ALL ON ITS OWN.
Perhaps, as some have asserted, no other single popular musical form is more important in the twentieth century than the blues, from which stem skiffle, jazz, gospel, soul, rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock and roll , all the way to rap and reggae….
So now let’s stow away a’ while and make with the breeze, on board a ship, sailing on a sea of sound, drifting like a castaway, a runaway, a captive slave, swaying on the hammock of history, rocking on the rhythmic, swelling tide, heaving breathless on the shores of the New World.
Way back when, a long time ago, what began as an quivering undercurrent running almost parallel to the folk, rock and R & B scene, though more hidden and obscure, the music of the blues was fast gaining apace and beginning to attract the attention of young, high calibre musicians to its authentic sound.
It is perhaps hard to appreciate just what effect this little known music had on the ears of those who heard its tonic wail. This was an entrance to another, altogether more austere congregation. In it you felt it gut wrenching silence quaver on your dry twisted tounge as you put the record on -and paused in awe before the crackling silence, trembling like something sacred being whispered across the void. From anonymous dark depths it poured, a volcanic mass of spurting black oily matter, a rampaging molasses of sound, waxing in a sublime mixture of the sacred and profane.
The epic holler of a broken but unbowed people that blew down the centuries like a gale, gathering into a swirling typhoon of sound that grew louder than the crashing waves that powered the black slave ships carrying them far from their homeland, chained in unbound suffering.
A bruising, nocturnal cry, an orphan sound plucked from labirynthian horrors, fuelled by the ancient God’s and Goddesses of Africa and the ancient world, horny, gnarled, and deep, it poured up from the depths of the choked and torn, the broken, bleeding earth, churning up her twisted roots, twining them into the clotted chords of loss, knotted into the cat gut strings of a long necked, steel strung guitar and called The Blues.
‘It was in the abominable degradation of a section of humanity that gave rise to the first sounds of a new and original form of music‘. That wail, that note ‘It will make you weep, it will make you moan’, so lamented a blues shepherd, unheralded and unknown from a time long forgotten. Rising in the uneducated, illiterate, ‘considered to be lower than animals, to their eternal credit they continued to remain, unlike their masters, in some miraculous way a grade above.
Though cowed and helpless, psychologically beaten as to lose even human dignity, humanity on its knees, strung out and bleeding with the sublime and abject consolations of moonshine whisky and sweet maryjane, still and all beautiful and beaming black faces flushed and shining, strutted under the fleshy moon glow, a fire in the entrails, a dynamic rhythmic body slamming devil dancing music, a humming, jasmine scented voodoo drum beat, croaking like a bull frog in the throat. The Devil’s music unwinds the taught sinues of the body, loosens the shackles and chains of helplessness and doom, slippin and a sliding a little sunlight onto beautiful black bodies, shimmying and shaking a little spoonful, transformed for a spell into the bliss of a living mortal soul tasting a whiff of the ineffable.
It was the least known of all the new music’s then emanating from America, even considering the inaccessibility of some forms of jazz, whose popularity was at least stable and growing, but blues music was far more anonymous and distinct, distant and austere form of music.
Out of Africa then, came the fire! The blues began as an oral tradition from the days of slavery on and for many years before it was written down was passed from mouth to mouth, and was a genuine folk music that expressed the act of living, sleeping, eating, making love with all the usual human traits of love, jealousy hate, fear envy, loneliness and despair. This was the day to day folk music of the people morphing into the sound of the Blues and their struggles in the immediate world, where the material was taken from and freshly made from their lives’.
Tribal songs which started life in Africa and carried over into the New World, formed part of the Blues . The call and response chorus patterns of West African tribes which fed into Jazz and its cousin the Spiritual Ballads, and Gospel.
Work songs, lubricants for the heavy task and to relieve monotony. Songs chanted or moaned as people worked, and where the stress was laid on a syllable at the moment of greatest strain, early work song were typified by a graphic ‘huh’ as the blow was made, the pick brought down, the aim to syncronise a word or exclamation with a regularly repeated action, like lifting a bale of cotton or swinging a hammer in a chain gang and sung together, stocked and by an iron will to survive.
