should have currency at a time when Southern black musicians were wedded to the banjo and violin. The guitar itself was probably becoming popular on the basis of its recent mass availability, thanks to its appearance in the annual Sears Roebuck catalogues that originated in 1897 and were beamed to rural and small-town dwellers. The 1900 Sears catalog offered six different guitars, ranging in price from the $2.70 Troubadour (“an instrument of surprising quality and tone”) to the $10.50 concert-size Kenmore, (“a solid rosewood guitar of the highest merit and retailed at $15.00 to $18.00”). The turn of the century popularity of the Slow Drag doubtless gave the guitar currency at Southern plantation dances. Whereas fiddle/banjo duos were geared towards instrumental presentation, the guitar was used to accompany the voice. A loud singer who introduced a dance beat pattern in his lyrics in the fashion of a Charlie Patton had the ability to project volume far beyond that of any instrument.
By the time Handy heard it, what is now called bottleneck playing had already existed for a decade in the form of steel guitar as played in Hawaii, where the guitar had been introduced by Mexican or Portuguese cowboys imported to work on local cattle ranches. In 1893 or 1894 a student at an Oahu boy’s school, Joseph Kekuku, single-handedly invented the fretting technique. At first Kekuku used a comb (probably tortoise-shell); he soon discovered that using a smooth metal surface by means of a knife or a solid steel bar created greater tonal resonance. Raising the strings by wedging a thin piece of metal beneath the fretboard enabled Kekuku to convert the guitar into a fretless instrument. Thus in addition to producing a portamento effect by means of sliding a bar several frets up or down the neck, Kekuku was able to introduce high pitches that lay beyond the reach of guitarists whose fingerwork was thwarted by the number of frets on a guitar neck (then, typically twelve).
It is thought that Kekuku was attempting to emulate the strains of a violin, but the sounds of what became known as ‘steel guitar’ (thanks to the use of a metal fretting gadget) are less evocative of a violin than of the musical saw, by which a violin bow is applied to the smooth metal edge of a handsaw, producing sliding tones that resemble those of a bottleneck.
In any event, a genre of Hawaiian guitar music arose at the turn of the century. The Hawaiian played his instrument flat in his lap, holding the bar either between the thumb and forefinger or between the forefinger and middle finger. His guitar was typically tuned to an open chord (most often, A major), which permitted him to play full chords by sounding tones at the intervals delineated by each fret of the instrument.
What developed as a result of Kekuku’s ingenuity was actually a specimen of tourist music (Hawaii being too poor to support a lucrative indigenous entertainment industry). In particular, Hawaiian music was geared towards Americans, who had been visiting the island not only as mid-nineteenth century missionaries but as sailors en route to the Orient. Although an ambitious Hawaiian guitarist conceivably numbered among the hundreds of entertainers who flocked to the Colombian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, which drew 27 million visitors, it was likely an American sailor who first brought the Hawaiian technique to mainland America, probably by way of San Francisco.
Thanks to the fact that the guitar itself was being spread among Southern blacks at the turn of the century, Kekuku’s invention became imbedded in early blues presentation. By the time Handy heard a bluesman using Hawaiian technique, it had already been incorporated into Mississippi Delta Blues. Gus Cannon of Clarksdale recalled hearing a local guitarist named Alec Lee perform a medley of “Poor Boy Long Way From Home” and “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” the one a blues, the other an eight-bar tune, around 1900. This air became an early Delta repertoire piece. To create the high action necessary for resonant tones, the guitarist put a penny beneath the strings.
Cannon’s 1927 recorded version of that piece is probably indicative of blues slide playing in its formative period. What is most noteworthy about its presentation is not only its use of a bottleneck (technically, a pocket knife) to instrumentalize words and create a vocal/guitar interplay within sung lines, but the essential a capella character of most of its vocal lines. In the same fashion, Leadbelly’s “C.C. Rider” (likely another early bottleneck piece) uses bottleneck riffs to set off virtually unaccompanied vocal phrases.
It is likely that the entire idea of guitar riffing that became crucial to blues playing was an outgrowth of bottleneck playing. The style of guitar-playing what was associated with contemporary plantation dances seems to have involved strummed tonic chords as guitar fills. Another contribution bottleneck playing made to the blues genre lay in high-note work. Whereas most blues guitarists did not venture past the fifth (or even third) fret, it was conventional for bottleneck players to sound notes an octave above the tonic (at the twelfth fret).
Other early knife/bar pieces were “John Henry” (a beginner’s tune) and “Pearlee.” When Bo Carter of Bolton, Mississippi began playing guitar in the early 1900’s, his repertoire consisted of pieces like “Pearlee” and “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It.” “That’s all they knowed back in them days…,” his brother Sam Chatmon recalled. The music produced by such songs consisted almost purely of treble notes, set against open string strums. Like his Hawaiian counterpart, the blues bottleneck guitarist offered his wares in open tuning. There, however, the resemblance between bottleneck blues and Hawaiian steel guitar ended; there is no evidence that early blues bottleneck players were even acquainted with Hawaiian music. One indication that they did not associate bottleneck playing with Hawaiian presentation is that the prevalent names for the open tunings used in bottleneck were ‘Spanish’ (open A/G) and ‘cross’ or ‘Vastapol’ (open E/D). Yet in the unfettered vocabulary of rustic bluesmen, the term ‘Spanish’ might have connoted a Hawaiian, or come about through association with the Spanish-American War of 1898, by which Hawaii was formally annexed as American territory. Open chord tunings were themselves less likely an acquisition from Hawaiians than a legacy of fiddle or banjo playing, which (in recorded white country music) made frequent use of them.
In the early 1900s, playing bottleneck guitar was probably a vehicle for beginners, who could thereby play without having to develop callouses on their fingers or learn to play chords. Moreover, it complemented a popular (and perhaps already existing) children’s instrument called the ‘diddey’ or ‘diddley’ bow — a taut piece of wire stretched between two poles (or mounted on a curved bow), against which a piece of glass was run to produce whining, sliding tones. Bottleneck technique enabled players with missing digits or hand deformities to offer their wares on the street — an important consideration in an age when public blues playing and panhandling were synonymous on urban streets.
