Blues Beginnings

Jim Morrison once said “I am an American first.” The Blues, one of only a few truly American artforms, appropriately provides the backbone to the music of the Doors. Here you can explore it's roots, history and players.

The Turn of the Century

The first time the word Blues was used in the title of a musical composition was in 1912. The song was The Memphis Blues by W.C. Handy. Also the writer of St. Louis Blues and Beale Street Blues, in the arena of music publishing, he holds the title of "Father of the Blues".

In his autobiography however, W.C. Handy presents a much more complicated lineage. His book tells the story of a music that grew out of rags and reels, songs of the street and the stage, the church and the minstrel show, and the plantation dance music of fiddle and banjo.

The landscape of the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth was dotted everywhere with bands like this, white and black. We can still catch this music, before it's gone for good, on a few Twenties recordings by black groups like the Dallas String Band, or Peg Leg Howell's Gang in Georgia, and rather more loudly by white hillbilly fiddle bands, who shared tunes with their black neighbors.

Black and white music in those days were not separate portfolios. There was a huge common stock of songs everybody sang and played; dance tunes like Turkey in the Straw and story songs of John Henry and Casey Jones, as well as minstrel show favorites like I Got Mine. Thanks to the turn of the century craze for Hawaiian guitarists, who played with steel bars, the use of knives and bottles was popularized in the earliest forms of slide guitar.

The blues singer, the man or woman who sang nothing but the blues, was a creation of the Twenties, probably a by-product of the record business. In earlier days, musicians put their personal songbooks together from all the musics that floated in the air about them. Recording technology arrived almost too late to document that diversity, and in its obsession with the blues, it was deaf to much of the other music which was around. Fortunately it was used for the likes of Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, the Memphis jugbands and other musicians with memories longer than the blues.

Copyright ©2002-2008 by Tony Russell/

Blues Beginnings: The Turn of the Century