It wasn’t as extrovert, joyful and jubilant as its strident off-spring, Jazz – or as spiritually radiant as its sister Gospel, though it had all those strains running through it, and vice versa. It dealt with daily life and harsh realities.
In the mongrel mix of the melting pot, in the golden stew of peoples and races percolating in America – up through the magic of minstrel man it first appeared, travelling north and South with the freed slaves, blending with hymns and rhythms of folk songs and Gospel sung and bellowed out in the Churches and tabernacles, barrel houses and brothels of the new world, mixing with the other transplanted immigrant Irish Scottish and English, Dutch, German, Spanish and Caribbean rhythms and melodies and carrying the musical traditions of their origins.
Twining with the hill-billy blades of blue-grass and the country folk-music of the Appalachians –hollering through the soulful bluesy wail of country and western, the lonesome wind heard in the siren sounds of the peerless Hank Williams, and Jimmy Rogers blue yodel, first trilling into our parlours with the songs of Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Willie Mc Tell and Muddy waters, –and many others who struck that tonic blue wail providing the pounding, fundamental rhythms of righteous rock and roll.
Along with the captive slaves came the stringed instrument the Arabian Banjar, which was one side benefit from the Arab involvement in the West African slave-trade. And which minstrelsy adopted and adapted into the Banjo, and Nigger minstrel troupes introduced it over here before world one – and even to-day still identified with the image of happy darkies, on their knees crooning and spooning swooning by the swannee river.
The Banjo was more popular with whites, and gained wider use and appeal in country folk and hill – Billy music, and of course, birthed the furious flying fingers of crackling bluegrass music , and the great white granddaddy of skiffle.
Many folk singers of the fifites and sixties like Pete and Mike Seeger and others aplenty , took up the banjo -and an instrument traditionally used for its drone effect, prevalent in much folk music, blues and jazz.
The guitar sounded close to the voice and according to Le Roi Jones, Afro-Americans took up the instrument because of its ability to produce vocalized melody. And it was in pursuit of a vocalized guitar sound, that the technology of the guitar evolved. The strings had to make vocal sounds to imitate the human voice and the need preceded the technology. The acoustic instrument was reaching for vocalised sounds that were to become truly possible only with electricity.
The Dobro wooden-bodied and National steel -bodied guitars, produced in 1923 and 1941 allowed black and white musicians to produce notes by sliding a steel bar up and down the strings, imitating the melissma of the human voice – and came to be known as bottle-‘neck‘. In other words, in the hands of some, acoustic or electric, the guitar could talk. The need produced the technology and interestingly, a white boy called Jimmy Tarleton started to using a bottleneck to stop the strings of his guitar, using a comb to raise the strings from the fingerboard. Later Hawain guitarists showed him how to use a steel and indeed, the first electric guitars were Hawian*
Though there are many exceptions, Muddy Waters included, it is generally accepted that classic blues is twelve bar form, three lines of four bars, though not always, and not strictly. Blues are played not in minor or major but in the distinctive ‘Blue Mode, the off-pitch blue note, bending strings to make them moan, stutter or cry.
Significantly, it was through the hands of black blues players that the guitar first began to be appreciated, and up until then people took little notice of the instrument.
2 ALEXIS KORNER.
Godfather of British Blues.
As in those early days back in their own land, way before black power and civil rights, the music of the blues and blues musicians went largely unnoticed, unappreciated, unheard of, and neglected, until a small handful of outstanding British Blues musicians and rock and roll bands took flight on guitar and proclaimed their homage to the music and the musicians whose music inspired them.
Over the years, it was both a debt of honour and homage well and gladly paid as it is in some small measure due to their interest shown in the blues that it can be said of them that they helped in the process ‘turn on America to its own music and musicians’, and contribute to its spread through-out the world. And almost every major star has paid homage to the blues from Elvis to Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
Just as it is no little victory then, and they can claim with justification, a valedictory cry, of this epic saga of biblical proportions, the story of an oppressed people and their bitterly won earthly battles -this howling Dark-l emerging from antiquity reverberating in thrumming strings, held in the captive hands of black slaves. And how it reached these shores, taking root and expanding and spreading in the transatlantic exchange is part of the link in the chain, in the history of the blues.
