Down where the Southern Cross the Dog: The Beginnings of the Blues
Created | Updated May 21, 2013
Down where the Southern Cross the Dog: The Beginnings of the Blues
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When you lie down at night, turning from side to side, and you can't be satisfied no way you do, Old Man Blues got you.The story of the blues is, in many ways, the story of the 20th Century. In 1900, the 'blues' as we understand the term, barely existed, yet by the close of the century the rhythms and lyrical patterns of music made by the poorest sections of a poor community had come to dominate the musical landscape of the age. This series of articles is an attempt to outline how that came to be, by looking at some of the significant figures and events in the history of the blues. It is not intended to be, nor can it be, exhaustive. An exhaustive and comprehensive history of the blues would take more time and space than is practical or desirable.
It Began In Africa
The blues as a form of music was originally limited strictly to black musicians from the rural communities of the south of the United States, most prominently in Texas and Mississippi. Though areas such as Virginia and Arkansas had their own vibrant musical identities, what they played was still recognisably the blues. These men and women were the descendants of slaves and plantation workers, a poor and struggling underclass whose cultural roots lay in Africa, where their ancestors had been born. From these roots they brought percussion and the idea of 'call and response' singing - a one line chant sung by one singer, which is responded to by a chorus. In their simplest form, these chants were used by field hands as a way of maintaining rhythm in their work.
Though there is evidence to suggest that such chants were common throughout the South in the 19th Century, the first properly-recorded example comes from the beginning of the 20th Century, when the archaeologist Charles Peabody recorded examples of his works' crew's chants during 1901. As well as noting that the field hands sang hollers and chants that were of obvious African origin, Peabody made copious notes in his journal about music that he described as 'quite impossible to copy, weird in interval and strange in rhythm; peculiarly beautiful'. He also described a number of examples of the men singing, possibly for hours at a time lines such as:
The reason I loves my baby so
'Cause when she get five dollars, she gives me fo.
Peabody, who was recording something well outside his usual expertise, had no way of knowing it, but he was transcribing the birth of an art form. Though Peabody does not record that the men referred to a musical style called 'the blues' at any time, the lines they were singing were undoubtedly embryonic blues songs2.
The Travelling Blues
Two years later, in 1903, songwriter and minstrel WC Handy found himself waiting for a train at the small town of Tutwiler, Mississippi. As it happens, his train was late, by some nine hours. During that time he observed a strange and ragged musician who appeared at the station. He played a guitar but, unusually, used a knife to press down on the guitar's strings, slurring the notes and giving a sort of moaning quality to the sound achieved3. The man also sang a strange set of words that meant nothing to Handy:
Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog.
The line was repeated three times and each time was answered by a flurry of notes from the guitar. Handy noted that verses seemed to be added at will, each following the same format. Handy was also curious about the lyrics, and the musician informed him that the song referred to a town called Moorehead, where the Southern trains crossed the line of the Yazoo and Mississippi Line, known locally as the Yellow Dog. Although the format of the song was not totally unknown to Handy, this encounter does appear to mark two very important growth points for the blues. Firstly, the musician that Handy met appears to have been an itinerant man who travelled from place to place, taking his instrument with him and entertaining from town to town. The 'travelling man', as these men were known, were to become a common sight throughout the South, and were to develop a folklore all of their own. Perhaps the most famous of all was Robert Johnson, whose legacy to the blues was incalculable.
Secondly, the song contains references to local slang, and is clearly unique to a small geographical area – as the blues developed, the lyrics became littered with such obscure phrases - 'little John the Conqueror Root'4, 'Mojo hands'5 and references to particular places and events, giving the blues an almost arcane air of mystery that was to be exploited by its stars to its maximum potential.
Handy went on to become a great populariser of the blues, adopting many of the tunes he heard whilst effectively bowdlerising them of their original meanings. His pioneering work in bringing a nascent art form into the popular consciousness was recognized in 1980 when the first Annual WC Handy Awards were awarded. In the 23 years since then, the Handys have established themselves as the premier form of recognition for blues artists.
The First King of the Blues
Without doubt, the first true star of the blues was the Texas singer and songwriter Blind Lemon Jefferson. He recorded his first sides in 1926 and was quickly established as a star on the Race Record circuit6. With the release of his first record, 'Long Lonesome Blues' in May 1926, Jefferson revolutionised the race record industry. Up until that point, it had been dominated by female vocalists backed by bands, but Jefferson's raw, idiosyncratic performance soon set a trend that was to last almost unchanged until after the Second World War.
Jefferson was also a hugely inventive songwriter, and although his lyrics clearly owe a great deal to the repetitive call and response of earlier artists, he was a gifted extemporiser and his guitar-playing technique was far in advance of his rivals, as one of his contemporaries, Tom Shaw noted:
Wasn't no use anybody else to come up talkin' about playin' against him, 'cause they couldn't even do what he was doin' – all they could do was look and wonder how in the hell he done it7.
The idea of a concert was unknown to blues performers of the time. They would arrive in a town and sing on street corners, often vying against each other for the attention of whatever crowd was available. If the crowd was good, and the performance found worthy, then money would be placed in the performer's hat. If performers found real favour, they might be asked to play a juke joint, or drinking den, where more money could be made by entertaining hard working men and women as they partied (Blind Lemon once created considerable furore by refusing to play a juke joint that did not meet his standards). Blind Lemon Jefferson was the undoubted king of the street corner:
White or coloured, they were crazy about him. Wherever he's playin' on the square, people just go out of cafes, run 'cross the streets to where he is8.
However, in a pattern that was to eerily repeat itself throughout the history of the blues, by 1929 Jefferson was a spent force, and his talent greatly diminished by ill-health. He died in December 1929, probably of a heart attack. Legend even then suggested that he had foreseen his own death with one of his most popular songs: 'See That My Grave is Kept Clean'.
Blind Lemon Jefferson was by no means the last of the great Texas blues players – a lineage that boasts players as illustrious as Lightnin' Hopkins, Stevie Ray Vaughan and ZZ Top - but in the summer of 1929, a young man named Charley Patton, a native of Greenville, Mississippi, was recording the first of a series of records that were to change the blues beyond recognition, and lead, indirectly, to the modern music of today.