Paving the Way to Blues

Before blues music was accepted into the mainstream society other genres had to pave the way.  In the 1920s and 1930s the other main genres of popular music were jazz, “tin pan alley” or American standards, and big band music.

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“Tin Pan Alley” music was the music that eventually became known as the American standards.  This music was the most mainstream during the mid-century.  In this genre artists would constantly cover each others songs, eventually creating the American songbook, a collection of original American songs recorded and rerecorded over and over again by singers of the early 20th century, such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.

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Big Bands were, appropriately, huge ensembles.  They were comprised of both a horns section and a rhythm section.  The rhythm section included an upright bass, a guitar, a piano, and drums.  The backbone of the horn section was trumpets, trombones, and saxophones, however other brass, such as tubas, would occasionally be included also.  All together a Big Band included an average of about 16 people.  Because of their large numbers, Big Bands did very little improvisation, sticking to known songs and sheet music and playing primarily swing music.

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Jazz music was similar to big band music in instrumentation, however the numbers of the band were drastically cut down.  Additionally, this genre relied heavily on spontaneous improvisation on the part of both the instruments and the vocalist.  Singers would frequently mimic the sound of the saxophone with their voice.  While doing this singers would say nonsense words, a technique known as scatting.

Music culture is intricately intertwined, with different types of music gaining inspiration across the borders of genre, race, and class, therefore blues music contains elements of all of the above genres, and it would have been impossible for blues to break into the music industry without these genres coming first.

Muddy Waters and the Electric Sound

Here’s one of the more important yet somewhat subtle scene in the 2008 movie Cadillac Records: the day Muddy Waters met Electricity. Now, I would have embedded the video right here and now, but the format of the blog is keeping me from doin’ it. So do us all a favor: click the link an’ watch that video.

Done? Let’s continue…

The guitar was one of the easiest instruments to play on the fields. With a little tuning, a little plucking, and a little time and skill, any ole’ share cropping farmer could create a little music to ease their weary soul. It was portable, so it could be hauled out of the shack and into a juke joint with ease. It was cheap, so most anyone could afford it. And, most important of all, it was versatile, so one could be singing the Lord’s praises one minute and your woes with women without skipping a beat. Many man who sang the Delta Blues used the guitar to make their way into the national ear, like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, and many others. So in a way, McKinley Morganfield of Issaquena County was joining a long proud tradition. But it wasn’t until he took the country-fried Delta Blues and electrified it did he really grow into Muddy Waters: the day Muddy “would leave the Delta for Chicago” (Gordon 35).

Living in the Delta meant living without. Electricity was pretty common in the early part of the century, but in the more impoverished parts of the United States, as modern as it touted itself to be then and now, even that was considered a bit of a luxury. As much hustling as Waters did in this formative years, the life he lived was as poor as the dirt the cotton grew from. It wasn’t until after he heard himself sing and play, courtesy of Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress, that he realized that he could actually land himself a bigger career than playing in the juke joints around Clarksdale. In 1943, he moved to Chicago to break into the business, learning more than he ever could in that country farm. But, it wasn’t until 1945, years after cutting his teeth on the hard heart of the Windy City, did Muddy Waters’ uncle, Joe Grant, gave him an electric guitar to be heard over the din of the crowded clubs.

His blues suddenly gained a power all of its own. Coupled with his voice, run ragged by years of the labor but fortified with years of practice, it rang with the truth. It was the sound of the hard country life coupled with the more modern elements of the city. It was as if he suddenly had a way to let all of Chicago know exactly how hard he had it working the fields and hustling the town to get where he was today. He’d been through the school of hard knocks, and his electric sound was a hell of a diploma to show for it. He became something the public couldn’t ignore, and if Leo Chess was worth his salt as a producer, he made sure that the public didn’t. He signed Waters on soon after he went electric, and the rest is history.

To modern ears, the sound itself may not be entirely new, but boy howdy did it ever impress. I’ll end this blog post with another scene from Cadillac Records: this time, it’s Muddy meeting Little Walter, impressing him with his newfound electric sound. Remember it, as its electric touch runs throughout the movie, and throughout the history of popular American music.

References:
– Gordon, Robert. Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters. NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2002. Print.