Blues Time Machine

Sonny Boy Williamson was a blues originator who helped shape the sound of modern blues. In his life, he knew the first generation of Delta bluesmen, and would go on to see the birth of modern rock music. He played with Robert Johnson in the 1930’s, and with Eric Clapton in the 1960’s.

He was a major radio star in the 1940’s on King Biscuit Time, America’s first live blues radio show. He wrote dozens of songs that became blues standards, notably “Help Me” and “Eyesight to the Blind." He recorded “Bring It On Home” in 1963, but didn’t release it until 1966.

Charley Patton

Charley Patton is considered by many to be the father of Delta Blues. What does that actually mean? A combination of location, timing and talent, put him at the leading edge of the new musical direction of the 1920s. He was one of, if not the first, to play what we might recognize as blues.

In 1942, Alan Lomax discovered a community of musicians in North Mississippi, who played their own hybrid music that was unmistakably African-sounding. Called “Fife & Drum” music because of its military background, it hearkens back to post Civil War days, when this special and local tradition originated.

Although drumming is a central element of African music, drumming was generally banned during the slavery era. With restrictions easing after the War, and the availability of one-time military drums, Fife and Drum music became a key part of North Mississippi culture.

"You Don’t Love Me" is a classic blues song that has roots in the 50's and is still being recorded and re-invented. Willie Cobbs, an Arkansas rice farmer, made his way to Chicago in the late 1940's, playing his blues on Maxwell Street, eventually releasing "You Don't Love Me" in 1961.

Bo Diddley may not have had the commercial success of some other performers, but his contributions to American musical culture are huge.

Besides his trademark "Bo Diddley beat," he had a brash sense of style, dressing in outlandish outfits, playing custom-made square guitars and generally having a lot of fun on stage. In fact, he was a key player in the transition from blues to rock and roll, using a hard-edged guitar sound that would influence Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.

Bo Diddley recorded "Before You Accuse Me" in 1957.

Repression of African Americans didn’t stop at the end of the Civil War, and prisons and chain gangs were full of black people arrested for minor violations. This song, “Another Man Done Gone”, tells of the death of a man on one of those chain gangs.

Folklorist Alan Lomax recorded Vera Hall singing “Another Man Done Gone” in 1940, and praised her as having the "loveliest untrained voice [he] had ever recorded."

Lonnie Johnson was one of the first American guitar masters, with a style that bridged jazz and blues, as well as country styles. Though often labeled as a “blues” player, he was versatile and accomplished enough to be a guest artist with Louis Armstong’s Hot Five in 1927, and with Duke Ellington in 1928.

Among his many contributions, he is considered the first to play single-string guitar solos and was a major influence on jazz guitar pioneers Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. He recorded “Somebody’s Got To Go” in 1941.

Willie Dixon didn’t make his career writing songs about people who behaved themselves, and “Back Door Man” is no exception — it’s about a guy who cheats and then brags about it.

Songs like this were well suited to the larger-than-life Howlin’ Wolf, who was already a well-established, middle-aged bluesman when he recorded it in 1961.

Sleepy John Estes was a master of country blues with a “down-home” feeling. A little rough around the edges, but loaded with emotion. Though his music wasn’t complex, his songs have lasted through the years, and have been sung by Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan.

In his 1935 recording of “Someday Baby Blues”, the guitar is barely heard, the mix dominated by Hammie Nixon’s harmonica and Estes’ plaintive voice.

It’s one of the defining songs of the Blues, written by one of its formative figures, Son House. The opening lyric “Woke up this morning…” would be considered trite today, but its 1930 recording date makes it more iconic than anything.

With its simple but insistent guitar rhythm and mournful lyrics, “Walkin’ Blues” is a virtual blueprint for Delta Blues, and a powerful influence on the development of modern blues.

Louis Jordan is one of the pioneers of American music, and an important force in the transition from the Jazz Era to Rock and Roll. He was one of the first to down-size the big band format to a combo of five or six players, pounding out high energy jump, swing and rhythm and blues for dance audiences.

One of the early bands to use electric guitar, he established a musical style that rock originators like Bill Haley followed closely. Louis Jordan’s 1947 recording of “Early in the Morning” is an example of the influence of Afro Cuban rhythms on American music.

Most blues started in the country before becoming urbanized, and Bukka White brought his brand of Mississippi blues to Chicago in the 1930’s and 40’s.

It is likely that he met and learned from elemental bluesman Charley Patton, and he was known for playing a National steel guitar with a slide. He recorded “Shake ‘Em On Down” in 1937 and established the cutting edge.

Little Walter made a harmonica sound like nothing that had been heard before – somewhere between a saxophone and an electric guitar. By the early 1950’s he not only used amplification, he used the amp to creatively alter his sound with distortion and sonic effects.

You might say he was the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica. One song in particular has rolled through history: 'Mellow Down Easy.'

It’s another one of those mysteries — who actually wrote “One Way Out”?

Elmore James recorded it in 1961, but didn’t release it until ’65. Sonny Boy Williamson released a version in 1961 and 1965 and G.L. Crockett had a 1965 hit with the same song under a different name.

