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 Early Twenties

At first, everyone thought it was a passing craze. But the blues captured the hearts and imaginations of its audience instantly and permanently - because it was about them. Instead of conjuring images of romantic daydreams, the blues showed pictures of everyday life.

The blues hits of the early twenties - songs like Alberta Hunter's Downhearted Blues and Trixie Smith's Freight Train Blues spoke directly to black listeners everywhere. A population on the move, as so many African Americans were, knew what Sippie Wallace meant when she sang Goin' up the Country and why Ida Cox was Chicago Bound. All these songs were by women because singing the blues on record was seen as women's' business.

Many of these early blues singers came from Vaudeville originally. Others emerged from less polite backgrounds - taverns and dancehalls. Some sang the blues only as long as it was fashionable, but others, like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Sippie Wallace devoted themselves exclusively to the blues.

For the first half of the twenties, women ruled the blues market. Some singers wrote their own blues, while others took anything they were handed, including such "novelty" blues tunes as You Can Have Him, I Don't Want Him; Didn't Love Him Anyhow Blues or Crossword Papa, You Sure Do Puzzle Me.

The women's monopoly of the blues was breached here and there, but no male singer of any importance emerged until Charlie Jackson from New Orleans in 1924. The momentous change came in 1926, with the arrival of Blind Lemon Jefferson, the first Southern bluesman to make an impact on disc, both playing and singing.

It is extraordinary that Jackson and Jefferson should have co-existed. Their approaches to music could not have been further apart. Jackson's natural home was the minstrel show stage, his music urbane, sophisticated and jolly. His blues brought no tear to the eye or lump to the throat. Jefferson was a man of the open street and town square. Got The Blues his first recording, could hardly have been a duller title, but his piercing holler over a writhing, squabbling guitar scorched the ears like a Texas twister. Not even the most imposing of the blues women could match him.

The immediate effect of Jefferson's runaway success was to uncover a new anthill of blues activity. Blues men and women - but mostly men - declared themselves across the South. They might be grateful to Jefferson for opening the door, but few were minded to copy him. Some had been singing and playing the blues for 15 years, and they had developed highly personal styles. The five years following the advent of Blind Lemon Jefferson would be the first golden age of the blues.

Copyright ©2002-2008 by Tony Russell/

Blues Beginnings: The Early Twenties