The spread of bottleneck guitar was facilitated by the fact that it was easy for a fledgling guitarist to emulate other such players by simply watching them. In this fashion Son House, the musical forerunner of Robert Johnson, took up bottleneck playing when he learned guitar in the Mississippi Delta in 1928. House’s own model was Rube Lacey, a popular local performer he glimpsed at Roy Flower’s plantation in Matson. “… I watched him,” House later recalled. “See, I’se ‘churchy’ then, you know, but he was playing so good with the bottleneck… it sounded so good to me that I eased up behind him and peeped over his shoulder… I said, ‘Well, I believe I’ll try this thing.’” Finding an appropriate fretting gadget proved as difficult for House as learning to use it: “…He had the medicine bottle, you know; I tried it with a medicine bottle. I cut my hands a couple of times, I said, ‘I’m going to study up another plan for this thing.’” House’s first two musical efforts were conversions of regularly-fretted pieces to one-chord bottleneck songs. To House, playing bottleneck was a simple matter of inducing a vibrato by means of shaking his finger: “…If you just take the bottleneck like you take your naked finger, you know, and chord like that, that bottleneck, it ain’t gonna do nothing, it sound like the devil. You got to keep your hand moving.”
The fact that both Carter and House gravitated towards conventional-style guitar presentation (as did Blind Boy Fuller) as they gained seasoning points up the fact that performing bottleneck-style pieces did not bear any dividend in terms of audience popularity. Indeed, there is no indication that black musicians or their audiences put any special premium on bottleneck songs. There is no evidence that audiences singled out a musician for using it, or that a blues musician prided himself on his excellence s a ‘slide’ player. One indication of this lack is that no black musical term or idiom exists to describe what we term “bottleneck guitar” – a generic term of convenience used to describe any form of guitar-playing that involves non-fingered fretting with a glass or metal gadget. Retailing a tune as a bottleneck piece, as was done by OKeh Records in presenting Sylvester Weaver’s 1927 instrumental “Bottleneck Blues,” yielded no commercial dividend. For that matter, no instrumental effect had any appreciable bearing on the popularity of a blues musician, blues being primarily a vocal medium.
The question is why so many blues/gospel guitarists would adopt this approach that it continued to flourish even after its novelty effect of the turn of the century had worn off. One hypothetical reason lies in the heightened resonance and volume obtained by using a fretting instrument. This gain was of considerable and even crucial value in the age of acoustic guitar, which projected poorly, and less so than either the violin or banjo. Moreover, using a bottleneck liberates one from the usual timing of a guitar, and permits flexibility of tempo. One can produce supple melodies and runs at heightened speed, or play slowly and take advantage of its ability to sustain tones.
Charlie Patton, for example, used a bottleneck technique to obtain various effects. He produced breakneck speeds with a fretting gadget on “Mississippi Bo Weavil” (where he also created unusually high pitches by sliding above the top fret), and used the sustaining ability of bottleneck playing to create Slow Drag dance tunes; such as, “Banty Rooster” and “Hammer Blues.” He created echoic effects on “Spoonful,” where phrase-ending slides (some of them borrowed from “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It”) ‘talked’ the title word, and “Prayer of Death,” where he used a bottleneck to evoke a death bell.
For the average player, sliding a bottleneck on the top string enabled him to pick out the melodic line of an uncomplicated song without much effort, and in the process obtain greater resonance than one would by playing the equivalent notes with an unadorned finger. It was for this reason that playing gospel tunes on bottleneck became a standardized arrangement, adopted by such musicians as Patton, Reverend Edward Claiborn, Blind Willie McTell, and Blind Willie Johnson. Characteristically, their works were one-chord songs. Thanks to the eight/sixteen bar phrasing of such tunes, they typically contain half-bar open strums instead of riffs between their phrases.
In the blues realm the utility of bottleneck was impeded by the fact that blues were generally less melodious than spirituals. Most blues did not have playable melodies, or melodic lines that were impressive when highlighted by a bottleneck.
Regardless of their orientation, the greatest bottleneck players were remarkable less for their tone as for their timing. The touch, tone, and timing of an individual player who uses it usually makes him immediately recognizable in a way that he is not, when playing conventionally.
By the mid-1920s, when Southern guitar blues came into commercial recording vogue, bottleneck playing was firmly enshrined in blues and gospel music. The folklorists Odum and Johnson reported in 1925: “The expert ‘musicianer’ often adds zest to the occasion by making his instrument ‘talk’ and ‘sing.’ This he does by skillfully running the back of a knife along the strings of his instrument. A piece of bone, polished and smooth, sometimes serves the same purpose, but the knife is more commonly used. Hence the term; ‘knife song,’ which is by origin instrumental only, but which is now regularly associated with several songs…” They noted imitation train effects, such as would be recorded by Booker White and Blind Willie McTell: “with the blowing of the whistle, the ringing of the bell, and the ‘talkin’ of the knife as it goes back and forth over the strings, the ‘music physicianer’ has a wonderful production.”
There were actually two distinct styles, neither given express names, of ‘knife’ playing. The first, an emulation of Hawaiian guitarists, found the accompanist playing the guitar flat on his lap. From this vantage point, all of the stopped notes were produced by a knife, bar, or bottleneck. Some blues guitarists fretted with a knife in upright fashion, the knife attached to the player’s hand by means of a rubber band.
At some point, blues guitarists began equipping their pinkies or ring fingers with a sawed-off section of glass (from a whisky, soda, or patent medicine bottle) or brass or copper pipe, and playing upright. This technique enabled the players to produce more tonal variety, especially as it permitted conventionally-fretted notes or notes to be used in conjunction with ‘Hawaiianized’ ones. The width of the bottleneck pipe allowed the player to produce barre chords in the fashion of a true Hawaiian guitarist, as could not be obtained with a narrow knife edge. In the upright position, it was possible to damp tones in the fashion of “Banty Rooster Blues” or “Roll and Tumble.” In addition, open string strums played with the guitar in an upright position were more forceful. It was probably for this reason that Charlie Patton generally upright bottleneck guitar. His protege Booker Miller reported: “…Charlie Patton, he showed me how to play with that [steel] bar, but he liked the bottleneck best.” He employed “a piece of brass, you know, like a pipe, and it was cut off to fit his finger: he’d slip it on his finger.”
