<< Blues Classroom
The act of increasing the magnitude of a signal without altering any of its other qualities, or the use of a
device (amplifier) that does this. Specifically important in the transition from acoustic blues, where
amplification was rarely used in live performance, to electric blues, where performers began using amplifiers,
particularly with guitars and harmonicas, to increase the volume and power of their performance. Musical-instrument
amplifiers are also frequently used to alter the tone of the instrument's signal ("distortion").
A group of manual laborers, under the supervision of a foreman, using axes to chop wood, either to clear a
piece of land, or for fuel. While axe gangs could be composed of free laborers, those whose work songs were
recorded by the folklorists of the early 20th century were frequently composed of prisoners.
A colloquial term, originating around the late 1800s, used specifically to refer to a bar that served liquor
(especially whiskey) straight from the barrel, but more widely understood to mean any rough and rowdy drinking
establishment. "Barrelhouse piano" is a distinct style that arose out of such establishments and is
characterized by the highly percussive and loud style that was necessary to encourage dancing in such venues.
"I didn't think of Memphis as Memphis. I thought of Beale Street as Memphis."BB King
Located in Memphis, Tennessee, Beale Street was the central street in what was considered by
many in the early 20th century to be the capital of black America. The Beale Street district, despite being the
product of a strictly segregated city, was at the time a self-sustaining neighborhood that offered African
Americans a comparative degree of freedom rarely found elsewhere. Beale Street's wide-open atmosphere and the
crowds it generated attracted droves of musicians from throughout the region, making it synonymous with the
blues. Reform in the 1940s and urban renewal in the late 1960s slowed the Beale Street neighborhood; however,
it has recently begun a successful revival as a tourist-oriented entertainment district.
Boogie-woogie refers to a particular style of jazz/blues piano, typically played at a rapid tempo, in which the
left hand maintains a repeated rhythmic and melodic pattern in the bass and the right hand handles improvised
variations in the treble. Arising most likely in the Midwest around the beginning of the 20th century, it spread
widely in blues circles during the 1920s, gaining its name for posterity with the 1928 recording "Pinetop's
Boogie-Woogie," by Clarence "Pine Top" Smith. Through the 1930s and 1940s, elements of boogie-woogie, particularly
its repetitive blues bass lines, became integral components of big-band jazz, and would in later years form an
important foundation of jump blues and early rock 'n' roll.
Named for the dynasty that ruled France when New Orleans, Louisiana, was founded in the early 1700s, Bourbon
Street has ever since been one of the major streets of the city's "French Quarter." With increasing tourists and
military visitation during the 1920s and 1930s, Bourbon Street began establishing its current reputation as an
all-hours destination for food, drink, and entertainment, and its clubs have thus served as an important musical
"school" for city musicians of many genres, particularly blues and early R&B.
More than a mere geographical distinction, the early British blues of the late 1950s and early 1960s paid strict
adherence to replicating American blues genres, with an admiration for its originators bordering on reverence. But
by the time of the blues revival of the mid-1960s, British guitarists-mainly led by Eric Clapton-were starting to
bend the form to create their own amalgam. Wedding the string-bending fervor of the BB, Albert, and Freddie King
styles to the extreme volume produced by large amplifiers, British blues largely coalesced into blues-rock, with
formerly traditional blues artists like the Rolling Stones and Clapton becoming rock stars. The British style has
perhaps the closest ties to rock music as opposed to rock 'n' roll, a distinct stylistic descendant of the 1950s. It
is this constant shift between preserving older styles and mainstreaming it into the pop marketplace that is the
hallmark of British blues(Erlewine, et al., eds. All Music Guide to the Blues. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1999.)
Call and Response
A musical term referring to the alternation between two musical voices in a work, particularly that between a solo
singer (the "call") and a group chorus (the "response"). In the blues, the call and response structure may have
derived in part from work and gospel songs, and is particularly prominent in Delta blues and styles arising from it,
in which the solo performer often uses his guitar to respond to, and sometimes even complete, his vocal line.
