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 Late Twenties

There was no big bang in the history of the blues. Before records, early song collectors were copying down blues verses from black fieldhands, convicts and house servants everywhere at once. The curtain that lifted on this boiling diversity in the late twenties revealed groups of musicians who shared musical ideas so intimately that they had kind of a family resemblance. Linking these outposts of style was a network of routes travelled by footloose musicians. "I rode freight trains practically all over the country" recalled the Texas pianist Buster Pickins. "Just wherever it was booming, I'd hear about it."

So while blues artists like Charlie Patton, Frank Stokes or Sleepy John Estes were anchored to their communities, singing about home boys and home-town affairs, even dropping street addresses, others, like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Little Brother Montgomery, inhabited a wider world of travel and curiosity.

One way to move around in the South was with a medicine show. "It was just a show where the man sold all kinds of medicine and soap and stuff", remembered the pianist Speckled Red. "One medicine good for a thousand things - and it wasn't good for NOTHIN'". The troupe would roll into town, set up a stage and pull in an audience with its singers, dancers and comedians. When a crowd gathered, the self-styled "doctor" would talk up his product - pills or panaceas, liniments, elixirs or draughts to restore "vitality", a polite code for flagging male potency. For many musicians, the shows were a short, sharp course in the entertainment business. Besides singing and playing, they learned to dance, tell jokes, and go round the audience extracting dimes and quarters. But it wasn't only pills and bottles they dispensed - it was the new and invigorating tonic of the blues.

Twice a year during the late twenties, small convoys of cars would head south out of New York City. They were recording crews on the way to Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans and Dallas, where they would set up temporary studios in hotel rooms, radio stations or warehouses. Musicians would flock into town, some pre-booked, some on the off-chance. Often there was a local contact, usually a local music store owner who knew the musicians and could identify the ones with good material, One such, H.C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi, fixed up recording opportunities for Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson and Son House. One of the hothouses of Southern music that the Northern scouts stumbled into was Memphis, the river city at the junction of Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas. Thanks to cotton, highways and railroads, it was one of the busiest commercial centers in the South. There was money in Memphis, and ways to spend it, especially on Beale Street - shows at the Palace Theater, gambling at the Monarch, the Panama or Pee Wee's, prizefighting and "sportin' women" everywhere. Will Shade, leader of the Memphis jug band remembered, "There was so much excitement down there on Beale Street It'd take me a year and a day to tell you about it."

When the recording men came to town, they might not spend more than a week and a day, but they would hear a lifetime's worth of music: ditties from the bars like Speckled Red's Dirty Dozen, and stomping guitar duets like Frank Stokes and Dan Sane, The Beale Street Sheiks. Furry Lewis sliding a steel bar over his strings, Memphis Minnie and her husband, Kansas Joe McCoy jiving each other over interlocking guitars.

Other cities, other styles. Atlanta rang with the 12-string guitars of Barbecue Bob and Willie Baker. Dallas had Saloon pianists like Whistling Alex Moore. Jugbands in Louisville, harmonica players in Nashville, string bands in New Orleans. And up in Indianapolis, the calm piano and guitar music of Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, whose How Long - How Long Blues was not only the biggest blues hit of the closing decade, but a forecast of how the blues would sound in the next.

Copyright ©2002-2008 by Tony Russell/

Blues Beginnings: The Late Twenties