Pre Electric Chicago Blues

Railroad jobs helped fuel the great migration, which brought so many bluesmen to Chicago.
Most people would know that blues music originated in the deep South. Some say it derived from the call and response songs of the slaves working in the fields. Others say that it was derived from song styles learned in black churches in the South. However the blues developed, by the time jazz was gaining American attention the blues was growing up alongside it. In the early years of the 20th century, Jazz was developing in New Orleans and beginning its spread northward and to the rest of America and the blues were developing as an acoustic folk music in the more rural areas of the South. Legendarily, the blues would be the music you would hear in black jukejoints set back from the highway on a Saturday night.

In the early days the music wasn't called blues. It was just rural folk music of the South. It was mostly not transcribed and was just learned by hearing and copying in the grand folk music tradition. When recordings of this music began to be made in the 1920's, racist America needed to know that the record they were considering purchasing was made by a white person. The records called that music "country", but when the music was performed by a black performer the terms "race records" and "blues music" began to be used to indicate the color of the performer Many of the records called Blues in the early days were called so because of black musicians though the music itself might have been jazz or vaudeville styles of songs.

The popularity of jazz music in the 1920's meant that promoters of early recorded music began to identify the Jazz race records and the blues race records slightly differently with the jazz records more likely to have crossover appeal with white audiences. Eventually the blues form began to crystallize into 8 or 12 bar versions of songs that often had an AAB rhyme structure and a call and response lyrical style.

In Chicago in the 1920's as Jazz was beginning to be recorded there was also an emerging blues style, as usual, brought forward by transplants in the great migration. The style was a acoustic and similar to the delta style, but it expanded the sound. a bit. This explanation from the Rolling Stones fansite sums it up well:
In between the first generation of Mississippi Delta acoustic blues players of the late 1920s and early '30s (Charley PattonSkip JamesSon House, etc.), and the great electric Chicago blues artists of the late 1940s and '50s (Muddy WatersLittle WalterHowlin' Wolf, etc.) - many of whom emigrated to Chicago from Mississippi as part of the massive emigration patterns of Afro-Americans that moved from the South to northern cities after World War II -, was a generation of musicians that played what is often styled acoustic Chicago blues. This era of blues music represented an evolution from straightforward acoustic Delta or Piedmont blues (which was a blues singer alone with his acoustic guitar), in that it often involved a trio (acoustic guitar, acoustic bass and piano, for example) and musicians that had recently emigrated to Chicago, who built on their original styles with a new urban energy and lighthearted, city-slanted lyrics, thus anticipating the great Chicago blues artists of the 1950s, but without the electrification and the drums.
Among the pre-eminent artists of this era and style are Tampa Red, Kokomo Arnold, Sonny Boy
(John Lee) Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, Washboard Sam, Willie Dixon, Scrapper Blackwell, and, of course, Big Bill Broonzy.
I will admit this is an area of musical history that I am relatively uninformed of and my collection was lacking tracks from many of the artists mentioned. None the less, lets charge forward and see what we have to add to the playlist, I will focus on the artist mentioned in the quoted article. As I open the internet archive to take a peak at what they have to offer on these artist I find a gold mine of of material to add to my collection, my playlist, and to share with you my readers.

Tampa Red

Born in Smithville, Georgia before moving to Tampa Florida as child, Husdon Woodbridge aka Hudson Whittaker aka Tampa Red moved to Chicago in the 1920's. Known for his bottleneck style of playing, I had none of his work in my collection. The first group is a folder of tracks listed as Tampa Red-11-19. I could not locate Tampa Red-01-10.

Album:  Tampa Red-11-19  Tampa Red
    Tasty stuff.I also found this track to add to the list...

    What do you do if you are a bootlegger in Chicago when the prohibition ended? You become a blues singer, at least you would if you were Kokomo Arnold, another of the pre-electric Chicago Blues artists. In four years from 1934 to 1938, he would record 88 sides. He has a fairly hard edged style that I find pretty appealing. I was unaware of him until reading the excerpt from . Now that I know about him I will be looking for more of his music. Thankfully, can give us a few samples.