Perhaps because he began playing bottleneck in its earliest period, Patton rarely took advantage of the conventional fretting his upright playing posture afforded. Instead of picking out a full-blown melody on the treble strings, or even playing melodic snippets, such artists as Bo Weavil Jackson, Barbecue Bob, Blind Joe Reynolds, and Robert Johnson played percussive bottleneck riffs interspersed with conventionally-fretted tones or chords. This compromise was unknown to Hawaiian stylists, whose treble-saturated attack usually led them to employ a second guitarist who provided bass back-up.
Blind Willie Johnson and Tampa Red specialized in single-note bottleneck work developing the most distinctive styles in the recorded idiom. Johnson was the first such player to achieve a real balance between treble and bass melodic lines, which acted as complementary voices in his arrangements of Baptist spirituals. Tampa Red’s use of conventional blues chord changes within a bottleneck framework was (to judge from recordings) innovative for the late 1920s, when bottleneck playing customarily took a one- or two-chord format. Thanks to his distinctive approach and suave sound, the Chicago-based Red became the most influential bottleneck player of the blues age, his smooth-sounding work echoing in the playing of Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Nighthawk, Elmore James, and Muddy Waters.
Such highly accomplished blues guitarists as Scrapper Blackwell, Blind Blake, Lonnie Johnson, and Bill Broonzy appeared to snub bottleneck altogether, while the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Henry Thomas made single, awkward forays into bottleneck playing. Only a few musicians, such as: Charlie Patton, Bo Weavil Jackson, Blind Willie McTell, and Robert Johnson, developed a knack for playing both styles.
Despite the fact that the turn-of-the-century “Poor Boy Long Way from Home” as rendered by Gus Cannon was performed with a then-novel one-two dance beat, relatively few dance blues of any sort were performed on bottleneck. Bottleneck playing remained largely in the realm of the solo street musician. More often than not, bottleneck playing was used to create helter-skelter riffing of the style associated with Sam Collins, Furry Lewis, Ramblin’ Thomas, and King Solomon Hill, all of them street singers.
The most notable bottleneck dance tune, “Roll and Tumble,” designed for the Shimmey-She-Wobble, had a strange rhythmic pattern by virtue of clashing accenting themes, the vocal taking a syncopated one-two beat and its single measure guitar fills taking the opposite one-two pattern associated with square dancing. Although this effect might have been deliberate, most bottleneck players were simply not adept at delineating strong accents, even as they performed what was doubtless intended to be dance music in the hands of Muddy Waters, Booker White, and Fred McDowell.
Bottleneck players were seemingly spread all over the South. There was no such thing as a regional bottleneck style or a musical center, a possible exception being the vicinity of Shreveport, Louisiana, where such diverse performers as Leadbelly, Oscar Woods, Ramblin’ Thomas, King Solomon Hill, and Snoozer Quinn all plied their trades. Woods (1903 – 1956), who called himself ‘Street Rustler’ and ‘Troubadour,’ told Library of Congress interviewer Alan Lomax that he made his living “hanging around the corners, lyin’ around the joints, an’ takin’ up where I can.” When asked where he had learned his music, he replied: “Just picked it up somewhere…” He obtained a single protege in Black Ace, who told Paul Oliver: “…he was playin’ guitar — steel guitar-style but he was playin’ with a bottle… I never seen that kind of way of playin’.”
While blues-playing remained obscure to mainstream American audiences of the 1920s and 1930s, pop-oriented Hawaiian entertainers were a familiar part of the American musical landscape. Their vogue began in 1915, when “On the Beach of Waikiki” became a Tin Pan Alley hit. Thereafter, Hawaii became a favorite allusion in Tin Pan Alley, invoked as a dreamland evoking romance, ease, and sultry island girls in grass skirts. The Tin Pan Alley images of Hawaii made native musicians marketable, and with it, their steel guitar sounds. In addition to countless steel guitar records, a whole genre of Hawaiian steel guitar sheet music arose, via specialty firms like the Los Angeles-based C.S. DeLano, which offered such delights as “My Old Kentucky Home” and “The Old Plantation Song,” played Hawaiian style. A favorite arrangement device was to pair a native melody with a pop offering, such as “Ua Like No a Like” and “Nearer My God to Thee.”
The first name Hawaiian player, a Portuguese emigrant named Frank Ferera, had arrived in America as part of a native troupe that appeared at the Panama Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915. Playing stodgy waltzes, Ferera subsequently carved out a career in the Hawaiian genre, which was so fashionable by 1920 that guitar manufacturers then retailed what became known as Hawaiian guitars. Sol Hoopie (1902-1953), who arrived in California in 1919 and became a nightclub performer in 1925, took the idiom to a new dimension, beyond gimmickry.
The Hawaiian guitarists like Hoopie were essentially instrumentalists who specialized in Fox Trot music and performed an assortment of saccharine Tin Pan Alley pop songs. Their popularity was offset by the relative unpopularity of the guitar, as compared (in the 1920s) to the ukelele, which was patented in 1927 and became a mainstream pop instrument of the 1920s. Most celebrated Hawaiian guitarists of the period were actually better known as ukelele players. In any event, no guitarist of any stripe was known to the general public of the 1920s. Roy Smeck, the single American guitarist who graced the 1920s’ vaudeville circuit, was presented as a novelty act, augmenting guitar with ukelele-playing.
Largely because the guitar had not displaced the violin in white country music, bottleneck had little or no allure for hillbilly players of the 1920s. Only a few such records employed the technique, notably, Lemuel Turner’s accompaniments by Snoozer Quinn, whose single-string technique on such tunes as “She’s a Hum Dum Dinger” (1935) were imitative of black blues players. Because white Southerners were little exposed to the idiom, Bob Wills’ 1935 “Steel Guitar Rag” (its Hawaiian effects contributed by Leon McAuliffe), came as a novelty, despite its derivation from a Sylvester Weaver blues motif. The ‘Western Swing’ idiom fostered by Wills spilled over into mid 1930s blues by Casey Bill Weldon, who was billed as the ‘Hawaiian Guitar Wizard.’ Weldon was the first blues guitarist whose playing expressly evoked Hawaiian steel guitar sounds. A likely reason for his singularity lay in the fact that blues guitarists could not cater to white audiences. Indeed, in the entire recorded canon of bottleneck pieces, consisting of hundreds of tunes, the only pop-style offerings were Kokomo Arnold’s “Paddlin’ Blues” (a 1930 version of “Paddlin’ Madeline”) and Charlie Turner’s “Kansas City Dog Walk,” (1929), an instrumental medley that used strains of the ragtime chestnut “St. Louis Tickle.”