A term of address conventionally demanded of black employees by Southern white bosses. "Captain" frequently appeared
in work songs, referring either specifically or generally to the white foreman.
What is now referred to as the classic Chicago blues style was developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, taking
Delta blues, fully amplifying it, and putting it into a small-band context. Adding drums, bass, and piano (and
sometimes saxophones) to the basic string band and harmonica aggregation, the style created the now standard blues
band lineup. The form was (and is) flexible to accommodate singers, guitarists, pianists, and harmonica players as
featured performers in front of the standard instrumentation. Later permutations of the style took place in the late
1950s and early 1960s, with new blood taking their cue from the lead-guitar work of BB King and T-Bone Walker, creating
the popular West Side subgenre (which usually featured a horn section appended to the basic rhythm section). Although
the form has also embraced rock beats, it has generally stayed within the guidelines developed in the 1950s and early
1960s.(Erlewine, et al., eds. All Music Guide to the Blues. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1999.)
Country blues is a catchall term that delineates the depth and breadth of the first flowering of guitar-driven blues,
embracing solo, duo, and string band performers. The term also provides a convenient general heading for all the multiple
regional styles and variations (Piedmont, Atlanta, Memphis, Texas, acoustic Chicago, Delta, ragtime, folk, songster,
etc.) of the form. It is primarilybut not exclusivelya genre filled with acoustic guitarists, embracing a
multiplicity of techniques from elaborate fingerpicking to the early roots of slide playing. But some country-blues
performers like Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker later switched over to electric guitars without having to drastically
change or alter their styles.(Erlewine, et al., eds. All Music Guide to the Blues. 2nd ed. San Francisco:
Backbeat Books, 1999.)
The Delta blues style comes from a region in the southern part of Mississippi, a place romantically referred to as "the
land where the blues was born." In its earliest form, the style became the first black guitar-dominated music to make it
onto phonograph records back in the late 1920s. Although many original Delta blues performers worked in a string-band
context for live appearances, very few of them recorded in this manner. Consequently, the recordings from the late 1920s
through mid-1930s consist primarily of performers working in a solo, self-accompanied context. The form is dominated by
fiery slide guitar and passionate vocalizing, with the deepest of feelings being applied directly to the music. Its lyrics
are passionate as well, and in some instances remain the highest flowering of blues songwriting as stark poetry. The form
continues to the present time with new performers working in the older solo artist traditions and style.(Erlewine, et
al., eds. All Music Guide to the Blues. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1999.)
Electric blues is an eclectic genre that embraces just about every kind of blues that can be played on an amplified
instrument. Its principal component is that of the electric guitar, but its amplified aspect can extend to the bass (usually
a solid body Fender type model, but sometimes merely an old "slappin''' acoustic with a pickup attached), harmonica, and
keyboard instruments. Stylistically, the form is a wide-open field, accessible to just about every permutation possible
embracing the old, the new, and sometimes the futuristic. Some forms of it copy the older styles of urban blues (primarily
the Chicago, Texas, and Louisiana variants), usually in a small-combo format, while others head into funk and soul territory.
Yet electric blues is elastic enough to include artists who pay homage to those vintage styles of playing while simultaneously
recasting them in contemporary fashion. It is lastly a genre that provides a convenient umbrella for original artists of late
1940s and early 1950s derivation that seemingly resist neat classifications.(Erlewine, et al., eds. All Music Guide
to the Blues. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1999.)
Field hollers are a class of rural African American vocal performance performed by an individual (as opposed to a group)
while engaged in manual labor, and unaccompanied by any instrument. Folklorists documenting the music in the early portions
of the 20th century first used the term, although field hollers were in existence before that time. Field hollers are generally
slower and much less rigid in musical form than group work songs, combine lyrical phrases common to the community with
individual interpretations and improvisations, and are most often lamenting or sorrowful in subject matter. Because they
established and expanded a musical tradition of individual expression and common lyrical phrases, field hollers are considered
an important antecedent of the blues form.
