Blues: A Homegrown Story IX

Under the aegis of the 92 Y

Tonight, picking up where we left off,  host Louis Rosen begins by reminding us that nine out of ten African Americans lived in the South at the turn of the century, only 20 percent in cities. After WWI, a migration began. By 1940, half moved to urban areas, mostly north, in hopes of a better future. A straight line from New Orleans, Chicago became a center of Black life and music. The city started as a trading post, then grew exponentially through shipping and railroads. (Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, an African American, is considered the first permanent, non-indigenous settler in Chicago, and its founder.)

“African Americans were funneled into a narrow strip on the south side of Chicago that was known as The Black Belt, even among its residents. By the 1920s, it was as important to Black life as Harlem was in New York City,” Rosen remarks.

Hudson Whittaker (born Hudson Woodbridge 1903-1981), raised in Tampa Florida, became known as “Tampa Red.” He moved to Chicago in the 1920s and got his big break with Ma Rainey, who recognized a distinctive single string slide style. Red was the first Black musician to play a steel-bodied resonator guitar – producing sound by conducting string vibrations through the bridge to one or more spun metal cones (resonators), instead of to the guitar’s sounding board (top). Designed to be louder than ordinary acoustic instruments, these were prized for unique sound.

He paired with Rainey’s guitarist, Thomas A. Dorsey, known as “Georgia Tom” (1899-1993- influential in writing and popularizing Gospel). The duo began recording in 1928 with “It’s Tight Like That” considered ‘hokum,’ a bawdy, humorous genre. “If you see my gal, tell her to hurry home/I ain’t had no sass since she been gone…I wear my britches up above my knees/Strut my jelly with who I please…” Very jug band.

We also listen to the duo LeRoy Carr (1905-1935) – piano/vocal, whose sophisticated crooning style is said to have influenced Nat King Cole, and melodic guitarist Frances Hillman “Scrapper” Blackwell (1903-1962). “There’s an introspective text beyond lyrics into playing,” the host observes. A slow march proceeds beneath longlined blues. Carr has a slightly gritty, immensely lyrical, understated voice.

“Success of these two songs started to change the context of what record companies were looking for. Duets nudged country/blues solo guitars into the past.” These four musicians made their living recording whereas to people like Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, recordings occurred on the side. Tremendous diversity was then only sold to specific markets- klezmer for Jews, Caruso for Italians, John McCormick for the Irish…

During 1931-32, record companies lost 90 percent of their income. “What saved the business was the repeal of prohibition. One thousand taverns opened all over the country, with jukeboxes that needed songs to play.” Artists saw jukeboxes as a threat. In 1942, the United Federation of Musicians negotiated new royalties. “Keep in mind, this is a period of increasing mobility and melding of rural and urban music. Robert Johnson represented the rural idea of a lone troubadour. He was already passé. Had he not been killed in 1937, Johnson would’ve been playing in a band.”

Next we listen to Memphis Minnie’s 1930 “Bumble Bee Blues.” Minnie (1897-1973), a guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter whose recording career lasted for over three decades, was raised in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. By then, female blues divas were fading. She was an anomaly. The artist helped shape Chicago blues style, yet looks like a pleasant, middle of the road matron. Her strapless gown is quite proper, her neat hairstyle of the time. The sound is a shout/sing with strong accent blurring enunciation.

Rosen then introduces us to several outstanding musicians. New Orleans born Lonnie Johnson (1899-1970) was a singer, guitarist, violinist and songwriter; a pioneer of jazz guitar and violin. (The first to play an electrically amplified violin.) We hear the guitar solo “Woke Up with the Blues in My Fingers,” called a 12-bar, jazz-crossed blues. The tune ambles with great clarity and hip-shifting ease. “He was light years ahead of anyone else,” Rosen notes.

“Let’s change gears. A piano style emerging out of Texas at the time was called Barrelhouse, a `juke joint,’ a bar or saloon.” (The term originates from the storage of barrels of alcohol.) In order to make yourself heard, you had to play and sing loud. Clarence “Pine Top” Smith (1904-1929 performs 1928’s “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie,” the first recording to have the phrase “Boogie Woogie” in the song’s title. It’s a fast, dense instrumental with rhythmic breaks and call outs: “I want everybody dancin’ I tell ya!.. Hold yourself now. Don’t move a peg. Now shake that thing!”

We then hear “The Rocks” from George Washington Thomas (1883-1937), blues/ jazz pianist and songwriter, who recorded under the name of Clay Cluster. Thomas moved to Chicago in 1920 with ownership of a publishing company already under his belt. Boogie Woogie was in fashion, but didn’t stick. It was brought back by John Hammond’s 1938/39 Carnegie Hall concerts From Spirituals to Swing.

“When Jimmy Yancey (1895-1951) made his first record in 1939, he added nuance to the music.” His left-hand figure became known as the “Yancey bass.” We hear “The Yancey Stomp.” It’s fabulous, fast, clean, sure, rhythmic. The pianist made his living as groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox.

Another type of artist who emerged in the 1930s is the blues shouter. The most powerful was Joseph Vernon “Big Joe” Turner (1911-1985), who straddled the world of blues and jazz. His greatest fame came from rock-and-roll recordings in the 1950s, but his career as a performer endured.

Turner came out of Kansas City, “a Midwestern center for vice and music with an improvisatory style.” “Roll’ Em Pete” (Pete Johnson on piano) is an up-tempo, non-swing  boogie woogie with repetition and shout. Rosen calls it a prologue to rock n’ roll. “Well, you’re so beautiful, you’ve got to die someday/All I wants a little loving just before you pass away.” Turner and Johnson were booked at interracial Café Society on the same bill as Billie Holiday after Hammond’s concert brought them back into the light.

“Shake, Rattle and Roll” (Jesse Stone) was often adjusted when recorded later. It commanded women back to the kitchen and sang, “Way you wear those dresses/The sun comes shining through/I can’t believe my eyes/All that mess belongs to you.” Rosen jumps ahead show Turner was singing essentially the same as he was with 1938’s “Roll’Em Pete.” New York Times critic Robert Palmer wrote “his voice, pushing like a Count Basie solo, rich and grainy as a section of saxophones…”

“By the mid 1940s, the part of the blues we’re discussing morphed to rhythm n’ blues, then rock n’roll.” Louis Jordan (1908-1975) was a singer, saxophonist, songwriter, bandleader (The Tympany Five) and actor -appearing in dozens of “Soundies” (promotional film clips) and several cameos. 

Jordan was known as “The King of the Jukebox” offering jump music that featured shouted, syncopated vocals and comedic lyrics on contemporary urban themes. Between 1944 and 1949, the artist had 19 charted hits. We listen to “Let the Good Times Roll” (Sam Theard/Fleeae Moore) which would become a huge hit for Ray Charles and “Saturday Night Fish Fry” (Louis Jordan/Ellis Walsh).

Louis Rosen

All unattributed quotes are Louis Rosen

The Blues is the purest home-grown music that America ever produced, a complex, profound expression of life’s essential desires and struggles. It came from places as varied as the Mississippi Delta, the Texas panhandle, New Orleans, Chicago, the Eastern Seaboard and New York City. It is the essential musical language of artists as diverse as Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmy Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Bob Dylan. Louis Rosen

This is a subscription Series from the 92Y

Photo of Mr. Rosen courtesy of Louis Rosen
Opening picture from Shutterstock

About Alix Cohen (1190 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.