Olivia Orndorff, The Peoples' Blues
Folk music at its core is music played by nonprofessionals, usually with unknown authors and passed down through oral tradition. Author Ronald D. Cohen writes folk music is performed for enjoyment rarely for commercial profit and regions of the country usually have a specific tradition of songs. One of the subgenres of folk music is the country blues. A different sound from commercially successful blues, the folk blues have been sung since the 1890's and continue to grow and transform through the unique way in which songs are composed and the community of musicians is formed. Mr. David Evans traces the give-and-take between traditional blues and city blues that began occurring when albums were recorded in his book Big Road Blues. The transformation from, and relationship between, country blues to city blues can be seen by tracing the development of the Blues in Chicago.
Blues developed primarily from African traditions and sharecroppers' holler songs. After the Emancipation Proclamation and end of the Civil War the identity blacks held was no longer valid. Their songs reflected the change from working on plantation as slaves with a set standard to the new unfamiliar world of freedom. Thematically the blues cover a multitude of topics, writes Cecelia Conway, meant to exaggerate the daily events of life and provide release from stressful situations. The "holler" songs were the songs sung by plowmen out on the fields. Working by themselves they would sing whatever came to mind to pass the time and this spontaneity is felt throughout blues music. African tradition brought over also encourages improvisation but the main influence of African culture is the music. Many of the notes found in blues can be traced to African ancestry along with many of the instruments used. The blues were popularized during World War I and at this time many African-Americans moved from the South, particularly Mississippi, to Chicago and brought their rich history of blues with them.
It wasn't until the 1920's though that African-Americans were first allowed to record their music which differed from the previously recorded "white blues" primarily because it had no jazz tempo and usually weren't ballads. The first blues recorded had their roots in folk blues but the commercial music now served as a bridge between white blues and traditional blues. Almost all the bluesman being recorded at the time had a background in music and could read and write music. They experimented within the framework of musical rules and created a sound similar to jazz. Their lyrics were also changed to follow a storyline instead of folk blues which revolve only around a theme. Traditional Blues were first recorded in 1926, Mr. Evans believes due to the fact that better recording equipment existed and labels would now travel to the rural parts of the South to record. One such label was Paramount Records located in Chicago, this label recorded many folk blues under the direction of J.Mayo. The new equipment cut down on the extraneous noise making it easier to understand the thick accents of the singers. One of the more problematic aspects of recording Country Blues was the 4 original song requirements. Before recording any new songs the label required for the songs to be "completely original" in that they did not resemble any other blue songs that had already been recorded. On the surface a simple request but many singers had to sing at least 20 songs to find four "original" that could be recorded. This is due to the unique nature that folk blues uses other's material in their songs.
By the 1930's country blues was being replaced by records and the radio and may have dwindled out entirely if it wasn't for the Great Depression which started a revival for the folk blues. In the 1940's the blues scene in Chicago moved beyond the studio. An outdoor market on Maxwell Street became a venue for blues on the weekends and many parties hired newly arrived artists on the South and West side. A number of clubs also opened at this time (e.g., Silvo's, Gatewood's Tavern, Flame Club, and 708), shaping the landscape of the South and West Side of Chicago. From now on the sound would be transformed by the musicians in Chicago who would develop the Chicago Sound. In the 1950's new record labels, such as Chess, began signing a multitude of Chicago based blues musicians. Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf exemplified the sound of Chicago that was heavily influenced by the migrants from the Delta area. The Delta sound usually included acoustic guitar and the harmonica. In Chicago the music changed by amplifying both the harmonica and guitar and adding an amplified bass, drums, piano and occasionally a saxophone or trumpet. Muddy Waters ruled over the Chicago Blues scene during the 1950's and his sound was definitely blues, no longer music heavily influenced by the Delta region instead his songs were characterized by a more jazz rhythm. When the 1960's rolled in Blues were firmly entrenched in the city though no longer the powerhouse it once was. Alligator records started off in 1971 and for the first few years recorded only Chicago-based blues artists. The audience had changed and the blues changed along with the audience. Now the audience was primarily fans of rock-and-roll looking to blues to see where rock developed from and the blues were now influenced by this popular genre instead of folk bluesman. Many popular artists (in genres other than blues) in the 1980's and 1990's began making songs labeled as blues which brought attention to the genre and increased its fan base . Alligator Records has grown as the popularity of blues increased to the point it calls itself the largest, independent blues label in the world and it all started with the Chicago artists.
Folk blues and standard blues differ in a number of areas. The most obvious of these differences are the lyrics. City blues typically follow a storyline. A topic is introduced in the first stanza and then developed and finally some sort of conclusions is reached during the duration of the song. Folk blues on the other hand, explains Mr. Evans, simply revolve around a theme. There is no story, no logical sequencing of verses. Instead the theme is described through different, exaggerated, perspectives. Folk blues thrive on the contrasts made up within a theme. Symbols are played with, a mule may be a mule in the first stanza, but in a contrasting verse it may be a troublesome women. Many folk blues songs contain traditional verses from other songs.
This is a defining characteristic of folk blues using already recorded and known material. It is considered entirely appropriate to claim verses and use them in other songs. Or claim the music and rewrite it for use with other instruments, or doing no revision and simply using it. Often the places named in lyrics would be changed to local towns or personalized in some other way. Most rural blues musicians had a core of elements they would use again and again but in a completely new way by adding in traditional verses or through records and musicians would use any melodies, instruments or lyrics that they heard and like. Due to this songwriting context, many folk blues artists only made a single album, and many good musicians were not recorded simply because the label did not wait to hear any "new" songs. Established artists often got a round this rule like Blind Lemon Jefferson one of the bigger names of the time period, would record songs that shared similarities to previous songs, record labels presumably allowed this because he was already established as a bluesman. City blues does this as well to a certain respect but it is much more subtle and falls under the normal context of influence while folk blues do it to a much greater extent.
Improvisation is highly encouraged in both styles. Many artists make up songs on the spot when performing or recording. Many engage in rearranging the piece, often adding or editing verses depending on what the length of the song is required at the time. Both versions of blues will also engage in a call-and-answer songwriting style often seen in slave songs. However, unlike one being the "caller" and the audience responding the singer's music will answer. Being able to have an instrument "talk" is an important talent in this genre. Dialogues will also occur. Sometimes as a challenge between two artists on which can sing the most verses (often verses of innuendo) or as a complimenting duet. If they are folk bluesman they will often sing duets that contrast the other often one sung in a positive note and the other in a negative tone. Another characteristic, Ms Conway explains, that defines both folk blues and city blues is that for either piece to resonate with an audience relies on its sincerity.
Blues reflect a way of life, a way of dealing with life. Their history also shows the history of the African-American community growing in strength. The folk blues capture this history at its start and show the image at its core. Music characterized by improvisation and at the same time tradition, folk blues are the best picture of both individual and community achievement. Their place in Chicago history traces the development of the city and its power to transform a sound from regional to international.