Great Migration, The
The Great Migration was a mass movement during the first half of the 20th century, during which millions of African Americans from
primarily rural locations in the Southern United States moved to urban locations, particularly in the North. The migration occurred
in two major waves, each centered around the World Wars, during which a great need for industrial workers arose in Northern (and later
Western) cities. Although this promise of reliable employment attracted many, as did the hope for living conditions that were better
and less oppressive than those in the South, it was not always found. However, the cultural impact of the Great Migration upon those
who moved, and the cities to which they moved, was and continues to be dramatic.
A griot is a West African performer who perpetuates the oral traditions of a family, village, or leader by singing histories and tales.
Griots typically perform alone, accompanying themselves on a stringed instrument, and are considered by many musicologists a critical
African root of the solo acoustic blues that developed among African American communities during the early 20th century.
In blues circles, the term "harp" is used interchangeably with "harmonica." Harmonicas are also occasionally referred to in jest as
Running from La Place, Louisiana to Hurley, Wisconsin, Highway 51 is now largely supplanted by Interstate 55. However, prior to that
road's construction, 51 was a frequent metaphor in blues songs, particularly from the Mississippi Delta region, the eastern edge of
which it borders as it connects Jackson to Memphis. Mentions of 51 frequently connoted "rambling," both around the Delta region and
beyond, as well as joining the Great Migration northwards for a new life.
Hoochie Coochie Man
A slang term referring to both a type of suggestive dance, as well a class of conjurer or folk doctor in the voodoo tradition. In the
Willie Dixon song "Hoochie Coochie Man," made famous by Muddy Waters, the latter is the definition being used. However, the sexual
suggestiveness of the song itself has led to an expanded definition, in which the hoochie coochie man is someone with sexual prowess
and appeal as powerful as the magic of a voodoo conjurer.
A homeless person, typically one who is traveling in search of work. Though often used derogatorily to refer to such a person, it is
also used more neutrally to describe the act of traveling in search of work, e.g., "when I first started hoboin'."
Also known as "rent parties," an informal gathering at a private residence for drinking, eating, live music, and occasionally
gambling, where the resident charges money for some or all of the above. Like juke joints in the South, house parties in the North are
credited with being key incubators of the blues, particularly the electrified Delta style of Muddy Waters and other performers newly
arrived to the city whose styles were at first considered too "country" to attract a club audience.
Musically, the act of composing, performing, or otherwise playing without prior planning or consulting specific notation such as
sheet music. In jazz and blues, for example, familiar forms may be utilized throughout a song, but the singer may alter the lyrics
to better suit their mood, and the instrumentalists may take solos of a length and direction that is entirely determined by them.
A term arguably arising from a minstrel performer of the early 19th century, Jim Crow more generally refers to the laws and
regulations that arose in the South following post-Civil War Reconstruction. Through the mandated segregation established by these
laws, African Americans were systemically prevented from achieving economic, political, and cultural power and equality. Used to
refer to both the oppressive laws (e.g., a law enforcing separate train cars for whites and blacks), as well as the general time
period during which they were predominate (from approximately the mid-1870s through the 1960s.)
A slang term with multiple connotations. Rose to common usage in the late 1930s among African Americans in reference to swing and
jump blues music-"that's some great jive they're playing"-as well as the dance styles that accompanied this music. Also used to
refer, sometimes dismissively, to the lingo used by fans and musicians of this music-"Don't listen to him, man, he's just talkin' jive."
