From Basin St. to Birdland

Mike Conklin on Jazz

Month: August, 2011

What kinda blues you got?

The blues, which I consider to be an extension of the field holler and work song, was an immensely popular genre throughout the 1910s and 1920s. Many historians divide the style into two categories: country blues and classic (vaudeville) blues.

The earliest style, the country blues, was performed primarily by male musicians throughout the rural South (from the Mississippi Delta to the Carolinas). The form was loose, elastic, and improvisatory — suitable for creating a melodic line that carried the emotion of the performer.

W. C. Handy, known as the “Father of the Blues,” wrote in his autobiography of the experience of sleeping on a train while traveling through Mississippi and being awakened by:

… a lean, loose-jointed Negro [who] had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. … The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly… The singer repeated the line (“Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog”) three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

A fine example of the country blues is Blind Lemon Jefferson and “Black Snake Moan.”

“Black Snake Moan”

I ain’t got no mama now
I ain’t got no mama now
She told me late last night, “You don’t need no mama no how”

Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin’ in my room
Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin’ in my room
Some pretty mama better come and get this black snake soon

Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug, baby a chinch can’t bite that hard
Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug, honey a chinch can’t bite that hard
Ask my sugar for fifty cents, she said “Lemon, ain’t a child in the yard”

Mama, that’s all right, mama that’s all right for you
Mama, that’s all right, mama that’s all right for you
Mama, that’s all right, most seen all you do

Mmm, mmm, what’s the matter now?
Mmm, mmm, honey what’s the matter now?
Sugar, what’s the matter, don’t like no black snake no how

Mmm, mmm, wonder where my black snake gone?
Mmm, mmm, wonder where this black snake gone?
Black snake mama done run my darlin’ home


In the beginning…

Well, I have to admit…trying to maintain a blog that ties neatly from one subject to another (without using a strict, diachronic approach)  is quite a challenge!

So, I have opted to take the easy way out! I hope that you don’t object!

From here on, I will be covering the history of jazz as it unfolded over the course of time.

In the beginning…there was the blues!

Bessie Smith began her professional career in 1912 by joining a traveling show with Ma Rainey (who would become Smith’s mentor) and subsequently performed in various touring minstrel shows and cabarets. By the 1920s, she was a leading artist on the TOBA circuit. In 1923, Smith made her first commercial recording for Columbia records; accompanied by pianist Clarence Williams, Bessie recorded “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Down Hearted Blues.”  She recorded regularly until 1928 with important early jazz instrumentalists such as Williams, James P. Johnson, and various members of Fletcher Henderson’s band, including Louis Armstrong. Her rendition of “St. Louis Blues” with Armstrong is considered by most critics to be one of finest recordings of the 1920s.  In 1929, she appeared in the film St. Louis Blues. By then, however, alcoholism had severely damaged her career, as did the Depression, which affected the recording and entertainment industries. A recording session, her last, was arranged in 1933 by John Hammond for the increasing European jazz audience; it featured among others, Jack Teagarden and Benny Goodman. Sadly, her life was tragically cut short by an automobile accident in 1937; while driving in Mississippi, her car rear-ended a slow-moving truck and rolled over. Bessie’s  left arm and ribs were crushed and she consequently bled to death by the time she reached the hospital.

Listen to “Gulf Coast Blues”: