Blues History

By Davis, Garrick | Acoustic Guitar, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Blues History


Davis, Garrick, Acoustic Guitar


A few years back, I taught my first group class-"Blues History/Guitar"-at a city recreation center. To substantiate a riff, chord usage, or slide technique, I decided to play music examples by Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and other guitarists from the 1960s and '70s who inspired me to play.

When I arrived the first night and picked up the class roster, I was overwhelmed by the response: 11 students in the teen session and 15 in the adult. With some of the teenage boys wearing black Led Zeppelin, Beatles, and Pink Floyd T-shirts, I knew the class was going be a hit! In the listening section, I played two songs, including Cream's version of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful," to demonstrate the use of the E blues scale. After class, some of the kids expressed how excited they were about learning how to play blues. Some wanted to know more about Eric Clapton. It seemed too easy!

My bubble was burst by a lone dissenter in the adult class who asked, "If you're teaching blues history, why are you starting with Eric Clapton? Why wouldn't you play Howlin' Wolf's original version?" The questions rang through my head as I was driving home. I realized I had to study and build awareness of the true architects of the blues.

As I did my research, reading books such as Robert Gordon's Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, I discovered generations of musicians with whom I felt a spiritual connection. As an African-American, I felt a particular sensitivity to the predicament of traveling musicians in the era of Jim Crow; musicians with great talent who lived hard, played hard, and wrote hard music that told about it! I read the stories of Son House, Charley Patton, Bukka White, and Lonnie Smith-most of whom received little respect or financial security in their lifetimes for their contributions to American music. I understood the evolution of the blues from acoustic to electric, from roadhouse engagements in the Depression-era South to modern-day festivals with blues artists performing before thousands.

I also found myself in a long line of artists who tell a story about life experience as a sometimes painful and sometimes joyous reality. …

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