With a likely origin in Louisville, Kentucky, in the early part of the 20th century, jug bands employed an array of homemade and found
instruments such as kazoo, washtub bass, and whiskey bottle, as well as banjo, harmonica, or guitar. Particularly fashionable in
Memphis, jug bands played up-tempo popular, vaudeville, and blues numbers for both black and white audiences, and accompanied blues
musicians from that era, many of whom were also members of the ensembles, both live and on recordings. Some jug band performers
remained active in the region until the 1970s, most notably Gus Cannon.
An informal type of drinking establishment that arose along the rural back roads of the South among and to serve the regional African
American population (as opposed to "honky tonks," similar establishments that served the white population). The term "juke" has its
likely origins in West Africa, where similar terms mean "wicked." Juke joints are thus understood to be potentially rough and rowdy,
with drinking, eating, live music, and occasionally gambling, and were (and continue to be) key incubators of the blues, even if now
more frequently heard on a "jukebox" than from a live performer.
Jump blues refers to an up-tempo, jazz-tinged style of blues that first came to prominence in the mid- to late 1940s. Usually
featuring a vocalist in front of a large, horn-driven orchestra or medium-sized combo with multiple horns, the style is earmarked by
a driving rhythm, intensely shouted vocals, and honking tenor saxophone solos-all of those very elements a precursor to rock 'n' roll.
The lyrics are almost always celebratory in nature, full of braggadocio and swagger. With less reliance on guitar work (the instrument
usually being confined to rhythm section status) than other styles, jump blues was the bridge between the older styles of blues
primarily those in a small band context-and the big-band jazz sound of the 1940s.(Erlewine, et al., eds. All Music Guide to
the Blues. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1999.)
Literally, the location in a slaughterhouse where animals are killed prior to processing. Figuratively, it is a fairly common blues
motif, denoting a state of high distress or hopelessness (see Skip James' "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues," and Howlin' Wolf's
Levee camps arose throughout the post-Civil War South as large numbers of manual laborers (typically African American) were gathered,
sometimes by force, to build and maintain systems of earthen levees that held rivers in their channels, thus making more farmland
available and (theoretically) minimizing the hazards of annual flooding. Frequent locations of group work-song singing and solo field
hollers, they were notoriously difficult and violent places to make a living. They were natural destinations, as well, for traveling
musicians, who sought the money of workers enjoying their fleeting and hard-earned pay.
A looser, more laid-back, and percussive version of the Jimmy Reed side of the Chicago sound, Louisiana blues has several distinctive
stylistic elements to distinguish it from other genres. The guitar work is simple but effective, heavily influenced by the boogie
patterns used on Jimmy Reed singles, with liberal doses of Lightnin' Hopkins and Muddy Waters thrown in for good measure. Unlike the
heavy backbeat of the Chicago style, its rhythm can be best described as "plodding," making even up-tempo tunes sound like slow blues
simply played a bit faster. The production techniques on most of the recordings utilize massive amounts of echo, giving the
performances a darkened sound and feel, thus coining the genre's alternate description as "swamp blues."(Erlewine, et al., eds.
All Music Guide to the Blues. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1999.)
From the early 1900s until its relocation in the mid-1990s, the weekend open-air market along Chicago's Maxwell Street was a frequently
changing urban milieu where one could find everything from used and new merchandise, to food, religion, and live music. It was a
particularly important location for new immigrants to the city seeking employment, entertainment, and the familiarity of customs and
people from "back home."
A strain of country blues all its own, Memphis blues gives the rise of two distinct forms: the jug band (playing and singing a humorous,
jazz-style of blues played on homemade instruments) and the beginnings of assigning parts to guitarists for solo (lead) and rhythm, a
tradition that is now part and parcel of all modern day blues-and rock 'n' roll-bands. The earliest version of the genre was heavily tied
to the local medicine show and vaudeville traditions, lasting well into the late 1930s. The later, post-World War II version of this genre
featured explosive, distorted electric-guitar work, thunderous drumming, and fierce, declamatory vocals.(Erlewine, et al., eds.
All Music Guide to the Blues. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1999.)
