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by Jason Gubbels

August 13, 2014

Before the Blues: Ballads and Breakdowns

by Jason Gubbels  |  August 13, 2014

The blues remains the foundation for so much of American popular music, yet scholars and fans still can't quite agree on its origins. Nobody disputes that the roots of the blues can be traced to Africa, specifically Malian culture and performers utilizing such proto-banjo and guitar-stringed instruments as the kora. And everybody agrees that these African sources found fruition in the American South, specifically among African American communities in the immediate post-Civil War years, developing naturally from a combination of vocal and instrumental traditions including spirituals, works songs and (much later) ragtime.

But although the arrival of the blues roughly coincides with the invention of sound recording, blues songs took some time to appear on record, and many of the earliest "blues" numbers preserved in both sheet music form and gramophone were blues in name only. As an example, in late summer of 1912, "Baby Seals Blues" (by Arthur "Baby" Seales) and "The Memphis Blues" (by W.C. Handy) were published as blues numbers even though in style and form they weren't much more than standard ragtime numbers. "Blues" itself became a hip marketing term attached to song titles in an attempt to stay current with an evolving musical culture, often taking the place of what before might have been "Rag" or "Stomp." Twelve-bar blues structure as we know it wouldn't become prevalent until the early to mid-1920s, at which point iconic female blues singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Victoria Spivey dominated the marketplace.

Many of these early blues performers were never strictly blues artists -- Mamie Smith came out of vaudeville, Blind Blake picked ragtime guitar, and plenty of Mississippi Delta blues singers incorporated country music and current pop songs into their repertoire. So while we largely lack historical recordings demonstrating the origins of the blues, the reality is that plenty of blues performers continued to cut examples of pre- and proto-blues material during their recording sessions. We've assembled a playlist that hints at the richness of some of these historical performances, from a 1911 Fisk Jubilee Singers spiritual ("Po' Moaner Got a Home At Last") to a 1940s recording of New Orleans trumpet legend Bunk Johnson, who only entered a studio late in his life despite his reputation in the early 1900s as one of the finest early jazz players.

In between you'll hear guitar breakdowns and mandolin rags, Charley Patton practically crooning pop song "Poor Me," and a few sides from Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas, one of the oldest blues musicians to be recorded (born in 1874) and a performer who demonstrates several distinctly pre-blues features, such as the use of panpipe-like quills and a guitar picking style clearly modeled on banjo technique. These recordings are old, and so are the performance styles represented. But it's not often you get to hear an entire musical world being created -- a world before the blues.

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