by C. P. Lee

Blues Is Bunk!

In 1952, two American musicians guitarist Lonnie Johnson and rag-time pianist Ralph Sutton arrived in London to play at the Royal Festival Hall. Supporting them that night was a British outfit, The Tony Donegan Jazz Band, featuring one Anthony Donegan himself on banjo and vocals. He was more than thrilled to be sharing the bill with Johnson whom he admired for a long time. American Blues musicians rarely came to the UK in those days. The only ‘genuine’ one he’d ever seen playing live was Josh White. Donegan’s friend Alexis Korner had gone all the way to Paris in 1948 to catch a glimpse of Leadbelly in the hope of learning a lick or two. Just the chance to see what the musician’s hands did while they were playing was all these young guitar slingers wanted. Leadbelly didn’t feel like showing off his chops that night and played with a towel covering his hand and the guitar neck! 

Tony Donegan was hoping that Lonnie Johnson would be a bit more forthcoming. The American had been playing since the 1920s and had recorded with such luminaries as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. As Donegan enthused “Lonnie Johnson had a nice, clear, melodic voice that was easy to follow. He had a beautiful guitar technique… Lonnie Johnson was someone I could follow.” When Johnson took to the stage though “He was a bitter disappointment. All we had were these really old records and we expected the Americans to sound like them, which they didn’t. Johnson had become rather smooth, singing Stardust with an electric guitar. He was no longer in the gin mills”. Despite feeling let down, Donegan cheered up when, at the end of the night, the MC mistakenly introduced the evening’s musicians as “Lonnie Donegan and Tony Johnson”. Lonnie Donegan liked it so much he left it that way, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

There are two significant things about Donegan’s comments on that evening’s performance, the first one being his surprise at Johnson’s choice of tune, Stardust, which by that time,  had become a Pop standard. Secondly, the phrase, “He was no longer in the gin-mills”. Here, he’s referring to cotton gin mills. Both comments basically evolve around our old friend ‘authenticity’, and illustrate the perceptions of a White audience rather than the realities of Black performance. In much the same way as the early middle-class Folk song collectors ‘filtered’ out tunes they deemed unsuitable, and created a false concept of ‘Folk’, so too had Blues Folklorists, only this time they were aided by the nascent recording industry in its desire to create marketable genre classifications. Johnson was a victim of these practices in that, he along with many other Black entertainers were forced into rigidly stereo-typical modes when their actual desire was to be more broad based, more, if you will, commercial, more - appealing to a mass-audience. I’ll deal with why an artist like Johnson would play ‘standards’ a little later. In the meantime let’s look at Donegan’s reference to ‘gin-mills’. 

It would come as no surprise to me to learn that Lonnie D actually thought that Lonnie J had done hard manual labour before becoming a ‘Blues Man’, probably in a field, and doubtless concerning cotton. He would have thought this because it was part of the mythology surrounding Blues players. It is how he would have been programmed to think. He also quite probably imagined Lonnie J, or any other Blues player, to be itinerant, poor, or at least hailing from poor origins, and to have emerged from a specific geographical area – usually the Mississippi Delta. Throw in hard drinkin’ and hard lovin’ and you get the complete set. 

Lonnie Johnson actually came from New Orleans and his father was a successful professional musician and band leader. Johnson never did a day’s manual work in his whole life having been playing professionally (starting with the violin) from the age of eleven. He was top of the bill in London in 1917, playing in Variety Halls. When he returned to the States his entire family save one (eleven of twelve) had been killed in the ‘flu epidemic of 1918. It would be true to say that he took to the road with a vengeance, but it was a fairly well lined road and he was to be very successful. Throughout the 1920s he appeared on recordings with artists as wide ranging as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, The Dorsey Brothers and Victoria Spivey. Spivey, years later, hired the young Bob Dylan to play harmonica at a recording session in March 1962, having met him at Gerdes Folk City when she was playing with Lonnie Johnson in September 1961. Dylan said of Johnson, to whom he grew quite close, “I must say he greatly influenced me”. 