The vogue for steel playing among white bluegrass musicians led to the popularity of the Dobro guitar, which was specifically designed for slide work and came with raised strings that made it unplayahle without a fretting implement. By the 1940s, ‘pedal steel’ playing became a fixture of country and western accompaniment, via such performers as Hank Williams’ accompanist Jimmy Helms. Apparently introduced to augment the fiddle and thus make the idiom less corny-sounding to consumers, this amplified instrument became so imbedded in Nashville that a 1975 school music textbook generalized: “It is the pedal steel whine that gives some country music its country identity.”
With the coming of the pedal steel guitar, which was designed for ensemble playing, the age of the solo steel player appeared to come to an end. What had become an archaic blues style received a new impetus in the form of postwar electric blues by Mississippi’s Muddy Waters and Elmore James, both of them disciples of Robert Johnson. The Clarksdale-based Waters could illustrate the futility of regional blues pigeonholing. He had begun using bottleneck as a fledgling guitarist around 1932, based on the example of Son House. As he told Paul Oliver: “He used to have a neck of a bottle over his finger, little finger, touch the strings with that and make them sing. That’s where I got the idea from. You break it off, hold it in a flame until it melts and gets smooth.” Although regarded as a Delta stylist, his earliest commercial recordings were actually cut from the musical cloth of the Georgia-born Tampa Red, while his Library of Congress spirituals bear the influence of Blind Willie Johnson.
Most rock guitarists of the 1960s were unfamiliar with bottleneck playing, thanks to their general dependence on B.B. King, a rhythm and blues player who did not use bottleneck. The waning idiom was rekindled by the zeal of a new wave of young white guitarists. Their role models would consist of the likes of Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, and Fred McDowell. In such bluesmen, they found a drive, directness, and depth that was generally missing from the more sophisticated and suave Hawaiian-derived guitar. Ironically, the contemporary rocker who features bottleneck presentation does so in the context of electric guitar, an instrument that essentially made bottleneck playing obsolete by introducing huge-volume playing and sustained tones.
Today the pure Hawaiian guitarist is an extinct creature, thanks to the passing of Tin Pan Alley musical values. Its native tradition would be largely perpetuated by Gabby Pahinui, who recorded in 1976. The last surviving pure blues player, Mississippi’s R.L. Burnside, ekes out a small living at concerts. Yet the strains of bottleneck playing persist and flourish, and can even be heard as backdrop in television commercials. That blues bottleneck playing would endure longer than its ultimate Hawaiian inspiration would have been inconceivable to a 1920s or even turn of the century observer.
In 1903, the airplane was a newfangled experiment demonstrating that a burst of flight was possible. The latest entertainment rage was The Great Train Robbery, the first silent movie to play before a mass audience. While 1903 flight and film technology has long been obsolete, even today a subway player in New York City can arrest listeners simply by using a bottleneck in the same fashion as a turn of the century bluesman whose accompaniment struck W.C. Handy as “the weirdest music I ever heard.”
Francis (Scrapper) Blackwell crafted one of the most striking and elegant blues guitar sounds ever created. Of mixed black and Indian descent, he was born in South Carolina in 1903 and reared in Indianapolis, where he taught himself guitar in childhood. Most of his recordings were accompaniments behind the popular pianist Leroy Carr, whom he met in the late 1920s, and his efforts to persuade their producer to feature him as a soloist were largely unsuccessful. Although his recording career waned with Carr’s death in 1935, he was still a superb guitarist when rediscovered in Indianapolis in 1959. His pugnacious personality had tragic consequences: he was shot to death in the wake of a drunken argument in 1962. Blackwell was one of the few blues guitarists who approached his instrument in terms of overall sound. “Kokomo Blues,” recorded in 1928, has a clear separation of bass and treble lines. The contrast between the soft brush of the bass and the snapping treble line gives Blackwell’s playing a distinctive, full sound. He creates additional fullness by using all six strings in sound chords. Whereas many guitarists who favored the key of D lowered the sixth string to D, Blackwell facilitated his bass sound by damping the low strings.
Although renowned as one of the most skilled black guitarists of his generation, Blake remains a historically obscure, enigmatic figure. Virtually nothing is known of him beyond the fact that he hailed from Jacksonville, Florida, and was born Arthur Blake. He was apparently living in Chicago when he first recorded for Paramount Records in 1926. His debut record, “West Coast Blues,” was the only commercially successful guitar instrumental of the era. His seventy-nine issued sides included blues, “rag” tunes, and instrumentals, some of which are unclassifiable. He faded into obscurity during the Depression and is said to have died in the early 1930s. “Georgia Bound” and “Police Dog Blues” were both recorded at the same 1929 session and represented new motifs for Blake, whose recording career displayed almost continuous creativity. “Georgia Bound” uses Blake’s distinctive bass rolls, double thumbing, and stoptime techniques, and is representative of his pieces in the key of C. Its melody is the same as that of Robert Johnson’s “Four Until Late.” The transcription covers the first two breaks as well as the introduction and first verse. “Police Dog Blues,” Blake’s only accompaniment in open D, has a halftime feel created by bass “dropouts.” The subtleties of the bass and treble interplay give the tune its lively bounce. The accompaniment uses some of the techniques of Blake’s “Chump Man Blues.” The transcription includes the guitar breaks as well as the introduction and first verse.
