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Friday, November 17, 2023

November 17, 2023: AmericanStudying the Blues: Five More Icons

[150 years ago this week, the great W.C. Handy was born. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Handy and other icons of the Blues, leading up to a special weekend post on some contemporary Blues greats!]

On just one telling detail each for five more iconic artists (in no particular order):

1)      Son House (1902-1988): What’s perhaps most interesting about the long and influential career of foundational Bluesman Edward “Son” House is that he resisted the genre on two distinct occasions: in his early professional life as a preacher, for whom secular music was blasphemous; and for nearly two decades between the 1940s and 60s, when he abandoned his career and seemingly retired for good. But the Blues were not done with House, and his inspiring late-career partnership with the young white musician Alan Wilson led to new and perhaps even more influential recordings.

2)      Ma Rainey (1886-1939): August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1985) is one of the great 20th century American plays, and serves as an excellent introduction to both the music and the struggles of this iconic American artist. But because it’s set relatively late in her career, it doesn’t include much engagement with her very complicated and interesting professional origins: 18 year old Gertrude Pridgett married 31 year old performer Will “Pa” Rainey in 1904, became known as Ma, and toured with Will as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. Without intending any besmirching of Will through the association, there’s at least a bit of Ike and Tina Turner in that story, I’d say.

3)      Muddy Waters (1913-1983): One of the most compelling layers to the 20th century development of the Blues is the way that the genre followed the Great Migration, moving from Southern (and often Deep South) origins to its growth and increasing prominence in urban centers throughout the North and Midwest. No individual artist better reflects that arc than Muddy Waters, who was born McKinley Morganfield in Mississippi, became there a leading figure in the foundational subgenre of the Delta Blues, and then moved to Chicago at the age of 30 where he would come to be known as the “Father of Modern Chicago Blues.”

4)      Bessie Smith (1894-1937): The towering and prolific artist who became known as the “Empress of the Blues” was also one of the more divisive artists of her era, at least when it came to how she was perceived by the industry. When Smith auditioned for the influential Harlem company Black Swan Records (which featured W.E.B. Du Bois on its board) in the 1920s, for example, she was rejected because she supposedly stopped singing in order to spit and was seen as “too rough.” Yet that roughness also defined many of the qualities that made both Smith and her music so influential and enduring, including a sense of independence and sexuality that were far ahead of her time.

5)      B.B. King (1925-2015): Riley “B.B.” King was a generation later than any of the other artists highlighted in this post, and could be said to represent not just the mid-20th century evolution of the Blues, but also the ways that genre began to intersect with other emerging forms like R&B, rockabilly, and rock ‘n roll. Indeed, King’s first Billboard #1 hit, “3 O’Clock Blues,” charted in February 1952, just a year after the release of a song often defined as the first rock ‘n roll hit (but one with a lot of the Blues in it as well), Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88.” While there are important characteristics that distinguish and define particular genres, as the end of the day they all also intersect and cross-pollinate and evolve together, and perhaps no Blues artist better embodies those interconnections than B.B. King.

Special post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Blues figures or contexts you’d highlight?

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