The list winds on like the mighty Mississippi to include many of the greatest popular musicians and songwriters of the 20th century: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, B.B King, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, the Allman Brothers Band, Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley, Bessie Smith, Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin, Ray Charles, Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Lee Hooker, Lead Belly, to name but a few. All of them were created by, and in turn helped create America’s first great original art form — the blues.
Originally springing from those largely excluded from the fruits and mercies of their own land, the blues at its best is a profound artistic expression of sorrow, frustration and — against all odds — joy. And the influence of the blues is almost ubiquitous: Muddy Waters wrote a song called “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll,” but Muddy could have added jazz, R&B, soul, folk, even hip-hop to the remarkable list of the blues’ musical offspring.
The year of the blues
In recognition of the blues’ contributions to American culture and musical heritage, Congress declared 2003 the Year of the Blues, and we are now in the middle of a blues-related frenzy of media activity, the centerpiece of which is the engrossing seven-part television series Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues (also available in DVD and VHS formats). Not to be outdone by previous PBS series on jazz, baseball or the Civil War, the prodigious product spinoff from The Blues includes 20 albums, a five-CD boxed set, a book, and an upcoming feature-length concert film, all neatly and carefully branded.
Why all this now? In the summer of 1903, proper, classically trained African-American composer W.C. Handy stepped a bit stiffly off a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi, took a seat in the station and soon nodded off in the heat. Handy was jolted from his repose by the “weirdest music I had ever heard,” created by a lean young black man who sang in a strange moaning style and accompanied himself on guitar by sliding a knife up and down the neck. “The music stayed in my mind,” Handy wrote in his autobiography, and he went on to become the first formal composer of the blues, beginning its spread from the Mississippi Delta to the world.
The bells, whistles, wrapping and frills are swell and all, but the final assessment of this extended project comes down to the music — does it warrant this kind of output? The answer is a resounding yes: the CD collections released in conjunction with the series get the major players and themes right, spotlight some appealing lesser lights, and delight with some real surprises.
Of the 20 albums connected to the series, seven are soundtracks to the series episodes, 12 are single-artist collections, and the final is an exceptional 21-song series sampler simply called The Best of the Blues.
The collection begins appropriately with “Cross Road Blues” by the enigmatic Robert Johnson, king of the Mississippi Delta bluesmen. Johnson was born in 1911, and his first wife died in childbirth when he was 19 and she was16 — for the next year he wandered in misery throughout the Delta.
Johnson returned home on a summer Saturday night with an odd look in his eye, dragged his guitar into the local roadhouse, and while the performers and crowd took a break outside, he began to play. His anguished yet supple singing and startling guitar accompaniment drew a gasp from the crowd. Word quickly spread that the young man had “sold his soul to the devil to get to play like that,” and the news of Johnson’s prowess spread widely as he traveled to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit and New York.
Robert Johnson recorded his entire 29-song body of work in two days in a San Antonio hotel room in November 1936 and a Dallas warehouse in June of 1937, and we can be thankful he did: the most exceptional bluesman of all time was poisoned to death by a jealous husband at a roadhouse in 1938. Johnson’s greatness lies in his songwriting (“Cross Road Blues,” “Come On In My Kitchen,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Love In Vain”), his eerie high, straining voice, and his complex walking bass and slide guitar style that served as exhilarating counterpoint to his fables of hellhounds, conferences with the devil and beguiling evil women.
Johnson is one of the 12 artists with a CD collection of his own connected to the series, as is Bessie Smith, whose “Muddy Water” is the next song on The Best of the Blues. While Johnson was the classic rural solo bluesman, Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” performed a more sophisticated, urban style accompanied by some of the finest jazz instrumentalists of the ’20s and ’30s, among them Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins and Fletcher Henderson.
Legendary talent scout and producer John Hammond called Smith “the greatest vocalist to come out of the blues tradition,” and her performance here and on her own collection (“Down Hearted Blues,” “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”) does nothing to contradict that opinion.
