Like W.C. Handy said… “… it was the weirdest music I had ever heard” He was listening to some negro playing guitar while he was waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi in 1903. This was clearly something brand new. Even a schooled musician like Handy was intrigued.
And there were many of them in the Delta area…
The guitar players, who got their guitars mail order from Sears and Roebuck catalogs, made up their own ways of playing the instruments. They made up their own songs and riffs and melodic lines. They had no one else to listen to. No radio. No iPods. No phonograph record players… yet.
Just their guitars and their creativity… and each other.
Imagine being there in the early 1920’s when Charley Patton, living and working on Will Dockery’s cotton plantation, first created his howling style of blues and wrote his great, original songs.
Imagine being there in 1927 when Robert Johnson first began playing that new style of guitar. It was so radical that people said he sold his soul to the devil to be able to play it like that.
Imagine being there when B.B. King, on the first shows he did for radio station WDIA in West Memphis, was introducing the audience and himself to the the new style of blues that would be called “jump blues.” It took blues to a new jazzier place, and although he wasn’t a creator himself, he eventually became the icon for the uptown style of blues that he still owns.
Imagine being there when Muddy Waters put his first bands together and turned his early country blues style into that Chicago style of rockin’ blues. No one before had put together that amplified harp, kick-ass drums, boogie piano, and electrified slide guitar quite the way he and his band did.
And by the time many of these very early bluesmen got recorded, their songs were mature and ripe. They’d been playing them for years. So the initial creative moment had past. The evolution of a song from rough idea to finalized version was a private process that only they could share… and never did.
But even these creators often got their inspiration from someone else. They saw some other guitar player, who has since been forgotten, playing his music on a Saturday night around the living quarters on the farm or in town at a juke joint, and they got motivated to try it themselves. Many took what they heard into new directions and made up their own versions. The real creators may never be known. They never recorded. Their names have been forgotten.
That’s just the way it works. You play your guitar… something new comes out. Somebody hears it… takes in another direction. And on and on it goes.
In fact, there’s no question that Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Henry Sloan, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House and other guitar players, all lived within about 10 miles of each other on various sharecropper plantations in the area. They were said to get together and play sometimes. But there’s no question they all knew of each other and must have been influenced by each other.
That’s just how it works when you love something and want to be good at it. You want to go and listen to the best, and see what you can pick up.
Every guitarist from the the beginning, has been doing that. We all do it now when we go listen to our favorite bands or hit local jams where our guitar playing friends are hangin’ out. Must have been the same back then. We teach each other licks and songs. We share and inspire and try and take it to a new place… or at least a better place.
That’s what being a blues musician is all about.
Yes we all learn something from what has come before. I know I’m still trying to master the styles of blues guitar that I admire. I still have a long way to go. Yes, I hate to admit it, but I am an imitator too.
But the masters are something else and totally unique…
- T-Bone Walker still sounds like only himself.
- B.B. King can be identified within a couple of notes.
- Albert King’s powerful style is also his own.
- Muddy Waters stinging slide guitar helps make his songs unique.
Still others are not so original.
Sadly, when I hear Stevie Ray Vaughan or Joe Bonamassa, I now mostly hear Albert King, B.B. King or Freddie King (via Eric Clapton) in their playing. They are not yet creators… still only imitators and regurgitators to me.
But yes, these guitarists are technically superior in many ways and certainly are gracious enough to give credit where credit is due. They openly honor their influences.
In the case of Joe Bonamassa, perhaps he is young enough to eventually find some unique place to take the blues. Perhaps he will be like a fine wine and get better with age. I can always hope.
But I have my doubts.
Maybe the technology of today is overwhelming the creativity. Maybe it’s too easy to find those old blues stars on YouTube and just copy them. We end up getting too heavily influenced and never are forced to “create” something new.
Or maybe, compared to a struggling black sharecropper in the river towns of Mississippi, we can never find the motivation and drive to escape from our painful world by making a musical cry for something better, and we don’t have that deep desire to communicate our experience in a new way… via guitar.
Perhaps the blues will just continue to be re-created by people who truly love and honor the music and just know they want to share it, somehow. Maybe that’s all the blues will be going forward. I guess that will have to be enough.