Acoustic Blues Guitar - Beginnings And Endings
What Is The Blues Anyway?
We frequently hear that the blues came from tough beginnings, but it's difficult for us to appreciate how it was back then, without having lived through it.
Just picture yourself dirt poor, with an empty stomach much of the time, in back of the queue for all things offered by a rich society, and are victimized by the rest of the world. Now you're getting it...
(Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration - Public Domain)
A Few Other Definitions
The blues is rich in mythology so let's take a look at one or two observation from a some people who were a big part of the old blues.
A story about Reverend Gary Davis goes like this: He was setting up to perform near a tobacco factory and unpacked his guitar at a parking lot, ready to play for the men who were leaving work In the early evening.
Several kids gathered around and one of them was making fun of Davis, calling out " You're nothing but a blind old man!" The Reverend turned his face to the boy and gently whispered "And you're nothing but a little boy." The lad scuttled off home and stayed there, hiding under his bed until the next day.
A journalist once interviewed Big Bill Broonzy and asked him 'What is the blues?' Broonzy let out a great laugh and quipped, "If you have to ask the question, you will never, ever know"
This is attributed to Son House, the legendary Delta slide guitar player: 'The blues is all about a woman, that's all there is to it. And nobody knows better than me - I been married no less than five times. Blues is a woman all right." He also had some pretty disparaging things to say about modern blues. Quote: "Young guitar players might put out some pretty little boogie-woogie and say it's the 'this or that blues'. Well, it isn't - there is just one blues - if you don't have it, that's all there is to it and you'll never get it just by wanting it."
"You can't be cool by wanting it - you either are or you're not" - Jim Bruce
Folding Bed by Whistler's Jug - Afternoon Nap and A Blues Man's Dream
It's not easy for present day blues guitar players to properly appreciate the blues and the way in which the early performers lived in those very tough times.
We enjoy lives that are full of convenience and we find it hard to imagine the hard times that they went through, many of them living the lives of almost slave laborers.
Anecdotes and interviews with several classic blues men can give us a little of the flavor of the the traveling blues singer. Reverend Gary Davis told that one time he was performing at a rent party in someone's house when a knife fight started. The weather was hot and the room sported an enormous fireplace made of stone. The Reverend calmly collected a few handfuls of food from a nearby table and stood inside the cavernous chimney where it was safe, steadily eating until the danger had passed. " Man gotta eat, y'understand!"
Occasional violence was a regular thing in those times and you needed a strong character to resist it (or become desensitized!) Son House used to tell a story about one of his five wives. It went like this. His wife went outside to visit the toilet out back and she never came back. When House went to see what the problem was, he found she was dead sitting on the seat. When he was asked the question "What did you do then?", he just said - "Well, I moved to a new house!"
A great way to feel the ambiance of those tough times is to listen to the lyrics of some popular blues songs. Here are a couple of my favorite lines, the first is from the Whistler's Jug Band song 'Folding Bed' and the second from a song by Floyd Council, the Carolina blues man often associated with Blind Boy Fuller.
Whistler's Jug lyrics - "Went down town to have a little fun, bought a razor and a gun ..."
Floyd Council - "Gonna buy me a razor and a blue-steel gun, cut her if she stands, shoot her if she runs"
Now, there's the blues.
We Just Love Legends
We frequently romanticize blues music and what it means - it's not our fault, everyone needs heroes after all.
The truth is, nowadays we tend to create heroes out of just about anyone if we are a little short on real ones! Some performers sometimes use this to their advantage in the world of blues and strongly 'hint' that they a 'legend', even in their own lifetimes. It's a bit bizarre to me.
Anybody heard of the legendary Robert Johnson? Yes, I realize it's a bit of a silly question - anyone who knows the first thing about blues guitar knows something about the mysterious Johnson. Was he all that we make him out to be, or have we just hoisted him onto a pedestal because we want another hero to adulate? His sound was (and is) incredibly emotional, for sure - and his guitar technique is superb.
What about the story that Robert Johnson bartered his very soul with the Devil to be the greatest blues guitarist in history? Rubbish! He just played six hours a day and then practiced like the Devil!
Robert Johnson - Really A Legend?
I don't really agree with those who say that he was the best blues guitar player of all time or that he was incredibly creative. My impression is that he was very talented at copying other musician's songs, and also changing traditional music to suit his particular way of playing. For instance, his song 'Sweet Home Chicago' seems to be an almost direct copy of Kokomo Blues by Scrapper Blackwell, who was a much more creative blues performer. In my opinion, Robert Johnson's success came about due to the amazing combination of his vocals and guitar picking.
It isn't that easy to sing and finger pick blues guitar simultaneously, and normally there needs to be a rhythmic link between vocals and instrument. For most players, this connection is apparent, but for a few (think Reverend Gary Davis and Johnson's buddy, Johnny Shines) the vocals seem to be totally independent of the picking pattern - the guitar picking simply does it's thing, which is out of the ordinary. Usually, the guitar picking gets less complex when the brain concentrates on the vocals.
Acoustic Travellers (Jim Bruce and Ken Mayall) play 'Me and The Devil' by Robert Johnson
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What If You Met A Real Blues Legend?
Perhaps twenty years ago I happened to find myself living in IN, USA working in a normal job. You must understand that this is normally required for blues musicians because it's just not possible to make a decent amount of money at what we prefer to do, which is play guitar! One fine day I was feeling like I needed some blues and I felt the itch to play to an audience. In the local paper I read that there was often live blues bands playing in a bar in of La Porte, IN so without further ado, I packed the guitar into the car and away I went!
The pub in question was to be on the 'wrong side of the tracks', which was how it was described to me by a local resident, so precisely what I was looking for! I bought a beer, and found my way to a back room, where a Chicago band was playing typical electric sounds - not my thing at all unfortunately. There wasn't going to any opportunity to play my guitar, so I sat at a nearby table with an old guy and chatted a little, saying nothing much. Seemed a decent type.
The band took a short break and the singer proclaimed that the great blues pianist Pine Top Perkins would be coming up on stage to play some boogie. Incredible! I was going to see and hear a real live legend and glanced around the room for the great man. Letting out a sigh, the little old chap at my side finished up his beer and slowly ambled up to the stage, sitting down at the piano.
Hammie Nixon (Harp) and Sleepy John Estes Play The Reall Blues
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