Big Bill Broonzy
One of the most famous figures in blues history, Broonzy was born William Lee Conley Broonzy in Mississippi in 1898 and was reared in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He took up violin in childhood and is thought to have learned guitar in the 1920s after moving to Chicago. Although Broonzy began recording in 1927, he did not become commercially successful until the 1930s, when he emerged as one of the mainstays of Chicago’s blues scene, usually recording as part of an ensemble unit. His appearance at a 1938 “Spirituals to Swing” concert in Carnegie Hall brought him to the attention of white audiences, and as his singles recording career declined in the late 1940’s he discarded his electric guitar and assumed a new identity as a self-accompanied “folk” musician. By the time of his death in 1957 he had achieved considerable popularity in Europe, which he toured several times. Broonzy’s fanciful Big Bill Blues (1955) was the first autobiography by a blues artist. “Brownskin Shuffle” was recorded in 1927, and, although it is a duet (probably with Steel Smith), it is one of Broonzy’s ragtime guitar masterpieces. It is in the key of C, and displays some similarities to Blind Blake’s playing— but Broonzy’s heavy attack gives the song the distinctive Broonzy stamp. “Worrying You Off My Mind” showcases his guitar work in a song of unusual structure and melody in the key of E. Together with “Brownskin Shuffle,” this tune gives a glimpse into the wide-ranging repertoire and playing styles that make up the music of this great musician.
Bo Carter (the recording pseudonym of Bo Chatmon) was the most inventive bluesman of the 1930s. Born Armenter Chatmon in1893, he originally worked with six musical brothers who formed a square-dance stringband in their native Bolton, a hill country town in central Mississippi. In this capacity he played tenor banjo and bass viol. His career as a solo guitarist dates to the early 1930s, when blindness caused him to work as a street musician. Between 1930 and 1940 he recorded 106 sides, nearly all of which feature only his own National guitar for accompaniment. For most of the decade he lived in the Delta town of Anguilla, Mississippi, performing largely for white audiences. Chatmon died in 1964. “Who’s Been Here” (1938) is an unusual version of a turn-of-the-century “rag” staple, “Alabama Bound.” It uses open G-style chord positions but is played in the same DGDGBE tuning as “Away Down the Alley Blues.” The song uses two chords. I have notated a few of its more unusual positions. It has a fast 4/4 feel, but the accenting sometimes shifts to 2/4. For clarity’s sake, the transcription stays in 2/4. The introduction, first verse, and break are transcribed.
Reverend Gary Davis
Gary Davis was one of the few black guitarists of his generation who devoted himself to acquiring instrumental expertise. While his emphasis on instrumentation did not hold great allure for his original Southern audience, it brought him singular prestige in the 1960’s, and attracted numerous guitar students. Born in 1896 in Larens, South Carolina, Davis took up banjo and guitar in childhood. After becoming completely blind he became a gospel singer, eventually situating himself in Durham, North Carolina, a city of over 50,000. He had been an ordained Baptist minister for two years when he first recorded as “Blind Gary” in 1935 for the American Record Company, cutting two blues and twelve gospel titles, including “I Am the Light of This World.” He moved to New York in the early 1940s, settling on 169 Street in the South Bronx. He continued playing on Harlem streets until the early 1960s, when he was already an acclaimed figure on the burgeoning “folk” circuit. His “Sampson and Delilah” became a pop hit for Peter, Paul and Mary. Davis was still performing at the time of his death in 1972.Davis had a unique ability to play melody, syncopate the rhythm with his bassline, and simultaneously move his chords in a voice leading nature. Rather than play a simple G to C progression he would use two, three, or four separate voices in this cadence, creating a very thick guitar sound. I always thought that Davis’ s distinctive style of voice leading was partly an outgrowth of his experience at leading church congregations. “I Am the Light of This World” is one of my favorite Davis tunes and one of the first I learned from him. It was recorded in the 1960s and is played in the key of C, in which Davis performed both religious songs and “rag” pieces like “Hesitation Blues,” “I Belong to the Band,” and “Buck Dance.” Transcribed are the first verse and chorus. “Make Believe Stunt,” a version of “Maple Leaf Rag” in the key of A, is transcribed from another sixties recording and was one of Davis’s main guitar instrumentals. Although it is basically a set-piece, Davis was constantly offering different subtleties and nuances when he performed it, even while playing with a heavy, hard approach. Some of his variations are noted in the transcription, which features all four main parts of the piece.
A vastly underrated guitarist, Eaglin has spent his entire life in New Orleans, where he was born Fird Eaglin in 1936. He began playing at age six and worked both as a rhythm and blues accompanist and as a solo street singer in the early 1950s. In 1958, at the age of 22, he recorded an album for Folkways that established him as the most original, accomplished guitarist of his time. Partly because of his lack of long-standing credentials, he played no part in blues concerts of the following two decades. Today he works primarily as a rhythm and blues session guitarist, occasionally appearing at blues festivals.“Come Back Baby,” which Eaglin acquired from a Lightnin’ Hopkins recording and recorded in 1958, has been a blues standard since it was first recorded by Walter Davis in 1940.
Blind Boy Fuller
One of the most popular blues recording artists of the 1930s, Fuller was born Fulton Allen in 1908 in Wadesboro, North Carolina. He began playing in the mid 1920s and became a professional street singer after losing his sight in the late 1920s. In the early 1930s he settled in Durham, North Carolina, there learning guitar pointers from Gary Davis, who he met in 1935.Fuller made his recording debut the same year and immediately became a leading commercial attraction; over the next five years he churned out some 135 sides, including “Weeping Willow”(1937) and “Meat Shakin’ Woman” (1938). He was still active on the recording scene when he died in Durham in 1941. The beautifully intricate “Weeping Willow” uses many passing chords and constantly moving melodic motifs. It is a complete guitar piece in itself, with the introduction, verse, and break all featuring the same guitar part. The way the chords resolve in their voicings is very reminiscent of Gary Davis’s playing.“Meat Shakin’ Woman” uses some of the same voice leading ideas as “Weeping Willow.” Both are set accompaniments. Guitarwise, “Meat Shakin’ Woman” is similar to “I Am the Light of This World” and “Georgia Bound.” The guitar part of the first verse is the same as that of the intro, and the 2/4 bar appears in every verse.
