A history of the blues, through recordings and as performed by speaker Mike Head, kept members entertained at our November monthly meeting, writes John Holder
Mike Head, an experienced speaker and musician from Weybridge, illustrated his talk by playing recordings of 11 American blues artists, all of whom had a major influence on British jazz and R&B performers.
His contention was that Alexis Korner and Chris Barber were largely responsible for popularising the blues in this country by bringing over the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters. In return, British artists such as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton later crossed the Atlantic and spread the word amongst middle class white Americans. For many years blues music had been confined to African-American communities in the deep South.
Mike said that it was difficult to define blues. While the 12-bar chord progression was a common feature, it was not essential. He stressed that it was more a question of feeling – you would recognise it if you heard it. Many fine musicians struggle to play the blues; mere technique is not enough.
Although the blues originated on the plantations in the 19th century, phonograph recordings are not available until later, and Mike chose to start his programme with a 1936 recording of Crossroads by Robert Johnson. Johnson came from the Mississippi Delta and recorded 41 tracks in his short life. To accompany each recording, Mike displayed a picture of the artist on a big screen.
Mike continued with a 1929 recording of Nobody Knows You by Bessie Smith, known as the Queen of the Blues in the 1920s and 30s. She died in a car accident in 1937. Next we were treated to Key to the Highway, recorded by Big Bill Broonzy in 1941. Broonzy expanded in the 1940s from his country roots to playing the more sophisticated electric blues of Chicago (‘city blues’), but was persuaded to go ‘unplugged’ for his tours to Europe, where he achieved widespread acclaim in the 1950s.
Another big influence on the British was Huddie Leadbetter, known as Lead Belly and famed for his 12-string guitar. Lonnie Donegan’s recording of Rock Island Line must have been familiar to everyone, but it was interesting to hear the much earlier, slower version by Lead Belly. Next we heard Let the Good Times Roll, a 1946 recording by the King of the Juke Box, Louis Jordan. Jordan was hugely popular, selling millions of records, and his music was featured in the hit musical Five Guys Named Moe. Yet Mike’s picture of the Tympany Five band clearly showed seven members!
As an example of ‘nightclub blues’, Mike played Route 66 recorded in 1946 by the Nat King Cole Trio, while T-Bone Walker was selected as an exponent of the electric guitar and ‘jump blues’. We heard his Stormy Monday Blues and learnt that he influenced Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix. We also heard BB King’s Cryin’ Won’t Hurt You and Ray Charles’s Blackjack, released in 1958. We were told that Charles was at home with jazz and was a strict taskmaster.
As light relief we were offered Mose Allison’s Your Mind is on Vacation (And Your Mouth is Working Overtime). This cannot be called true blues as it is not about real adversity but is in a bluesy style. Georgie Fame is on record as citing Allison as a major influence. Finally we heard Hoochie Coochie Man, recorded in 1954 by Muddy Waters. In 1958 Waters toured this country playing an amplified guitar, backed by the Chris Barber band.
As if all this was not enough, Mike inserted demonstrations on the piano of other blues styles such as boogie woogie. By the end of the afternoon we all had a good idea about the development of the blues.