Early post-war blues

Submitted by AWL on 14 April, 2008 - 8:24 Author: Peter Burton

Continuing a series on the history of the blues

The Second World War had meant mass migration with papers like the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier even advertising for blacks to make the migration north to a better life via the Illinois Central and Highway 61.

Blacks replaced white workers in Detroit, Chicago and New York who had gone off to fight in the wars. Migration also took place to the defence industries in California and the Western states, after the successful threat of a March on Washington in 1963 by the Brotherhood of Railway Porters against the colour bar in these industries. (This became the template for the famous march on Washington in 63 for civil rights).

The blues came North too, but the acoustic solo finger picking styles of the early bluesmen got kind of drowned out in the city noise. Muddy Waters modernized country blues, making the sound bigger, louder, and hotter than anything that had gone before
Electric blues used amplified electric guitars, electric bass, drums, and harmonica. Chicago became a center for electric blues in the early 1950s. There were ensembles, no longer the single Blues guitar player.

Chicago blues was influenced to a large extent by the Mississippi blues style, because many performers had migrated from Mississippi.

Their style was characterized by the use of electric guitar, sometimes slide guitar, harmonica, and a rhythm section of bass and drums. J. T. Brown, who played in Elmore James’s or J. B. Lenoir’s bands, also used saxophones, but more as “backing” or rhythmic support than as solo instruments.

Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) were well known harmonica (or “harp”) players of the early Chicago blues scene. Other harp players such as Big Walter Horton were also influential.

Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were known for their deep, “gravelly” voices, and competed with each other for dominance in Chicagos’ South side blues clubs.

Bassist and composer Willie Dixon played a major role on the Chicago blues scene as a fixer, advisor, player and composer at Chess Records.

He composed and wrote many standard blues songs of the period, such as Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want to Make Love to You (both penned for Muddy Waters) and Wang Dang Doodle and Back Door Man for Howlin’ Wolf.

Most artists of the Chicago blues style recorded for Chess Records; other prominent blues labels of this era included J.O.B. Records and Vee-Jay Records.

In the 1950s, blues had a huge influence on mainstream American popular music, and in particular on the development of rockabilly. While popular musicians like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry were influenced by the Chicago blues, their enthusiastic playing styles departed from the melancholy blues.

Elvis Presley and Bill Haley were more influenced by the jump blues and boogie-woogie styles. They popularized rock and roll within the white segment of the population.

Chicago blues also influenced Louisiana’s zydeco music, with Clifton Chenier using blues accents. Zydeco musicians used electric solo guitar and Cajun arrangements of blues standards.

Elvis’s first hit at Sun Records under Sam Philips was That’s all Right - an old Arthur ‘Bigboy’ Crudup blues number. Dallas-born T-Bone Walker is often associated with the California blues style, which is smoother than Chicago blues. He was a transition between the Chicago blues, the jump blues and swing with some jazz-guitar influence.

John Lee Hooker’s blues is more “personal”, based on Hooker’s deep rough voice accompanied by a single electric guitar. Though not directly influenced by boogie woogie, his “groovy” style is sometimes called “guitar boogie”. His first hit Boogie Chillen reached No 1 on the R&B charts in 1949.

By the late 1950s, the swamp blues genre developed near Baton Rouge, with performers such as Slim Harpo, Sam Myers and Jerry McCain. Swamp blues has a slower pace and a simpler use of the harmonica than the Chicago blues.

Songs from this genre include Scratch my Back, She’s Tough and I’m a King Bee.

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