Joel Mann

It’s one of the most iconic songs from New Orleans, and like the city, it’s origin and meaning are a product of may different influences.

Its meaning is still being debated by scholars and linguists, but “Iko Iko” was first recorded in 1953 by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, who wrote the pop song “Jock-A-Mo” based on 2 different Mardi Gras Indian chants. The Mardi Gras “Indians” are actually African-American groups who have been parading as Indian tribes at Mardi Gras since the mid-19th Century.

Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup has been called the “father of rock and roll” for writing the song that launched Elvis Presley’s career. His own career had a rough start-- after migrating from Mississippi around 1940, he was living on the Chicago streets, playing for tips.

His unique, though unpolished sound was distinctive enough to land him a record deal, and he had several songs on the mid-40’s r & b charts. Despite the success of his songs, he was never paid fairly for the music he composed and worked as a laborer to support his family.

Blind Willie Johnson was a bluesman and a preacher. His lyrics were spiritual, and his music was blues.

Though he only made 30 recordings, his work is a lasting part of the blues legacy. Early players like Son House and Fred McDowell played his tunes, and his influence reached people like Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. In 1930 he recorded “The Soul of a Man” accompanied by his wife, Willie B. Harris.

"I believe I’ll dust my broom" is an old saying meaning to make a new start.

With that catchy phrase, and a distinctive guitar riff Robert Johnson created an important piece of blues history when he recorded “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” in 1936.

Henry Thomas is literally a link to an earlier time.

Born in 1874, his music is a patchwork of blues, rags and folk songs. His use of quills, or pan-pipes, is a relic of a nearly vanished African American tradition. Listening to Henry Thomas gives a glimpse of what music might have sounded like before “the blues."

Sonny Boy Williamson’s career had a wide range. He played with Robert Johnson in the 1930’s and with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page in the 1960’s. His ability to span eras is a testament to the timelessness of his voice and harmonica.

Sonny Boy Williamson recorded “Help Me” in 1963, and it bears a striking similarity to the instrumental “Green Onions," from Booker T and the MGs one year earlier. It is unusual because it uses minor chords, and has a sort of dark and foreboding sound.

This song emphasizes the “rhythm” in “rhythm & blues."

“Mercy, Mercy” or “Have Mercy” was recorded by Don Covay in 1964. It features 22-year-old Jimi Hendrix on guitar. He’s still a few years away from his own solo career, but his guitar playing is recognizable.

It’s a modern blues standard with roots in the 1920’s, one of Willie Dixon’s many great compositions, and it can trace its origin in part to a Charlie Patton song from 1929: “A Spoonful Blues."

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was a disaster that reshaped the South. With flooding in 10 states, the river below Memphis reached 60 miles across in some places. Not only was farmland swallowed up, but many poor blacks were forced to work rebuilding levees. With no crop that year, many headed north in what was part of a large migration to urban centers.

Tommy Johnson’s songs may not be very well known, but he was a hugely influential blues player and also may be the source of one of the most enduring legends of the blues – the Devil and the Crossroads.

While this legend is sometimes associated with Robert Johnson (no relation), it was Tommy Johnson who first cultivated a story about himself that he met the devil at a crossroads, and sold his soul in exchange for his musical ability.

His life reads like a blues song … 1920’s, a young preacher playing the blues, despite his church’s opposition. Kills a man in self-defense, 2 years in prison, and comes out to team up with the best-known blues man of the day, Charley Patton.

After limited commercial success of his own, he fades from view, working on farms and railroads. Thirtyfive years later, some dedicated blues fans track him down and he begins performing around the world, finally getting recognition as a blues master.

library of congess

Blues evolved from many different sources including spirituals, work songs, and chants. “Rock Island Line” began as a work song, first recorded in 1934 by prisoners at Cummins Farm in Arkansas. The rhythm of physical labor is integral to songs like these.

The "Matriarch of the Blues" has died. Music legend Etta James died Friday morning at Riverside Community Hospital in California of complications from leukemia. She was 73.

She was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938. Her first manager and promoter cut up Jamesetta's name and reversed it: Etta James.

For Halloween, a spooky blues that influenced a generation of rock musicians.

“I Ain’t Superstitious” is a bridge between the acoustic blues of the South and the electric blues of Chicago.

“Crying the blues” perfectly describes the style of Sleepy John Estes. His music is not very complex, and he was a solid, but not a great guitarist.

Instead, Estes is known more for his ability to write about universal themes and to sing with deep emotion. He was a big influence on early bluesmen like Big Bill Broonzy and Arthur Crudup. He also was a big inspiration for later players like Michael Bloomfield, with whom he worked in the 1960s.

“Drop Down Mama” is a song of his that has re-surfaced several times. Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon recorded it in 1935.

“Blues in the Night” first was heard in the 1941 movie “Hot Nocturne."

Written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, it’s considered to be a landmark in American popular music because it was one of the first times that rural black dialect and an explicitly bluesy melody was used in a popular song.