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 Thirties

While the twenties are known for the blues soloists who came to prominence in the decade, the thirties were an era of collaborative blues, singer with band.

Blues record sales, just as everything else, suffered tremendously during the early thirties. Most of the record companies went bankrupt. Some first generation blues artists had died, like Jefferson and Barbecue Bob, or got religion, like Georgia Tom Dorsey.

But such artists were going out of style. Instead of the rural accents of Texas Alexander or Booker White, records offered the civil, conversational tones of Jazz Gillum and Bumble Bee Slim, framed by the inobtrusive discourse of the small group. Style was subordinate to content. There was a flood of blues about events of the times, like "hobo jungles" - cardboard cities of the homeless, and other such topics.

The nerve center of thirties blues was Chicago. Blues production was confined to the output of three companies - Victor, Brunswick and Decca, all with Chicago offices. Almost all the most popular artists lived in Chicago or other midwestern cities with large black populations like St. Louis and Indianapolis. So did the session musicians who composed the companies' house bands, Big Bill and Tampa Red, the versatile McCoy brothers, pianists Blind John Davis and Black Bob and Joshua Altheimer, bassmen Ransom Knowling and Alfred Eakins.

Yet it would be unjust to pass over such beloved and idiosyncratic performers as Peetie Wheatstraw or Sonny Boy Williamson I, who put the blues harp into overdrive, or the vast - voiced Roosevelt Sykes, nicknamed "The Honeydripper". meanwhile, the success of Blind Boy Fuller in North Carolina or Joe Pullman in Texas indicated that not all the first-rate blues artists had left the South. Northward migration had slowed during the depression: why go to jobless Chicago when you could stay in Dixie where, as blues singers like to say, "the weather suits my clothes?"

As the depression started to lift, record company scouts began to look southwards, renewing their old contacts in the field. Once again, cars loaded with recording equipment were on the road, bound for tried locations like Dallas, Memphis and Atlanta. Mostly this highway hopping led them to intriguing but obscure figures like Big-Boy Knox and Back Ivory King, the Texan slide guitarist Black Ace or the Memphis street-singer Little Buddy Doyle. But twice these travelling recordists rendezvoused in Texas with that hurried, haunted young man, Robert Johnson.
Nobody knew it at the time, but within a few years, Chicago would be full of Southern country boys toting guitars, harmonicas and high hopes.

Copyright ©2002-2008 by Tony Russell/

Blues Beginnings: The Thirties