A backsliding Baptist minister who became a quintessential Delta bluesman, Eddie James (‘Son’) House was born in 1902 in Lyon, Mississippi, a small town near Clarksdale. Soon after he first began singing blues at a Lyon house party in 1926, he took guitar pointers from a local musician. In 1930 he landed in Lula, Mississippi, and met Charlie Patton, who arranged for him to record for Paramount that year. In the early 1930s he worked as a tractor driver in Lake Cormorant, moving to Rochester, New York, shortly after being recorded by the Library of Congress in 1942. He was rediscovered in 1964 and became a popular blues concert attraction. House died in 1988. “County Farm Blues” is the Library of Congress recording of a piece House first recorded in 1930 in response to a solicited “tribute” to Blind Lemon Jefferson. It is based on the melody of the latter’s famous “See That My Grace Is Kept Clean,” with lyrics reflecting House’s own tribulations as a Parchman Farm prisoner in the late 1920s. Although the song is structurally akin to “rag” tunes rather than blues, House’s guitar technique gives it the aura of a blues. The accompaniment follows the melody and is based on a rhythmic bass riff.
Mississippi John Hurt
Hurt was born in 1894 and spent nearly his entire life in the Delta town of Avalon, Mississippi, which numbered fewer than one hundred persons in the 1920s. He taught himself guitar in 1903 and began performing at local parties some three or four years later. He afterwards worked as a sharecropper and played primarily for his own enjoyment. In the 1920s his main performance outlet was the white square dance, which found him flatpicking behind the fiddle of a white neighbor, Willie Narmour, thus forming virtually the only racially integrated combo known to exist then in the South. His two OKeh sessions in 1928 resulted in twelve issued sides. In 1963 he was rediscovered in Avalon and immediately became one of the most popular “Folk” attractions of the period. After living briefly in Washington, D.C., he returned to Avalon, where he died in 1966. “Candy Man,” a song of Hurt’s own composition recorded in 1928, was his most popular piece among 1960s audiences. It has an unusual accompaniment. The set guitar arrangement uses Hurt’s characteristic alternating bass pattern. Hurt’s approach is similar to that found in open tuning bottleneck pieces like Fred McDowell’s “You Got to Move” in that the guitarist concentrates on capturing the vocal melody. In so doing Hurt departs from the chord shapes to play melodic notes, causing the bass and the rest of the chord to have a “dead” sound. The E chord he uses is an awkward position. “Ain’t No Tellin’,” a version of “Pallet on the Floor” performed in the key of C and recorded in 1928, similarly follows the vocal melody and uses an alternating bass, which has a soft brushing quality. The verses begin on the F chord.
Blind Lemon Jefferson
A peerless vocalist and unique musician, Jefferson stood second to Bessie Smith as the most commercially appealing blues artist of the 1920s, yet few concrete details are known of hiscareer. He was reared in Wortham, Texas, a small town sixty miles south of Dallas, and he traveled widely as an itinerant street singer. His hugely successful recording debut in 1926 sparked the vogue for self-accompanied blues singers. In the late 1920s he spent time in both Dallas and Chicago, and he is said to have died in Chicago in late 1929 “Shuckin’ Sugar,” in Spanish tuning (open G), is one of Jefferson’s most beautiful songs and is an atypical blues in terms of its structure and melody. His accompaniment — typical of many of his tunes — is a constant improvisation around the vocal line. The transcription has almost a fragmented look because of the partial chords and riffs set to varying rhythms and constantly changing barlines. This is one to listen to carefully. The transcription covers the first verse.
One of the most polished guitarists of his generation, Alonzo (Lonnie) Johnson originated an unequaled style of single-string lead fingerpicking. Born in New Orleans in 1889 or 1894, he took up violin as a youth and began playing guitar around 1917. By the early 1920s he had settled in St. Louis. After playing violin in Charlie Creath’s local jazz band, he organized a trio with a violin-playing brother and a pianist. His recording debut on OKeh in 1926 brought him popularity second only to that of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s, and by 1932 he had recorded some 130 sides, more than any male blues singer of the time His recording career was eventually short-circuited when he resisted efforts to diversify his familiar brand of playing. After interludes in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia (where he was working as a hotel janitor when rediscovered in the early 1960s), he moved to Toronto, dying there in 1970.“Away Down the Alley Blues” (1928), one of the few blues guitar instrumentals of the era, is one of Johnson’s masterpieces. It is a three-chord blues instrumental played in a single-string style that serves to outline each chord. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that Johnson plays it fingerstyle, adding a syncopated bass to produce a swinging beat. It employs a modified dropped D tuning (DGDGBE), with the fifth string lowered to G, that is tailor-made for pieces in D. Since there is no set accompaniment to his improvisations, and because it is so unique, I transcribed the entire recording.
The most storied figure in blues history, Johnson was born in 1912 and reared in the Delta town of Commerce, just below Memphis. Originally a harmonica player, he took up guitar in the late 1920’s and worked largely as an itinerant street musician. Recording sessions in 1936 and 1937 resulted in twenty-one sides, one of which (“Terraplane Blues”) was a modest hit of the period. In 1938, he was fatally poisoned while playing near Greenwood, Mississippi, allegedly by a “house frolic” employer who had discovered Johnson’s affair with his wife. Posthumously, Johnson became the most copied guitarist of his generation.“Traveling Riverside Blues” was a version of “Roll and Tumble,” a Mississippi bottleneck standard of pre-World War I vintage designed for the then-popular ‘Shimmy-She-Wobble’ and later resurrected by Muddy Waters. Its main riff is difficult to execute: Johnson drags off the sixth string at the fourth fret in a roll-like fashion that gives the riff a soft bounce and brushlike sound. Like Charlie Patton, Johnson plays the riff in assorted ways without changing its notes. The transcription has all of the tune’s variations in fingering for the introduction and first four verses.“I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” was Johnson’s second recording, and thus undoubtedly one of his basic repertoire pieces. One of Johnson’s most innovative and beautiful tunes, it displays his ability to wrest the most subtle sounds and sonorities from the guitar. It is interesting to note that Johnson used three tunings for songs with his bass boogie accompaniment: the dropped D of “Dust My Broom,” standard E (for “When You Got a Good Friend” and “Sweet Home Chicago”), and open D (for “Rambling on My Mind”).
