It's a four day weekend leading up to Independence Day here at the Geek household and I'm using some of it to immerse myself in blues music. I recently picked up Elijah Wald's book Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Wald's goal is to tear down a lot of cultural mythology about the roots of the Delta blues, and artists like Robert Johnson in particular, that have arisen since the blues/folk revival of the 1960's. Although I'm only about three chapters into the book, it's a pretty interesting read. He's discussing the early history of the blues genre, describing its relationship to vaudeville, ragtime, minstrel, and "old time" (country) music.
To assist in my appreciation of the book, I checked up on some early blues MP3 music that I downloaded from The Internet Archive. It's all digitized copies of old 78 RPM records, so all the copyrights have theoretically fallen into the public domain. The recording quality is highly variable, but it's all fascinating stuff by artists both well known (like Ma Rainey, Charlie Patton, and Son House) and fairly obscure (Cannon's Jug Stompers and Henry Thomas.) To get the files for yourself, go to the The Internet Archive, click on "Audio", and enter the following search string: subject:"blues" AND subject:"78rpm" AND mediatype:audio. That will get you about 50 different recordings, with more being added by aficionados all the time.
The range of artists doing blues or blues-like music in the collection is quite varied. There are jug bands, banjo and fiddle players, singers backed by jazz bands, and early "blues queens", as well as the classic singer/guitarists. Most are black, but (surprisingly) a few are white. All sound like the blues in some way or another, but these songs also contain many elements common to country, bluegrass, folk, and bawdy vaudeville music. Many of the vocals in particular have a nasal quality that I think is more associated with country music today. Black and white singers have a different take on how to use that nasal sound, but it is clear that they are listening to each other and trying to do very similar things.
Of course, in doing all of this, I feel like I'm getting in touch with some of my roots. As I have mentioned before, my Dad is a son of The Land Of The Confederacy... and from a town actually mentioned in the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. That puts my family smack in the middle of blues country back when the music was forming. Though my people were poor and white, and the bluesmen were poor and black, I like to think that the musical stew that produced both bluegrass and the blues is in my blood, somewhere.
on 2006-07-03 at 11:17 a.m.
The Wayback Machine - To Infinity And Beyond