King Biscuit Time Columns
|These are the archived columns
I've written for King Biscuit Time, a magazine covering blues artist and
festivals. - GW
Acoustic blues, it seems, tends to get short shrift in comparison to its electrified offspring. Unplugged soloists get relegated to side stages at festivals, and for every artist fingerpicking the classics of Robert Johnson or Blind Lemon Jefferson, there are dozens of Strat-toting guitar heroes fronting Chicago or West Coast style bands. But when I listen to early blues recordings or contemporary country blues players, I often hear more variety in the music than in electric blues. Not unsurprisingly, there's much more information on electric than acoustic blues on the Web as well. If you want to explore "down home" blues online, here are some worthwhile resources you can check out.
Learning more about country blues best begins with listening, of course, but few online blues discographies cover a wide range of acoustic artists. One that does, however, is a brief list of prewar blues guitar recordings I made at www.celticguitarmusic.com/gitdisc.htm. Intended to be an introduction to the music rather than an exhaustive compilation, it divides the artists by the areas where early blues players were discovered-the Southeast Coast, the Mississippi Delta, Texas, and so on. Each region tended towards a characteristic style: the East Coast blues was influenced by ragtime (major players are Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Willie McTell), the Delta style (Robert Johnson, Son House, Skip James, Charlie Patton) was marked by more slide playing and was perhaps retained the most African influence, and the Texas style (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Blind Willie Johnson, Funny Papa Smith and Little Hat Jones) was largely distinguished by drone basses and less use of the slide. When you listen to their CDs you'll be amazed at just how good the playing and singing of so many of these artists was. Even today, few acoustic performers can play the guitar parts of past masters like Rev. Gary Davis or Blind Lemon Jefferson note for note.
For a much more complete acoustic blues discography, visit the FolkLib site www.folklib.net/index/blues.shtml Although it is updated regularly, the list seems to include anyone who ever recorded acoustic blues - players like Jimi Hendrix, who recorded one or two unplugged tracks that I know of, and Luther Alison appear along with the artists you'd normally expect.
There are also several good books about early blues in print, but as far as I know the only online bibliography dealing primarily with acoustic blues is one I created at www.celticguitarmusic.com/bluesbooks.htm. Learning about social conditions in the Jim Crow South from these books has helped me understand the music -the lyrics in particular - much better. When you realize the severity of racism during the Jim Crow era, you can easily see how someone like Big Walter Horton could say that whites couldn't play the blues (I still reject this viewpoint, though-look at critical acclaimed Asians like Yo Yo Ma and Midori who perform European classical music). Surprising factoids jump out of the pages, too - one of the more striking things I read about the South was the common fear among blacks in Mississippi that the newly introduced Victrolas were really electronic eavesdropping devices that the white authorities would use to monitor conversations in black households. Things like this reveal how deep the terror of the lynch mob ran; drinking a little whiskey and playing a few tunes on a guitar could help a man forget his "blues and trouble" for a while.
Before the advent of the electric guitar in the mid 1930's, all blues played on a six-string was acoustic. Now most players plug in electrics, leaving a small cadre to carry on the acoustic tradition. Many of these acoustic performers have websites in an Internet listing at http://directory.google.com/Top/Arts/Music/Instruments/Stringed/Guitar/Fingerstyle/Blues , which I compiled when I was a volunteer editor for Netscape. Paul Geremia, for example, is a superb guitarist and singer in the country blues tradition who has a Web site in this listing (www.fishheads.net/geremia). Geremia has been performing since 1966 and learned directly from older bluesmen like Son House, Rev, Gary Davis, and Mississippi John Hurt as well as the old 78-rpm "race" records. Another longtime performer who studied with Rev. Gary Davis and others is Roy Bookbinder (www.roybookbinder.com). His website includes a feature story on him by Rich Schneider from Blues Beat magazine as well as the usual tour dates and CD information. Don't pass up a chance to see either of these fine pickers play.
The Google fingerstyle blues listing also includes Web pages devoted to the prewar players themselves. A standout here is an excellent article on Blind Blake, The King Of Ragtime Guitar: Blind Blake & His Piano-Sounding Guitar, originally penned for Guitar Player magazine by the writer Jason Obrecht at www.garlic.com/~tgracyk/blake1.htm. Also noteworthy is the Blind Lemon Jefferson page at www.glade.net/~blindlemon. Lemon was the first successful male blues singer/guitarist to record - the genre had been previously dominated by female singers fronting jazz bands-and the sales of his sides cemented the role of the guitar as the leading blues instrument forever afterwards. Featured are a Blind Lemon discography and a touching account of how the Internet discussion group Blues-L (see the October 2003 Blues Online column) led a fundraising drive to have a marble tombstone placed on Lemon's gravesite in Wortham, Texas.
Lastly, you should know which labels are achieving cultural sainthood by keeping country blues recordings in print, and visit their websites. Foremost among these are Yazoo (www.yazoorecords.com), Document (www.document-records.co.uk), and Arhoolie (www.arhoolie.com).
So what are you waiting for? Put your mouse to the metal and get down home..
As always, you're invited to visit the King Biscuit Time Website at www.kingbiscuittime.com, and my own blues site at www.celticguitarmusic.com/bluesmain.htm., where all my back Blues Online columns are archived.
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