Pre-War Blues: Country Blues, Jazz Roots and "Hokum"
Bill Monroe coined the term, "Ancient Tones" to denote the primordial sounds of traditional mountain string music,
but he could just as easily have been talking about the blues. One of the oldest forms of American music, with roots that
stretch back into ancient Africa, blues music forms a basis for most modern popular music, from jazz to rock to rap. Many
of the earliest recordings ever are of blues tunes - many of which were already old classics when cut to wax in the 1920's
Anyone with even a passing interest in pre-WW2 blues is familiar with the story of the doomed Robert Johnson. A shadowy figure
who claimed to have sold his soul to the Devil, Johnson has become the emblem of pre-war blues in the eyes of most Americans.
With his sinister mythology, relatively expansive discography (Johnson recorded 29 songs in an era where many other great
bluesmen were lucky to record one or two sides,) and obvious talent, Johnson has wielded considerable influence over the generations
of musicians who followed him.
Another "hell-bound" bluesman was William Bunch, aka Peetie Wheatstraw, "The Devil's Son-in-Law." Peetie
promoted himself as the "Lord High Sheriff of Hell" who, like Robert Johnson, claimed to have sold his soul to the
Devil for musical talent. It is likely that Johnson borrowed this demonic conceit from Wheatstraw, of whom Johnson was a fan,
if Johnson's Peetie-inspired repertoire is any indication. In any case, both stole the story of their bargain with Satan
from the earlier performer, Tommy Johnson - Peetie just nabbed it before Robert Johnson got around to it.
Wheatstraw became a popular performer around St. Louis during the late 1920's. He was first recorded in Chicago in 1930,
and his smooth voice and piano stylings proved influential on an emerging breed of urban bluesmen. By the end of his career,
which was cut short by his accidental death in 1941, Wheatstraw had abandoned the spare piano blues of his early recordings
and was experimenting with more adventuresome jazz arrangments.
In a genre typified by figures with larger-than-life mythologies, Geesie Wiley stands out as one of the greats about whom
so little is known. She was probably from Mississippi, may have been the paramour of bluesman Papa Charlie McCoy, and recorded
only six songs in two recording sessions. One of these, "Last kind Words" is easily one of the most haunting songs
ever cut to wax.
Another haunting voice of the blues was that of Skip James, whose otherworldly falsetto made such recordings as "Devil
got My Woman" and "Crow Jane" spine-tingling. "If ever there was a sorcery in music, and if ever the blues
had a spectre...that person would be Nehemiah 'Skip' James." (www.pbsfm.org.au - see link below)
James had drifted around the countryside as a bootlegger and pimp throughout the 1920's. In 1931 he was recruited to record
18 sides for Paramount Records in Wisconson. These sides would prove inspirational to Robert Johnson, who would transform
James' "Devil Got My Woman" into his own "Hellhound on my Tail" years later. They would also document
the first stirrings of a new sound from the delta - a quieter, moodier sound that blues scholars have dubbed the "Bentonia
School," after James' birthplace in Mississippi.
Soon after recording these sides, James would undergo a religious conversion and abandon music for the next 30 years.
When he re-emerged during the folk and blues boom of the 1960's. audiences were delighted to find that the now older and kinder
Skip James had lost none of his instrumental prowess or eerie vocal power.
Huddie William Ledbetter was serving a ten year sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for "assault with
intent to murder" when he was first recorded by folklorist, John Lomax. An accomplished songwriter, who had commited
dozens of his own compositions to memory, "Leadbelly" sang in a booming, powerful voice, matched by his imposing
physical stature. A number of his songs, including "Good Night Irene" would quicky become blues standards while
others, notably "Rock Island Line" would directly influence the course of the Blues' stepchild, Rock 'N' Roll.
Heading to New York in 1934, a few months after the Lomax recordings, and just after his early release from prison, Leadbelly
became a sensation, and solidified his stature as the symbol of Southern Blues culture in the eyes of white, Northern intellectuals.
This would pave the way for his canonization as THE blues icon among the college hipsters who would eventually instigate
the folk and blues revivals of the mid-1960's.
Dubbed "Emperess of the Blues," Bessie Smith was the most popular and influential female blues singer of the 1920's.
Mentored by blues legend Ma Rainey, Smith began performing as a teenager in traveling tent shows, where her powerful voice
and commanding stage presense would win acclaim throughout the South. As a recording artist, Smith doubled her stardom, recording
at least 160 songs between 1923 and 1933, while enjoying top billing on the most lucretive "race artist" vaudville
shows. By the mid 1920's, Smith was the highest paid black entertainer in the country, grossing as much as $1500 - $2000 per
Bessie Smith's storied career stands in marked contrast to the chaos which came to characterize her private life. A heavy
drinker since her teenage years, Smith was a full-blown alcoholic by the end of the 1920's, when her heavy alcohol consumption
coalesced with the Great Depression to strike Smith down in her commercial heyday. Her bisexuality became fodder for vicous
gossip. Smith's second marriage, to night watchman Jack Gee, was a nightmare of drunkedness, mutual infidelity and two-way
domestic violence. The popular icon of the brazen, but ultimately tragic, blues diva began with Bessie Smith.
In 1937, Smith was on the verge of returning to the studio to pursue a come-back when she was killed in an automobile