Country Blues – Part One

“Then one night in Tutwiler (Mississippi), as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulder and wakened me with a start. A lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced a plunking a guitar beside me while I slept…As he played he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists. The effect was unforgettable. His song too, struck me instantly. ‘Going where the Southern cross’ the Dog.’ The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.” ~ W.C. Handy

The year American composer W.C. Handy first heard this unexpected sound was in 1903, and little did he realize at the time, that this unexpected sound he heard, would soon go on to become the most influential form of American roots music, a sound that came to be known as ‘the blues,’ a sound that greatly shaped and influenced other genres, and is the very foundation of others. Though history suggests that this form of music had been around since the1870’s, and was already widely popular in the South, W.C. Handy’s account is the first written record of it’s existence. As this year marks the 100th anniversary since this art form’s existence was first recorded, in it’s honor, Congress has formally declared 2003 as “The Year Of The Blues,” a celebration of it’s rich history, contributions and huge impact on a century of music.

One can’t begin to tell the history of country music, without including the blues, because at the very beginning, their roots were one in the same, inseparably intertwined, only later being separated by the marketing of record labels. Recordings of music had already been made for decades by the time W.C. Handy had stumbled upon this unfamiliar ‘new’ sound, a popular means of entertainment in the 1800’s. However, the music was being made in the big cities, and was geared towards ‘city folk,’ where the artists of those days played in nightclubs and cabarets, and the sounds of popular, ragtime and jazz music catered to a more sophisticated audience. However, Handy’s discovery that night in 1903, brought a whole new sound to the attention of big city labels- the sounds of rural America, particularly the South, and this is what the music was called back then, “rural music.”

There were no real distinctions and no boundaries to this rural music. The many sounds that it encompassed were played equally by both blacks and whites. Some used fiddles and banjos, some a simple acoustic guitar or harmonica, others used jugs, washboards and other homemade and improvised instruments, some used no musical accompaniment. Vocally the sounds ranged from guttural moans, to high lonesome yodels, most often ragged and off-key and seldom ‘pretty.’ The melodies ranged from foot tapping storytellers to overtly sexual grinding beats to spirituals to fiddle jigs. The sound was rough, raw and primitive. They sang their music in the cotton and corn fields, their front porches, in the churches, on street corners, train stations, traveling medicine and vaudeville shows- wherever they could gather an audience, and perhaps if they were lucky, earn a few tips for a drink or meal in the process. Their songs were of life’s hardships, God and sinning, death and being saved, many had overtly sexual overtones and lyrics, some were sly and humorous, there were drinking songs, cheating songs and rambling songs, but all were about real life. The only thing that differentiated the plight of poor whites and poor blacks was skin color. As much as segregation and racism was a factor in those days, poor whites and poor blacks worked side by side in the cotton and corn fields, and it was through their music that people found a common bond. They often played their music together, teaching, learning and influencing each other.

In as much as things change, sometimes they really don’t change as much as we’d sometimes like to believe. With the discovery of this new style of music, the record labels saw a whole new potential for advancement, and not long after Handy’s ‘discovery,’ they soon started sending scouts to all points south to hunt up performers that played this rural music. At first it was a trickle, but as soon as their scouts reported the mother lode of sounds and artists they’d begun uncovering, soon the floodgates were opened. Some labels had their scouts send these performers to Chicago and New York City where their recording studios were located, but there were so many performers, the OKeh and Columbia labels came up with the idea of ‘field recording,’ whereby they sent trucks with portable recording equipment that traveled around the countryside, recording these performers right where they found them, often times even advertising where they would be, to attract even more performers. Soon the other labels like Paramount and Victor were right behind them, and the race was on. Not to be outdone by the labels, many an enterprising performer adopted pseudonyms, and recorded under them on different labels.

This is the point where record label marketing comes into play, which started the wheels in motion wherein the ‘roots’ began to be separated. Back then, the music was separated into two categories, ‘white music’ and ‘race (black) music.’ This ‘rural’ music presented them with a problem, as they had both whites and blacks singing the same styles of music, and they had to somehow differentiate between the ‘races.’ So the music made by the white performers was called ‘hillbilly,’ and the music made by blacks was called ‘country blues,’ even though the music both races made, was most often indistinguishable to the ear.

By the mid-20’s the labels found they had to make further separations, as many of the white ‘hillbilly’ singers were singing in the style of the black ‘country blues’ performers. With the recordings made of this rural music, all of these different regional sounds were then being broadly heard throughout the country. As a result, various aspects of the different sounds were influencing the black ‘country blues’ artists, and their sound was further evolving. So to market it, the music was categorized a step further. White rural music performers were still called ‘hillbilly’ singers, black rural music performers were simply referred to as ‘blues’ singers, and white performers that made their music in the style of black performers, were now called ‘country blues’ singers. At this time they also needed to add a new category, as the first ‘cowboy’ songs started popping up, and they were referred to as ‘cowboy singers.’ Though historically, both white and black singers also fell into this new category, it’s unclear how the labels differentiated between the two in the marketplace.

The history most people are familiar with today, is that it was Ralph Peer, and his seminal 1927 recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, that gave ‘birth’ to the country music genre. Ralph Peer was indeed one of the marketing geniuses of his day, and Jimmie Rodgers was the first bona fide ‘superstar’ of the country music genre, in a time long before the music came to be known as ‘country’ music. However, this style of music was being recorded two decades before the famed Peer Sessions, and there are hundreds of virtual unknowns that helped shape and influence the sound that would one day become ‘country music,’ a term that didn’t come into being until after Hank Williams, who’s considered to be the last of the “white country blues” singers, just before what was called the ‘rhinestone mafia’ took the music off to Nashville, and in another direction.

Stay tuned for upcoming features, where we’ll take a look at some of the myths and little known facts, as well as the earliest, long forgotten and overlooked artists, both black and white, who greatly influenced those that went on to future commercial success, and helped shape the music that would later become known as country music.

AnnMarie Harrington Take Country Back February 2003

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