New Orleans Blues
Primarily (but not exclusively) piano and horn-driven, New Orleans blues is enlivened by Caribbean rhythms, an unrelenting party atmosphere,
and the "second-line" strut of the Dixieland music so indigenous to the area. There's a cheerful, friendly element to the style that infuses
the music with a good-time feel, no matter how somber the lyrical text. The music itself uses a distinctively "lazy" feel, with all of its
somewhat complex rhythms falling just a hair behind the beat. But the vocals can run the full emotional gamut from laid-back crooning to
full-throated gospel shouting, making for some interesting juxtapositions, both in style and execution.(Erlewine, et al., eds.
All Music Guide to the Blues. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1999.)
Conventionally, oral culture is understood to mean any and all traditions that are sustained within and between generations strictly through
the spoken (as opposed to written) word, such as stories, tales, and songs.
With the exception of a few years during the depression, the "Panama Limited" was, during the first half of the 20th century, the most
luxurious of the Illinois Central's trains running the route from New Orleans to Chicago. The Illinois Central was a very popular manner in
which to head North during the Great Migration.
Formally known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the Parchman Farm was opened in 1904 and, until federally mandated reform in the 1970s,
was geared primarily towards the profitable production of cotton using convict labor. With little emphasis upon rehabilitation, it had a
solid reputation for deplorable and brutal living and working conditions. A frequent image in blues songs from the surrounding Delta, both
among musicians who did time there and those who did not, it was also a frequent destination in the mid-20th century for folklorists
recording work songs and related traditions in an effort to trace the development of the blues.
Piedmont Blues refers to a regional substyle characteristic of black musicians of the southeastern United States. Geographically, the
Piedmont means the foothills of the Appalachians west of the tidewater region and Atlantic coastal plain stretching roughly from Richmond,
VA, to Atlanta, GA. Musically, Piedmont blues describes the shared style of musicians from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, as well as
others from as far as Florida, West Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. It refers to a wide assortment of aesthetic values, performance
techniques, and shared repertoire rooted in common geographical, historical, and sociological circumstances; to put it more simply, Piedmont
blues means a constellation of musical preferences typical of the Piedmont region. The Piedmont guitar style employs a complex fingerpicking
method in which a regular, alternating-thumb bass pattern supports a melody on treble strings. The guitar style is highly syncopated and
connects closely with an earlier string-band tradition, integrating ragtime, blues, and country dance songs. It's excellent party music with
a full, rock-solid sound.(Erlewine, et al., eds. All Music Guide to the Blues. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1999.)
Piano blues runs through the entire history of the music itself, embracing everything from ragtime, barrelhouse, boogie woogie, and smooth
West Coast jazz stylings to the hard-rocking rhythms of Chicago blues.(Erlewine, et al., eds. All Music Guide to the Blues.
2nd ed. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1999.)
"Race records" was a term used by major and independent record labels from the early 1920s until the early 1950s to specifically label
records recorded by African American artists. The term itself was not used pejoratively, but instead so that the records could be more
readily marketed to an African American audience.
Slang term used to connote both the act of leaving a place and of wandering, particularly in search of work, a home, or spiritual peace.
See "House Party"
Conventionally, the definition of a roadhouse encompasses barrelhouses, juke joints, honky tonks, or any similar drinking establishment
located along a road. What is regionally considered a juke, honky tonk, or a roadhouse often differs according to the predominate race of
its clientele, although they are presently more racially integrated then in the past.
An agricultural system particularly common in the post-Civil War South, where a tenant worked a piece of land in exchange for a portion of
the year's crop or revenue. For their work on the land, the tenants were supplied living accommodations, seeds, tools, and other necessities
by the landowner, who was invariably the bookkeeper and proprietor of the local commissary as well. While theoretically offering a degree of
independence to sharecroppers, the system was invariably harrowing, with hard work and poor living conditions the norm. In addition, it was
nearly impossible to work one's way out of the system, as tenants, both white and black, invariably found themselves with little to no money
left after the balancing of year-end accounts, if not actually in debt to the landowner. Although the norm for half a century, the
sharecropping system met a quick end in 1941, when the first successful mechanical planting and harvesting of a cotton crop indicated that
human labor was no longer as necessary.