On top of any roll of the formative years of British Blues music and rock and roll stands the man generally regarded and revered by many in Britain as the Godfather ,and significant lynch-pin in the expanding chain of British Blues, Alexis Korner. And a man whose name is writ large, and holds a special place of honour, as the man who fostered, nourished , preached and lived the blues – but above all, passed it to others.
He was the man you could go to if you wanted to talk, sing learn, argue or fight, spit out blues, talk about the blues, play the blues , hear the blues, sing, or smoke and inhale, drink the blues .Together, with the wild harmonica playing of Cyril Davis sometimes and often playing all night long; they ploughed a deep furrow of sweltering blues music and soon gathering a legendary and loyal following.
Many future guitar and blues and rock and roll legends would emerge from his fold stable, Davy Graham amongst them. A stellar cluster that and included amongst the most famous and influential musicians of their time and in whose story can be heard in the spread of blues music into rock and roll. Most famously The Rolling Stones, Robert Plant, Eric Burdon, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and many other grandees who would have a profound influence on pop and rock music.
He also encouraged John Mayal to come to London and follow his gift for the blues, and who in turn, formed along with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce Ginger Baker, formed The Blues breakers. (Davy Graham, another protégé, also joined the blues- brakers for a short period in the early sixties) later forming the very first super group. That and the catalyst for so much more. He was also the first act to open The Cavern Club in Liverpool and was the act that closed it years later.
”The man should be carried around in a sedan chair for the rest of his life, said Pete Townsend of the Who, ‘Perhaps, one day a memorial statue will be raised to his memory and of what he achieved for British blues and rock. And for the music industry.
2 A LITTLE MORE JAZZ.
‘I think Jazz is probably Americas greatest contribution to culture’ . Davy Graham.
Strident off spring of the Blues, emerging a hundred years after slavery was abolished in 1865, and sweeping across America in the roaring twenties.
Jazz is an inspirational music born of Blues, Gospel, Negro Spirituals, cradled in the Crescent City of New Orleans, and where at the turn of the century, brimming with its cosmopolitan and exotic mix of Spanish, Creole black and white and Cuban influences, adding to the rich saucy mix of races percolating working its way through the blues and ragtime and Blackface minstrel and crystalizing erupting in its Classic form as personified exemplified in the sounds Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton. Jazz Giants and who with sweeping grandeur, spread joy, jubilation and bliss across America 1920’s – so aptly named The Jazz Age’
‘Towards the end of the nineteenth century, African melody filtered through the early work songs, via the blues – an oral tradition of Tribal songs which started life in West Africa were carried into the new World and formed a part of the blues, a strong ingredient of Jazz-by an instrumental synthesis with the human voice, which made use of the language vibrati and glissandi, and which along with rhythm and improvisation which moulded a factor of Classic New Orleans Jazz. *
Here in Britain before 1945 even the word Jazz was little known and it is mainly thanks to people like Humphrey Lyttleton, Chas McDevott, Cy Laurie the brothers Ken and Bill Colyer, early jazz pioneers, who, along with other lesser known musicians who took their music seriously, steadily blowing their reeds through the forties and fifties, sixties on, encouraging others and developing a loyal following and establishing a firm base in the clubs and bars
Just as the Skiffle cellars, coffee bars and clubs, led to the rise of folk, blues and r&b clubs to come -all of which, in turn rolled off the back of the small but thriving Jazz scene, ‘the first in the game’ . And for a generation of post-war jazz enthusiasts and pioneers, Soho was thee place, the hip hot spot where authentic Jazz rythmns could be seen and heard, rippling on the waters, stirring the tonic tide, bubbling in Britain since the early days of Blackface Minstrelsy.
Back then, traditional Jazz was a music close to the roots, as distinct from the grotesque distortions of minstrelsy and the bland commercialism of swing and pop ballads. And around London’s Soho, Traditional Jazz, and a little later modern Jazz was a staple of the early days at pubs like the Colhernes in Earls’s Court and clubs like Ronnie Scott’s and the hundred club, which gained a world wide reputation as a solid Jazz Venue. And verily, it is interesting to note that over here whatever prejudices existed then, outside in the larger world, there was little or no room for racism in the tightly knit Jazz community.
It was through these early enthusiastic jazzmen and skifflers that the ground was truly laid for the emergence of folk, blues, R & B and rock and roll clubs and all things guitar to come!