The Blues


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 .

Robert Johnson

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.

Robert Johnson Biography and Links at Wikipedia

"Did Robert Johnson Sell His Soul at the Crossroads?"

Peetie Wheatstraw

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.

Peetie Wheatstraw at Wikipedia

Geeshie Wiley

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.

Illustrated Geeshie Wiley Discography


Skip James

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." ( - 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.

"Trail of the Hellhound - Skip James"

Skip James Biography at PBS 106.7 FM


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.

Leadbelly Biography at "The Leadbelly Web"

"Three Songs by Leadbelly" Video from 1945 -"The only known film appearance of the legendary singer."


Bessie Smith

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 week.

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 accident.

Biography, discography and a wealth of sound samples at

Pictures of Bessie, with another biography

"St. Louis Blues" (Video)

"Lesbianism in the Life of Bessie Smith"

Other Pre-War Favorites


Charlie Patton

Ma Rainey

Blind Willie Johnson

Frank Hutchison

Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon

Tampa Red

Blind Lemon Jefferson

Mississippi John Hurt

Reverend Gary Davis

Butterbeans and Susie


Yazoo Records

An illustrated Yazoo Discography

Document records

Arhoolie records


"A Brief History of the Blues" by Robert M. Baker

"Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip" - (multimedia)

"The Blue Highway:" Blues Histories, Essays. Links, and an exhaustive list of labels and contemporary artists

King Biscuit Time