Signifying refers to the act of using secret or double meanings of words to either communicate multiple meanings to different audiences, or
to trick them. To the leader and chorus of a work song, for example, the term "captain" may be used to indicate discontent, while the overseer
of the work simultaneously thinks it's being used as a matter of respect.
Slide is a method of playing guitar where the player uses either a tube placed over the finger (such as a "bottleneck") or a flat edged
object (such as a knife blade) to press down the strings of the guitar. The resulting sound wavers and fluctuates, and can include tones
that cannot be reached in the conventional manner, where fingers are used to depress the strings. Blues slide guitar originated in the
Mississippi Delta region, and is integrally associated with early electric blues, particularly as developed by Muddy Waters in the late
1940s and early 1950s.
The now-mythical figure of Stagger Lee (also "Stack-o-Lee" and "Stagolee") likely has real origins in a St. Louis murder in the late 1800s,
when ostensible pimp Lee Shelton, aka Stack Lee, shot Billy Lyons because Lyons had taken Shelton's Stetson hat and wouldn't return it. As
treated first in African American folklore and then by the mid-1950s throughout popular song, Stagger Lee has been cast as everything from
an anti-hero to the devil himself.
Part of a railroad-construction crew, a steel-driving man worked with a partner to drive holes into stone. Using a large hammer, the
"driver" repeatedly struck the top of a pointed steel shaft held in place by his partner until a hole was created. Explosives were placed
in these holes and set off, helping carve tunnels and level the track bed.
A geographical subgenre earmarked by a more relaxed, swinging feel than other styles of blues, Texas blues encompasses a number of style
variations and has a long, distinguished history. Its earliest incarnation occurred in the mid-1920s, featuring acoustic guitar work rich
in filigree patterns-almost an extension of the vocals rather than merely a strict accompaniment to it. This version of Texas blues embraced
both the songster and country-blues traditions, with its lyrics relying less on affairs of the heart than other forms. The next stage of
development in the region's sound came after World War II, bringing forth a fully electric style that featured jazzy, single-string soloing
over predominantly horn-driven backing. The style stays current with a raft of regional performers primarily working in a small-combo
context.(Erlewine, et al., eds. All Music Guide to the Blues. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1999.)
The term has two pervasive definitions. Originally, it was used to describe the more sophisticated sentiments of the style in contrast to
the more rural style of country blues. As time went on, it also came to describe blues music whose lyrics captured city life, its
opportunities as well as its grim realities.
West Coast Blues
More piano-based and jazz-influenced than anything else, West Coast blues isin actualitythe California style, with all of the
genre's main practitioners coming to prominence there, if not actual natives of the state. In fact, the state and the style played host to
a great many post-war Texas guitar expatriates, and their jazzy, T-Bone Walker style of soloing would become an earmark of the genre. West
Coast blues also features smooth, honey-toned vocals, frequently crossing into urban blues territory. The West Coast style was also home to
numerous jump-blues practitioners, as many traveling bands of the 1940s ended up taking permanent residence there. Its current practitioners
work almost exclusively in the standard small-combo format.(Erlewine, et al., eds. All Music Guide to the Blues. 2nd ed. San Francisco:
Backbeat Books, 1999.)
A probable root of the blues, work songs were extensively documented by folklorists during the early portions of the 20th century, although
their roots arguably go as far back as West Africa. Work songs help synchronize the rhythm of group tasks, with a single leader calling out
a line that is then copied or responded to by the group (see "call and response"), typically in time with their work motion (e.g., chopping
with an axe or digging with a shovel).
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