In the 1920s Johnson recorded a series of tunes with another guitarist who used the name Blind Willie Dunn. Songs like Guitar Blues, A Handful of Riffs and Midnight Call, became the favourite recordings of a young man by the name of Robert Johnson. He may have been surprised to learn that ‘Blind Willie’ was in fact an Italian-American from South Philly called Salvatore Massaro, who was better known to record buyers and music fans as Eddie Lang. Eddie Lang was essentially a musician’s musician, he played with Bing Crosby as well as King Oliver, Joe Venuti and Texas Alexander. Sadly he died a premature death in 1933. The character of Emmett Ray in Woody Allen’s movie Sweet & Low Down, was based on Lang. Nowadays if you look for Lang under the heading ‘Blues Musician’ you won’t find any reference to him, but if you search under ‘Jazz’ that’s where Eddie resides. Lonnie Johnson, on the other hand, is placed under ‘Blues’. So – who decided one was which and one was the other? And, what is ‘Jazz’ and what is ‘Blues’? 

Looking at things from a historical perspective and by analysing sheet music as well as record sales, we find the first piece of published music pertaining to our topic– I Got The Blues, which came out in 1908. The tune began with a twelve-bar section and was described as “an up-to-date Rag” (interestingly it was written by another Italian-American, Antonio Maggio). Black composer WC Handy put the Blues into America’s consciousness when he scored a huge hit with Memphis Blues in 1912. This tune wasn’t recorded though until 1914. The record industry was still very much in its infancy at this period and sheet music sales were where it was at. Noticing how popular Handy’s tune had become, a whole slew of songwriters jumped on the bandwagon and soon the parlours and bars of America were jumping to songs like – Dallas Blues, Yellow Dog Blues and Baby Seals Blues. Blues vocals were first recorded in 1915 (Morton Harvey singing Memphis Blues) and it would be accurate to say that the Blues became popular as a novelty genre. During that decade, the most successful (in terms of sales) exponents of this style were Al Bernard (‘The Boy From Dixie’), and Marion Harris, always billed as ‘Queen of the Blues’. Her best known hit was I Ain’t Got Nobody, recorded in 1916. However, Bernard and Harris were both White Vaudevillians. This means that if you go to something like the recently published book Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues, you’ll be told that the first Blues ‘hit’ was Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues released in 1920. This is true only insofar as Mamie was the first Afro-American female to have a hit with a Blues number. 

Interestingly, Elijah Wald in his fascinating book – Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson & The Invention of the Blues – points out that the 1920s belonged to the Blues Queens – Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, et al - male performers only coming into their own right much later on in the decade (the first one, of course, being Lonnie Johnson), But – as Wald points out – if you search through the Blues section of HMV or Virgin, history has been rewritten and the CD racks are full of cross-overs and compilations of male artists; the Blues Queens hardly get a look in. 

Let’s pause for a moment and take stock – In the 1920s the Blues emerged as a genre. It came from Vaudeville and Ragtime and gave a nod in the direction of another newly emerging genre – Jazz. Its most successful artists were mainly women singers accompanied by small bands. So far so good. The record executives were good capitalists. They knew that they had to increase their sales to please their shareholders. In order to increase sales they had to find new markets. ‘Niche marketing’ presented itself as the answer to their problems – go out there and find groups of people who’d buy records. In 1924, Polk Brockman, Atlanta area distributor for Okeh Records suggested that the company record White ‘Hillbilly’ musician, Fiddlin’ John Carson. Okeh went ahead when Brockman ordered five hundred copies for his store. Carson’s Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane went on to sell thousands and a new genre, dubbed ‘Old Time Tunes’ was born. A&R men from the record labels set up sessions across the South and it was a forgone conclusion that sooner or later they’d ‘discover’ Black artists – or more properly – the Black market. 

Paramount recorded Papa Charlie Jackson, a Black singer and banjo player. Jackson came from the Minstrel tradition and could turn his hand to any form of Popular music, but was marketed by Paramount as a ‘Blues singer’, in fact his first publicity release boasted – “this man can sing and play the Blues even better than a woman can”. His hit records fall mainly into the ‘novelty’ slot – Shake That Thing and the raucous Salty Dog Blues, being just two examples of what would feed into the sub-genre of Chicago Blues known as ‘Hokum’. Strangely, Jackson’s success with the record buying public didn’t precipitate a rush by the labels to sign up other Black rural players and it would be two years before Lonnie Johnson walked into a studio. Johnson is as different from Jackson in style as you could possibly be. For a start, he played the guitar, an instrument that was replacing the fiddle and banjo as weapon of choice for a ‘musicianer’ as these people called themselves. That, plus his suave vocal delivery which was such a strong influence on Nat King Cole and BB King, placed Johnson firmly in the forefront of what we would now call ‘Pop’. Soon Paramount signed Blind Lemon Jefferson and began their ‘Race Recordings’ series. 

