“Had we not made the black man sad, we would never have this wonderful silence filler.”
In the closing decades of the 1800s American Negroes technically had their freedom but in reality they still labored under a repressive, brutal musical system called vaudeville. In a desperate reaction against the seemingly endless punishment of corny joke-songs and sappy music hall ballads the downtrodden "darkies" took their cardboard guitars, borrowed some harps from the Jews, and retreated to the fields and alleyways. These people included guitar legend Robert Johnson. There they created the musical form we know as The Blues.
Early Blues Artists
In the fall of 1893 a baby boy came into the world in Couchman, East Texas, holding a guitar in one hand and a live octopus in the other. This was Blind Lemon Jefferson, and his mother was known thereafter as Astonished Lemon Jefferson. She never did figure out how that octopus got up there.
Knowing he would only live 35 years, Blind Lemon set to playing the blues right away. He wrote such classic blues songs as "Matchbox Car Blues" and the poignant "Dry South End Blues" before he was toilet trained. One of his greatest compositions is "See That My Grave Is Tidied Up", later popularized by Clarence Gatemouth Brown as "See That My Teeths Is Kept Clean". When asked about his peculiar nickname, Blind Lemon would fix the questioner with a glare and say, "You ever seen a goddam lemon that weren't blind?"
Another early blues singer was Ma Rainey, who once unwrapped a bedroll with Beethoven. She started out singing vaudeville but secretly despised it and would go home and howl down-and-dirty songs like "Dead Drunk Blues" and "Shave 'Em Dry Blues". The latter written after an unfortunate accident with a soapy straight razor ended in the decapitation of all four members of the Tub Jug Washboard Band.
Blind Blake was born William Blake in London and only converted to Negroism in 1897 when he moved to Jacksonville, Florida. Blake had a permanent case of the DTs and saw visions all his life. After finishing the engravings for Jerusalem he wrote "Early Morning Blues" as a memorial to his years as a white Briton.
In the spring of 1911, a wee lil' baby was born on a plantation in Mississippi. He found a guitar lying in the field there, and he picked it up. His name was Robert Johnson. ittle did he know that he would be the awesomest of all guitarists, even better than Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan. Robert "No-Nick" Johnson played such low-down blues that everyone was afraid to give him a nickname. He was a Mississippi-born bluesman and womanizer who met his end drinking from a bottle of poisoned whiskey, smoking TNT, and chewing dynamite even though that was a verse from someone else's song.
All R, no B.
Many traditional blues follow a twelve-bar construction. The first three bars are the Blue Hog Bar in New Orleans, Gritty Sam's Alamo Pub in Shreveport, and the Fecund Rabbit Tofu Bar in San Francisco. Once a bluesman has performed at these three bars he or she is said to have "seen the elephant" or "muddied the water", phrases which we confess baffle us no end. The remaining nine bars can be Mars Bars, Hersheys, Milky Ways, or anything with dark chocolate.
Typically blues guitarists use three cords, although their guitars often have six or even twelve strings...and electric guitars use an electrical cord as well. Perhaps blues players hang the guitar from the three cords. We don't know for sure.
Blues lyrics resemble haiku in that they have three lines. However in blues the first two lines are similar, and the third provides the punchline and nature imagery so revered by haiku lovers. Here are some samples of blues lyrics.
Just Like A Rolling Hound Dog Blues
- Like a old hound dog I gots some fleas in mah fur
- Jes like a hound dog I gots some fleas in mah fur
- I got 'em from my baby, I dunno who gived 'em to her.
- I gonna buy some powder, powder for these fleas
- Gonna buy me some powder for these goddam fleas
- Sprinkle it on mah baby from her head to her flea-bit knees.
- I got the blues so bad I'm rolling on the floor
- Flea-bite blues so bad got me rolling on the floor
- I gots a mojo flea collar but it just don't work no more.
First Degree Blues
- My baby woked me up this morning
- My baby woked me up this morning
- And she done it by lighting me on fire.
- My hair is burning up right now
- Oh lordy my hair is burning right now
- And here come mah baby with some gasoline.
- Ouch ouch ow ow ouch oh ouch ow ow
- Ouch ouch lordy ouch oh ouch ow ow
- Somebody call FireMed right away please.
"First Degree Blues" is an example of a non-rhyming blues, a form often composed extemporare or, as a bluesman might put it, "real quick like yo' ass is on fire."
Influences On Other Musical Genres
From "Rhapsody in Blues" by Blind Fred and Lemon Ira Gherkin to "Van Van Van on der Autobahn Blues" by Blind Lemon Kraftwerk to "Sanitation" by Blind Lemon Ulrich it seems that almost every modern musical genre owes something to the great blues artists like Robert Johnson, Blind Crocodile Hunter and Muddy Amoebiasis Waters. For example, the "First Degree Blues" quoted above inspired James "Hot Flashes" Hetfield's self-ignition onstage at Metallica's 1992 Montreal concert, although fans were disappointed when Hetfield stopped the song after receiving only second-degree burns.
Legendary artists like Elvis Parsley, Buddy Holly, and Luciano Pavorati began their careers singing 12-bar blues. The bands Cream and Led Zeppelin — arguably the first super-groups (i.e, those vulnerable only to Kryptonite) — played blues numbers along with their more famous electric polka music. Ozzie Osbourne famously performed "Dead Drunk Blues" onstage in Liverpool, but muffed the third verse when he bit his own head off.
Great Contemporary Blues Artists
- BB King, born Prince Albert King, followed Blind Blake's lead and emigrated from Britain to the USA. He converted to Negroism in 1947 and with his curvaceous assistant Lucille has been performing the blues ever since.
- Junior Wells, born Senior Hoodoo Blackmore in Memphis, and born again three months later in Tuscaloosa as Amos Dynamite Wells, is famed for his harmonica playing. He started out playing for Buddy Guy's band in the "reefer bars" and slaughterhouse pubs of Chicago -- a tough road to blues fame.
- Clarence Gatemouth Brown made over 30 records. A sampling of his records includes most solos played on a Gibson Firebird, most blues concerts in the Soviet Union, and deepest voice in the "real skinny drink of water" weight class.
- John Lee Hooker began his singing career when he heard his mama and papa talking. His mama said, "You got to let that boy boogie-woogie. It's in him and it gots to come out." Hooker recounts this story in his 9-volume memoir "Boogie Chillun: A la Recherche du Temps Perdu".
- Muddy "Amebiasis" Waters, born McKinley Morganfield, took his stage name from the Mighty Mississippi River and the intestinal troubles which so often afflict those who drink from the turgid brown flood.
- Marva "Marvalous" Wright stands hips and thighs wide of other female blues singers. There ain't no mistaken this hot mama of the blues, and we at Uncyclopedia crave to handfeed her some spicy crawfish in the inner sanctum of her own studio.