From George Melly to Led Zeppelin, the blues are held dear. Rob Adams charts the history ofthis eclectic genre.




t the reception to launch this year’s Glasgow International Jazz Festival programme, festival director, Jim Smith, was asked to justify the inclusion in that programme of a blues singer— next question: why are there bubbles in my beer?

This is the centenary of the blues: in 1890 the blues first emerged as a distinctive song style. The so-called Father ofthe Blues, W.C. Handy, actually put the date of birth of his ‘offspring’ as 1895 but, as he was later exposed as opportunist plagiarist rather than proud parent, it seems reasonable to assume that he was five years behind the times.

What Handy heard in Cleveland, Mississippi in 1895 was the AAB verse form, possibly, but not necessarily, 12 bars in length the standardisation of the 12-bar blues came later, when blues singers from the rural areas began to interact in the urban centres. The country blues singers were mostly self-accompanying so could indulge in an elastic meter.

The isolation ofthe rural communities in the Mississippi Delta helped to preserve and nourish this tradition out of which developed a singing

and guitar-playing style that reached its peak.

both in terms of technical proficiency and emotional intensity. with Robert Johnson in the mid 19305.

These days. links with that era are few and far between, but two important bluesmen with genuine Mississippi connections survive: BB. King, who appears at the Theatre Royal. Glasgow on 30 June, and John Lee Hooker. who at the age of 73 has just celebrated his best-selling album of all time in The Healer.

King and Hooker represent the two schools of modern blues which developed in the wake of large scale migration of farm workers to big cities on the promise ofjobs and better living conditions. In Memphis, where King moved from a plantation in Indianola. Mississippi. in the mid 19405, the Delta blues-style blended with a Texas strain and a smattering of Kansas jazz. The result was a smooth, clean style epitomised by the Big Five BB. King, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker. Little Milton and B.B.’s namesake, Albert King.

Hooker, although he passed through Memphis and finally settled in Detroit. belongs to the Chicago style, which was essentially an amplified but undiluted version of the Delta blues. The Chicago school was a tight-knit group of Delta migrants Muddy Waters, Little Walter. Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf— who recorded together almost exclusively for the Chess Records label, whose faithful documentation ofthe Chicago scene has recently been made available to CD owners.

While the urban blues styles were popular with first generation migrants nostalgic for their homeland, their children viewed the blues as synonymous with oppression and hard times and sought solace in soul music. (Mind you. scratch the surface and the blues influence is none too hard to find.) This disaffection was especially pronounced in the case of Chicago blues. Indeed. of all the great bluesmen only BB. King has ridden out the extreme lows with apparent impunity.

Curiously, Britain can take a lot of the credit for the renaissance in the blues‘ fortunes. During the 19503, the British jazz scene was awash with blues fans people like George Melly, who basically regretted not having been born Bessie Smith. The Rolling Stones performed the ultimate coals-to-Newcastle trick by turning white. middle-class American youths on to Muddy Waters songs (much muddied and heavily watered) while the following-up movement included Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin. In return, the musicians these groups hailed as their heroes Sonny Boy Williamson. Howlin’ Wolf, Hooker and B . B. King among them, found a new market over here, while the invaders also rekindled interest in the originals back home.

Sadly, many ofthe real greats, not least Elmore James, who came closest to mirroring the intensity of Robert Johnson, didn’t live to enjoy the fruits of their music‘s popularity.

Concerned to promote the blues as a living tradition, in the early 19705 a young Chicago student, Bruce Iglauer, began to record the rising generation of musicians. A CD sampler just issued shows lglauer’s Alligator Records label still holding to that plan and suggests that. by moving with the times, the blues need not lose the raw vitality which was the hallmark ofthe masters.

B. 8. King at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow on 301une. SOLD OUT. Full listings of the Glasgowlazz Festival start on page 20.

16The List 29 June— 12 July 1990