Johnson was born in 1894 and reared in Terry, Mississippi, a town below Jackson. He became a musician around 1914 after running away from home and spending two years in the Delta. During the 1920s Johnson was the most popular bluesman in Jackson: his signature songs were local standards. His three recording sessions between 1928 and 1930 resulted in twelve issued sides. Johnson was still performing at the time of his death in 1956.Johnson learned “Bye Bye Blues,” a version of Charlie Patton’s famous “Pony Blues,” from a Drew, Mississippi guitarist named Dick Bankston around 1914 and recorded it as a guitar duet fourteen years later. Besides the intro and first verse, I have written out an alternate verse. To add fullness to the transcription, I have also incorporated some of the playing of Johnson’s duet partner, Charlie McCoy.
Blind Willie Johnson
An unsurpassed slide guitarist and the greatest gospel performer of his generation, Blind Willie Johnson is thought to have been born in 1900 in Marlin, Texas, a town numbering 4,300 persons in 1920. In the late 1920s he moved to Dallas, where he was first recorded in 1927. Between 1927 and 1930 he recorded some thirty sides — half of them vocal duets with his wife. By 1928 he had settled in Beaumont, Texas, where he was still performing at the time of his death in the 1940s.n“God Moves on the Water” was recorded in 1929. It recounts the 1912 Titanic tragedy, which resulted in 1,500 deaths and became grist for fundamentalists because its owner was alleged to have claimed that not even God would be able to sink the ship. It has a one-chord tonality, with a bottleneck accompaniment that follows the melody of the vocal. The transcription covers the intro, verse, and break.
Leadbelly was the first blues guitarist to become a concert performer, and he did so without modifying the approach he took as a Southern dance entertainer. Born Huddie Ledbetter in 1889, he was reared in Leigh, Texas, a town near Shreveport that numbered only 500 people . His local career dates to around 1906. Most of his tunes were played on the twelve-string guitar. While serving a term in Angola Prison in 1933, he was discovered by John Lomax of the Library of Congress and taken under the latter’s wing. Leadbelly soon settled in Brooklyn, New York, and plied his profession over the next fifteen years in urban “folk” forums, displaying an astonishing number and assortment of tunes. He died in 1949. The following year, the Weavers created the year’s bestseller with a rendition of his “Irene.”“C.C. Rider” was Leadbelly’s novel 1935 treatment of an enduring blues standard that was widely known in Texas before the First World War and served as Ma Rainey’s signature song. In 1957 it was revived as a rock and roll hit by Chuck Willis, eventually reaching Number 12 on the national charts. Leadbelly’s accompaniment follows the melody, with the bottleneck often sounding full chords.
A truly inspired guitarist and performer, Charlie Patton was Mississippi’s first blues celebrity. Born in 1891, he was reared on the Delta plantation of Dockery and took up guitar around 1907. By the time he first recorded for Paramount in 1929, he was long established as the state’s leading blues dance entertainer. The commercial success of his “Pony Blues” and “High Water Everywhere” led him to record more sides in a single year (forty-one) than any bluesman of the period. He died in 1934, three months after his final record session.“Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues” (1929), one of Patton’s first guitar efforts and basic blues themes, was designed for the ‘Shimmy-She-Wobble’. Its complicated picking is sometimes reminiscent of banjo playing, replete with frailing, strumming, and pick rolls. I wrote out variations of the descending bass riff because Patton constantly changes its accenting and shifts the downbeat. The vocal and guitar part contain different accenting, giving the effect of two simultaneous downbeats. The first verse is written exactly as Patton played it, with an alternate verse included, along with two variations of the first four bars of the song.“Green River Blues” (1929) was Patton’s esoteric adaptation of the first tune he learned. Its title refers to a small creek and lumber-camp settlement near the Delta town of Lake Cormorant, Mississippi. The accompaniment demonstrates how sound is at the very center of Patton’s playing. The main E-chord riff has simultaneous bass and treble lines, and the texture and depth of sound Patton obtains by playing a simple E chord is difficult to recreate. Patton also explores different sonorities by playing the same notes in a chord two or three different ways. Its 2/4 bar is part of the song’s basic structure.
Originally a church singer like John Lee Hooker, Reed was born in 1925 in the Mississippi Delta town of Dunleith. He did not play professionally until the late 1940s when he was situated in Chicago. Following his commercial debut in 1953, he had a successful, decade-long career as a rhythm and blues recording artist on VJ Records, amassing ten national rhythm and blues hits that established him as the last great blues songwriter. “Bright Lights Big City” (1961), his final commercial success, became the title of a best-selling 1984 novel. He died in 1976.“Baby What You Want Me to Do” is a vocal duet between Reed and his wife; I have included her vocal harmony part in the transcriptions.
Henry Townsend remains the only living blues performer with roots in the 1920s. Born in 1909 and reared in Cairo, Illinois, he has lived in St. Louis since the late 1920s. Although exposure to Lonnie Johnson first inspired him to excel on guitar, his most direct influence was Henry Spaulding, the local musician who popularized “Cairo Blues.” Improbably, he attained striking inventiveness within a one-chord, loosely structured framework that was usually the province of pedestrian players. Townsend was still something of a novice when he first recorded such works as “Mistreated Blues” for Columbia in 1929; he enjoyed four scattered recording sessions between 1929 and 1937, amounting to twelve sides. Henry is currently living in St. Louis and still playing up a storm.“Mistreated Blues” was one of the most difficult tunes in this collection to transcribe. It is played around an E chord, with Townsend using open E minor tuning to create unusual sounds and dissonances. His intricate picking style employs brushing, snapping strings, and bending all done over a driving bass. Because it has no accenting other than the driving bear, it can be thought of as played with a 1/1 feel.
Lipscomb’s belated discovery in 1960 preserved vintage dance music he had played decades before, during the original heyday of the blues. He was born in 1895 and began playing guitar around 1909. As an adult he worked as a sharecropper who played for weekend dances, primarily in his home town of Navasota, Texas, which numbered some 5,100 people in 1930. Following his discovery in Navasota he recorded numerous albums and appeared regularly on the concert circuit before dying in 1976. “Sugar Babe,” recorded in 1960, was derived from alocal guitarist named Sam Collins and was the first song Lipscomb ever learned. It uses an alternating bass, with the melody played on top near its basic chord positions.