None of this though answers the question – what kind of music did the ‘musicianers’ play?

Obviously we know what they recorded, but we’ve only got a vague notion of what they played during performances. Or at least that’s what we thought until the publication of Elijah Wald’s book. 

So far as what was called Blues, that didn’t come around until 1917… What we had in my coming up days was music for dancing and it was all different sorts.” Mance Lipscomb, Texas guitarist and singer. 

Obviously audiences differed from place to place, but essentially all successful shows boil down to one thing – pleasing that audience and all the musicianers knew that diversity was the key to success. 

What is termed ‘Country-Blues’ was only a part of the musicianers’ set, and C-B was also in its infancy and was an as yet half-structured form. At the beginning of the 20th century the most common instrument in the Southern rural areas for Blacks and Whites was the fiddle. Numbers played included – Cripple Creek, and Old Joe Clarke – and, as this advert for the Carolina Tarheels demonstrates – “Old Time Southern Songs Mingled With The Broadway Hits” – an ear for the latest from Tin-Pan Alley. There is ample evidence to show that the dances were often attended by both races and that a significant number of the bands were mixed racially – Taylor’s Kentucky Boys was a White band supporting Black fiddle player, Andrew Baxter. Mississippi John Hurt played in a duo with White fiddler William T Narmour. Music was ‘traded’ and exchanged between communities, Black and White. 

The reason we don’t have much of a recorded legacy of these ‘early’ Blues musicianers isn’t to do with them being less popular, or ‘not around’, it has to do with labelling, or genre classification. The record companies couldn’t pigeonhole them. They were too Hillbilly for the Race labels and too Black for the Old Time labels. Occasionally bands like the Mississippi Sheiks broke through because they played such a wide variety of material that they defied all classification – possibly there were the ultimate Pop band of their time. This rigid delineation of genre is the reason that such a warped idea of what constitutes ‘authentic Blues’ persists to this day, and it’s a warped perception that ‘academic’ researchers like Alan Lomax perpetuated. Even John Hammond would bend facts in order to bolster his politically oriented vision of what music was all about. It was a romanticisation of Black life and Black rural life in particular that these people were propagating. Interestingly, a large amount of research was done out in the field, a large proportion of which was carried out by John Work, a Black post-graduate student at the Fisk University of Alabama. He handed over all his material to Alan Lomax … 

Work (with Lomax present) interviewed a young Mackinley Morganfield (who moved to Chicago and changed his name to Muddy Waters soon after) on Stovall’s Plantation in the Mississippi Delta in 1940. During the interview he was asked about his repertoire. Wald reports that less than half were what we might term ‘Blues’. He performed seven ‘Cowboy’ songs in his set, including several by Gene Autry – Also included were a portion of ‘Classics’ such as Dark Town Strutters Ball and Red Sails In The Sunset. Because Muddy Waters became Muddy Waters and because Chess Records expected a specific style of song we’ll never know how Muddy performed numbers like Deep In The Heart of Texas and Chattanooga Choo Choo. Nor is he unique in the broad choice of music in his repertoire. There are reports of Skip James relaxing backstage by playing the piano and singing Broadway show tunes. Occasionally, when he was with Mississippi John Hurt, they would duet together on Jimmie Rodgers tunes. Lonnie Johnson recalled his life as a musician in New Orleans – “We played anything they wanted to hear. Ragtime melodies, sweet songs, waltzes… a lot of people liked opera so we did some of that too…”  and he became a Blues musician almost by accident. All Johnson wanted to do was make a record and the only record that they’d let him make was a Blues one, so he became, by default, a Blues singer. 

Blues was ‘hot’ in the 1920s – firstly as a female novelty form, then as a male novelty form.  As with all musical styles if they don’t move with the times they stagnate, and the Blues was no exception. Rural, male, acoustic was the dominant form in the early 1930s; in twelve years all that was to change … 

I’ll be covering those changes and looking at the careers of several other musicianers in my next piece – ’til then Toodle Pip!!!