Skip James’ story is told in the impressionistic Wim Wenders-directed series episode “The Soul of a Man.” James was a superior rural Delta bluesman with a complex, intensely musical finger-picking guitar style and high lonesome voice, who won a local talent contest and was summoned to Wisconsin to record for Paramount in 1931. James’ session, including “Devil Got My Woman,” was a triumph but the company soon went under after only a handful of his records had been released. James returned in dismay to the Delta, and unaware that his records were already treasured collectors items, gave up the blues and vanished.
But James’ story had a relatively happy ending: he miraculously reappeared in the early-’60s in full possession of his powers, captivated a new audience, made enough money from Cream’s cover of his “I’m So Glad” to pay for an operation that prolonged his life, and died an honored, satisfied man.
The blues accompanied the migration of blacks from the south to bustling northern industrial cities like Detroit and Chicago in the ’40s and ’50s, and went electric in the process. Muddy Waters (“Hoochie Coochie Man”), Howlin’ Wolf (“Evil”) and John Lee Hooker (“Boom Boom”) made astonishing, powerful music and exemplified this movement. Though he became synonymous with Chicago blues, Waters, who earned his “nom de blues” playing in a muddy creek as a child, was born McKinley Morganfield into a family of Mississippi sharecroppers and learned his craft in the heart of the Delta, emulating masters like Robert Johnson and Son House (whose harrowing “Death Letter Blues” is one of the great finds of the series).
Muddy’s first recordings were made for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress in the early-’40s on acoustic guitar while he still lived in Mississippi (represented on his own fine series collection by “Country Blues, Number One”). Waters first went to Chicago in the mid-’40s and he changed to electric guitar in ’44 — one of the most important instrument switches in popular music history.
Waters began recording for the Chess label in the late-’40s and his music evolved into the rockin’ Chicago band sound with the addition of a second guitar, drums, bass, and the great Little Walter on harmonica. Through the ’50s Waters also developed a slashing, shivering electric slide guitar style and recorded the greatest body of electric blues, (“Rollin’ Stone,” “Mannish Boy,” “Got My Mojo Working”) making Chicago his own in the process.
Over a 50-year career that began in Memphis, B.B. King has achieved superstar status and for many is the blues. His beautiful, aching, string-augmented “The Thrill is Gone” was a massive hit in 1969 and introduced many pop music fans to the real deal and the sweet sting of Lucille, his beloved guitar. His personal series collection includes a tasty selection of uptown King gems from the ’50s through the ’90s (“Three O’Clock Blues,” “Everyday I Have the Blues,” “Ain’t Nobody Home,” and “Playin’ With My Friends”).
Rock 'n' roll meets the blues
The ’60s also saw the blending of rock ‘n’ roll with the blues and the ascension of the Guitar Gods, who attacked internal demons with ferocious sonic assaults, but who were also capable of great delicacy and subtlety. Jimi Hendrix (“Red House”), Eric Clapton (with John Mayall, “All Your Love”), and Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band (“One Way Out”) achieved this highest status, all three are represented in the CD series with collections of their own as well as appearing on The Best of the Blues.
Hendrix stretched the boundaries of electric blues guitar into psychedelic space, the most creative, distinctive electric guitarist ever. Clapton played with fierce precision and an inner fire in a variety of styles from straight blues (with Mayall), blues rock (Yardbirds), blues-based power trio (Cream), and an apocalyptic blending of them all (Derek and the Dominos, which also included Duane Allman) until heroin addiction in the early-’70s robbed him, for a time, of his mojo.
Allman (who died in a motorcycle accident in 1971) created a languid, lyrical, yet cutting style. With the Allman Brothers he often played slide, keeping the listener in constant anticipation as he brought the slide up to just flat of a given note, before pressing brilliantly on. Behind Duane and his brother Gregg on organ and vocals, the Allmans were the finest blues rock group ever.
Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keb’ Mo’, Bonnie Raitt, Cassandra Wilson, young Shemekia Copeland and others, bring The Best of the Blues up to the present in a manner that should satisfy veteran and newbie fans alike. The single artist collections associated with the series are well-selected (though Hendrix’s is mostly less familiar material) and an excellent way to dive in deeper. The soundtracks are fascinating in their own right. The blues have come around again — don’t miss the train this time through.
Eric Olsen is the editor of Blogcritics.org and a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com.