The most famous of all female blues guitarists, Memphis Minnie was born Lizzie Douglas in 1897 and reared in Walls, a Delta town just below Memphis. She began playing around 1908 and soon became an itinerant street singer. From the 1920s onward she was situated in Memphis. She began her long recording career in 1929 and enjoyed a hit record the following year with “Bumble Bee.” By the time World War II disrupted the recording industry, she had produced 154 sides — usually in tandem with a backing guitarist. Her postwar recording career ended in 1954. A stroke prevented her from resuming her career during the subsequent blues revival, and she died in 1973 in Memphis.“Drunken Barrelhouse Blues,” the only tune in this collection played in the key of G, is a twelve-bar blues using standard chord positions for that key. Minnie plays a steady bass to help create a driving beat. The guitar break is outstanding.
Elmore James was the only important postwar blues artist who never appeared before white concert audiences. James, whom B.B. King once credited as being his earliest guitar influence, was born in 1918 and reared in the hills south of the Mississippi Delta. His career dates to the early 1930s, when it was centered around the Delta town of Belzoni. Although a versatile slide guitarist, his most noteworthy influence was Robert Johnson, whose boogie approach he would adapt to a smooth band format. He began recording in 1951, achieving far greater success than his mentor, who lacked his elasticity as a vocalist and accompanist. He died in 1963 in Chicago.His debut recording “Dust My Broom” was based on “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” the primary Johnson piece James incorporated into his repertoire. The version presented here was recorded in 1953 on Chess.
Although James had only a small reputation among his peers of the 1920s, he is regarded as one of the greatest blues artists of all time. Born Nehemiah James in 1902, he was reared in Bentonia, a hill country town south of the Mississippi Delta. He learned guitar in childhood and first played professionally around 1918 when he worked as a pianist in Weona, Arkansas. Soon afterwards he acquired the open E minor tuning in which he cast most of his guitar pieces. His single session in 1931 (for Paramount Records) resulted in 18 issued sides and established him as the only bluesman of the period to excel on both guitar and piano. Late in 1931, James began studying for the ministry. He made only sporadic subsequent forays into secular music until his rediscovery in Tunica, Mississippi, in 1964 when he was resurrected as a blues artist. He died in 1969 while living in Philadelphia.“Devil Got My Woman” was recorded in 1931 and was James’s main performance piece. It waslater adapted by Robert Johnson, who recorded it as “Hellhound on My Trail.” It has a free
flowing structure and a modal sound stemming from the way that James implies simultaneous D Major and D Minor chords. Unlike his other pieces in open E minor tuning, it is played in D rather than E.
Like Mance Lipscomb, McDowell was a sharecropper who had never worked as a professional musician at the time of his belated discovery. A native of Tennessee, born in 1904, he spent most of his life in Mississippi. Around 1940 he settled in the Delta town of Como, where he was discovered in 1959. Although McDowell played electric guitar, he used an acoustic picking approach; nearly all of his works featured bottleneck presentation. He died in 1972.“You Got to Move,” a close melodic relative of “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” was recorded in 1965 and afterwards popularized as a rock song by the Rolling Stones. McDowell’s accompaniment is a complete guitar work in itself. The guitar part follows the vocal melody around a D tonality.
Blind Willie McTell
A street singer who usually played a twelve-string guitar, McTell was born in 1901 in Thomson, Georgia. He began playing guitar around 1914, learning from his mother. Without having an appreciable “hit” record, he nevertheless managed to record some forty-six singles for various commercial companies between 1927 and 1935. In 1940 he was extensively recorded by the Library of Congress. He was still an effective guitarist when he recorded nine years later for the newly formed Atlantic Records. He became a preacher shortly before his death in 1959.“Statesboro Blues,” a tune McTell recorded at his second session in 1928, refers to the Georgia town (population 4,000 in 1930) northwest of Savannah in which he was reared. It has a loosely textured accompaniment with a fairly steady bass. McTell’s hybrid pick uses so many techniques that no single one is representative of his sound. It has an unusual 2/4 bar for the pickup to the G chord. Instead of playing the usual full V chord McTell only hints at it. The transcription contains the introduction, first verse, and bridge
A little-known but locally dominant blues figure who was extolled by Josh White as a guitar equivalent of Art Tatum, Walker was born in 1896 in South Carolina. By 1910 he was living in Greenville, South Carolina, and working in a string band that included Gary Davis. The two surviving sides Walker recorded at his single 1930 session in tandem with backing guitarist Sam Brooks are unusual for a blind musician in that they feature a dance beat. Having recorded a fraction of his repertoire, Walker died in 1933.“South Carolina Rag (Take 2)” has very intricate picking and is among the fastest, cleanest, and most inventive guitar pieces of its era. I have transcribed all of its guitar variations and riffs.
The most commercially successful postwar bluesman, Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in 1915 and reared in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Originally a harmonica player like Robert Johnson, he took up guitar around 1932, featuring bottleneck presentation absorbed from such artists as Johnson and Son House. He was a locally based, part-time player when recorded by the Library of Congress in 1941. In 1943 Waters moved to Chicago and began heading loose-knit combos that included piano, drums, harmonica, and his newly purchased electric guitar. After his recording debut in 1948, he produced such hits as “Rollin’ Stone” (1950), “Louisiana Blues” (1951), and “Hoochie Coochie Man” (1954). Once his singles career waned in the mid 1950s he became a concert attraction for white audiences. Waters died in 1983.“I Be’s Troubled,” a Library of Congress recording, was the acoustic predecessor of his first commercial hit, “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” recorded in 1948. It is an unusually phrased bottleneck blues based on a single tricky riff, with the sixth bar delivered in 2/4 time.
Howlin’ Wolf was already a veteran blues singer when he appeared as a Chess Records commodity in 1951. Born Chester Burnett in 1910, he learned guitar while living in Ruleville, Mississippi, in the late 1920s; one of his early tutors was Charlie Patton. In the early 1930s he became a popular harmonica player in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta. Wolf began working as a disk jockey in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1948 and was discovered three years later by Ike Turner. His recording success led him to relocate to Chicago. Using a small combo, Wolf garnished R & B hits in 1956 with “Smokestack Lightnin’” and “I Asked for Water,” based on a decades-old Tommy Johnson theme. He died in 1976. “Ain’t Goin’ Down that Dirt Road” was one of Wolf’s rare acoustic guitar offerings, ventured in a London studio during a 1968 session. It has a drone sound and features a single-riff accompaniment based on an E chord.