Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Brief Blues Lesson

By Doug Ward









The blues has become a lot more mainstream in the last 30 years. I remember being a young guitar player hungry to hear the music of Robert Johnson. For me to get my hands on a blues album meant a
drive into Birmingham, to Charlemagne records. I had to pay for my record ( record = round vinyl things containing music) and wait 2 weeks for it to arrive. Today everything is right at our fingertips...almost. The problem is most of what we “ know” these days comes from the modern social stream.


The blues was once underground....dark and unknown,  you had to work to find it. Be it searching the record shops or finding the old men playing clubs in the middle of nowhere... you had to work. That moment when you “ GOT IT” was magic.


That feeling is lost to this generation. Having the world at our fingertips means we don't hear the whispered rumors from fellow seekers we might come across in our search...and it means some legends are falling by the wayside. I am going to attempt to do my small part to remind the few who stumble across this of some forgotten truths about the history of the blues. I suppose If someone finds this in the mass barrage of whatever is hip this week it could be akin to meeting someone else in that record store of long ago, looking for that magic vinyl, meeting someone who hips you to a forgotten song, that you then catch the fever to find. So welcome fellow seeker.


How a Bookbinder and a Railroad Agent Helped Create the Blues:


In 1903 W.C. Handy wrote about
 “a lean, loose-jointed Negro [who] had commenced plucking a guitar
beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. ... The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly... The singer repeated the line ("Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog") three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. “


Black Southern music had already grown from "akonting", a folk lute of the African Jola tribe , to the
banjo and on to the newly available guitars ….W.C. Handy did not invent the blues...and the music he
composed was more jazz and ragtime then anything. The blues was born of hardship, good people and
bad times. But did you ever wonder why the guitar became such a force in blues?


It seems there was a fellow named Richard Sears building a mail order empire over the railways of
America...one of the people Richard used as a supplier was a man named Oscar Schmidt . Oscar was a
bookbinder who sold a lot of music books. The books sold so well he started making instruments, including the famous “ STELLA” guitars used by such men as Robert Johnson and LedBelly ( Ledbelly
played a stella 12 string).


 The Illinois Central Railroad ran right through the heart of the Delta ..people would buy guitars from Sears “ mailorder “ , Sears would buy them from Oscar. Like today many people bought guitars and did not have the ability to learn to play. These guitars were sold or given away...those guitars are the ones that were one day owned by the musical legends from the Delta who gave birth to music as we know it today.


If it were not for railroads, Sears and Robuck, and a quirky bookbinder who knows what the music we listen to would sound like......all just pieces of the puzzle.

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