On his WFMT radio program in the mid-1950s, Studs Terkel asked, "Say Bill, what's the blues?" Big Bill Broonzy replied confidently, "Well a real blues, you don't mix that with nothing. You just play the blues. Now a real blues, a Mississippi blues, you just change [chords] when you feel like it and you play what you feel" (as heard on "The Blues", from The Folkways Collection podcast series). To Broonzy and other blues musicians, the country blues is a style born in the Mississippi Delta that laid the foundation for other, later, regional blues styles found across the USA. The country blues is music that relies on the expressive power of the voice with sparse instrumental accompaniment (usually only a guitar or harmonica), differing from the "city blues" in that it has more improvisatory freedom and a less rigidly defined structure.
Singing the Blues
The country blues is the music of day to day life. It is the lonely music of lounging on the front porch, the rowdy music of the house party, and the raucous and engaging music of the concert stage. The lyrics deal with the African American experience and the hardships of work, life, and love in the American South, and themes of travel, loneliness, and wandering of the blues musician lifestyle. Revival standards such as "Candy Man," recorded by both Reverend Gary Davis and John Hurt, "I Ain't Gonna Cry No More," recorded by Son House, and "Boll Weevil," recorded by Pink Anderson, Ma Rainey, Charlie Patton and others all demonstrate the connection of blues lyrics to daily life through their references to people, railroad work and love, and a certain agricultural pest.
The Blues Revival
Early blues music recorded by artists such as Charlie Patton, Leroy Carr, and Blind Lemon Jefferson achieved wide popularity in African-American communities of the southern USA in the 1920s and 1930s. However, recordings of this early music are scarce and by the early 1950s the music had all but faded from popular memory until revival efforts of collectors such as Samuel Charters, Frederic Ramsey, Jr., and Alan Lomax brought the blues into the international spotlight in the late 1950s and 1960s. These ardent collectors sought out country blues musicians and introduced them to concert promoters and record companies, rejuvenating their recording careers. Folkways Records also played a major role in the blues revival through some significant recording reissue projects: Frederic Ramsey, Jr.'s Jazz, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music™, and Samuel Charters' Country Blues. These reissues made recordings from the 1920s and 1930s available to wide audiences in the 1950s and 1960s, drawing blues music into the awareness of American audiences from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Taking it To the Festival Stage
The folk and blues revival enabled country blues musicians such as Lightnin' Hopkins, John Jackson, Furry Lewis, Sam Chatmon, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and others to ascend blues festival stages to wide acclaim across the USA and internationally. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall hosted many country blues musicians throughout the 1960s and 1970s, granting them recognition as part of a national musical heritage. Country blues musicians strove to maintain their traditional styles of playing in these festival contexts even while significant changes to the blues were developing in regional pockets across the USA.
"Ain't nobody wants me, they wouldn't be in my shoes. I be so disgusted, I got those low down rambler blues" (Peg Leg Howell, quoted in Charters 1975). The country blues expresses the shared experiences of black people in the American South, making it a powerful vehicle for African American expression and cultural reinforcement. It is a unique musical form that evolved in the early decades of the twentieth century in small dance halls and on the back steps of homes in the Mississippi delta, and these classic recordings on Smithsonian Folkways and in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections keep the country blues alive for listeners everywhere.
—Jessica Keyes, MA (Ethnomusicology)
Charters, Samuel. The Country Blues. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975.