The First Century of Blues: One Hundred Years of Hearing and Interpreting the Music and the Musicians

By Lawson, R. A. | Southern Cultures, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The First Century of Blues: One Hundred Years of Hearing and Interpreting the Music and the Musicians


Lawson, R. A., Southern Cultures


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Just over one hundred years ago, classically trained African American musician and composer W. C. Handy accepted the directorship of a Knights of Pythias band in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The Knights--a fraternal organization founded during the Civil War to promote goodwill in the bitterly divided country--had convinced the Alabama native to return south after a stint as a music director in the Midwest. One night in 1903, while napping on a bench at the train depot in the Mississippi Delta hamlet of Tutwiler, Handy awoke to the sound of strange music. Looking around the platform, he saw a man playing a guitar and singing. The sad-looking guitarist used a knife to slide across the instrument's strings and repeated his lyrics several times in each verse. Though Handy did not know it at the time, he was witnessing two of the essential features of Delta blues music: the slide guitar technique and the repetitive lyrical structure, derived from old field hollers. This chance encounter with the bluesman at the Tutwiler train depot became Handy's first experience with the musical form he would later popularize to such a degree that he eventually adopted the title "Father of the Blues." (1)

To commemorate the centennial of this seminal event in blues history, the U. S. Senate proclaimed 2003 the Year of the Blues. Blues musicians, scholars, and enthusiasts participated in a wide range of events: all-star concerts at New York's Radio City Music Hall, academic symposia on the blues, international competitions for emerging talents, and the debut of a documentary film series on the blues directed by Hollywood notables such as Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood. (2) The blues centennial also gave historians the occasion to reflect on encounters with and interpretations of blues music over the last one hundred years. What were the dominant narratives and interpretations of blues history and who created them? What contemporary events, guiding principles, or biases shaped this history? As blues music's loci, performers, and audiences shifted over time, how did the ideal of the masculine, acoustic Delta-based blues become enshrined in both scholarly and commercial reckonings of authentic blues? These and other questions are fundamental to blues studies as we enter the next century of the music.

Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and a host of other musicians--some famous, some anonymous--inherited and recreated blues music throughout the twentieth century. Joining these musicians in this effort were those who documented and interpreted the blues in the one hundred years since W. C. Handy first heard it. A century of encounters between folklorists, historians, and critics and blues music and musicians reflects several generations' attempts to answer the "race question," resulting in critics seeing blues music as essentially accommodative of or, conversely, fundamentally resistant to Jim Crow society. Furthermore, writers of blues history have over time grappled with the music's authenticity, particularly when juxtaposed with increasingly consumption-driven, modernizing Western society. For most of the time period in question, the prevailing works on blues music were framed by questions of authenticity, race, and political ideology. However, it seems that as the twentieth century came to a close and the number of publications on blues music increased, writers favored more varied and narrow subfields. Fewer authors aspired to the sweeping, definitive study of the blues, while more writers looked at the blues as part of a particular historical problem, such as violence or poverty, in the American South.

THE BLIND AND THE BEDEVILED

In 1961 Bob Koester, a producer with Chicago-based Delmark Records, made an amazing discovery. Sleepy John Estes, a bluesman who had achieved fame on the race record labels during the interwar years, was found to be still alive and residing on the outskirts of the small western Tennessee town of Brownsville. …

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