    Sonny Boy Williamson has an interesting story. He was born in 1914 near Jackson, Tennessee. In his teens, he traveled with fellow early bluesmen Yank Rachell and Sleepy John Estes. They performed in Tennessee and Arkansas before he settled in Chicago in 1938. He played the harmonica and was known as "the father of modern blues harp" for his pioneering style of harmonica playing. Starting in 1937 he began recording tracks that included such blues classics as "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl", "Hoodoo Blues", ans "Shake The Boogie". He gained great popularity and even had someone in the Mississippi Delta area who began to perform under his name, Alex "Rice" Miller. I will let Wikipedia tell that story:

    He was popular enough that by the 1940s, another blues harp player, Aleck/Alex "Rice" Miller, from Mississippi, began also using the name Sonny Boy Williamson. John Lee is said to have objected to this, though no legal action took place, possibly due to the fact that Miller did not release any records during Williamson's lifetime, and that Williamson played mainly around the Chicago area, while Miller seldom ventured beyond the Mississippi Delta region until after Williamson's death. In 1942, John Lee allegedly confronted Miller, but according to Miller's friend and guitarist Robert Lockwood, "Big Sonny Boy [Miller] chased Little Sonny Boy [Williamson] away from there. He couldn't play with Rice. Rice Miller could play Sonny Boy's stuff better than he could play it!"[2]

    The whole thing could have come to a head at some point. But sadly, Sonny Boy Williamson I was killed in street robbery that occurred as he was walking home from a performance at the Plantation Club. It was venue that was only a block and a half away from his home.  Sonny Boy Williams II would prove to be a talented bluesman as well who led a long career into the late 1960's. But it is Williams I that makes our list this week. Again due to its age, Archive.Org is generous with the tracks available. The first folder is:
    Album: Sonny Boy Williamson-01-10       Sonny Boy Williamson I 

    Album: Sonny Boy Williamson-11-20     Sonny Boy Williamson I

    Album: Sonny Boy Williamson-21-26 Sonny Boy Williamson I

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    Robert Nighthawk was certainly a proficient and popular blues musician from the pre-electric era. I cannot say that I think he deserves to be included in a set list about Chicago. While he did visit the city to record, he did not like it there. He generally performed live touring in the south and for those reason we are going to skip Robert Nighthawk on this journey. Maybe we will meet up with him later but that's it for his relevance to Chicago.

    Washboard Sam, on the other hand, was right it the thick of the Chicago blues scene of the 1930's. He was born, Robert Brown in Walnut Ridge Arkansas, moving to Memphis Tennessee in the 1920's before finally settling in Chicago in 1932 at the age of 22. He preformed regularly with Big Bill Broonzy, who we will be talking about later, and also performed with great success as a solo artist. He recorded over 160 tracks in the 1930's and 1940's.

    When electric blues began to take hold his style did not adapt and he began to face dwindling audiences, In the 1950's he retired and became a police officer. No musician ever seems to truly retire though and he did make several minor comebacks including recording an album with Big Bill Broonzy in the mid fifties and having a bit of touring success during the great folk music scare of the early 1960's. He finally passed away in 1966 and buried in an unmarked grave in the Homewood, Illinois.

    My impressions of his music is that it is hot blues but with a certain jazzy kind of sound. It's surprising that he did not transition to electric blues because the music that he was playing had  an energetic style the later electric musicians would also have. Her we begin with a set called in the usual matter-of-fact archive way, "Washboard Sam-01-12". In typical untrustworthy Internet fashion of "you get what you pay" for the middle track in the set is as song titled "Washboard Sam" by a rockabilly duo called Judy & Joyce. Its a pretty cool song though, so I guess I will leave it in the set.

    Album: Washboard Sam-01-12 Washboard Sam

    In addition to that set Archive has a few individual tracks. They are:

    The next artist mentioned in the post we are referencing was Willie Dixon. Willie Dixon looms large in the history of Chicago blues and his career continued, and he achieved his greatest success, in the electric blues era that was to follow. Since he is easily worthy of a post of his own we will come back to talk about him in more detail at the end of this series before we transition into the golden era of electric blues in Chicago.

    Scrapper Blackwell
    Scrapper Blackwell
    Scrapper Blackwell performed in the 1930's with a crooner called Leroy Carr. His style was a a single string picking technique that ultimately would prove quite inspirational not only to the Rolling Stones (as mentioned on the web site TimeIsOnOurSide.Com) but to Eric Clapton. Now, Leroy Carr was a smooth crooner who has a mellow sound that was said to be very influential to Ray Charles and Nat King Cole. (Route 66 reference-see how this all kind of comes together?) On many recordings Carr was credited, but Blackwell was not. This caused artistic tension with Blackwell to ultimately leave Carr to pursue solo opportunities. He must not have been as well known with out his vocalist because he did not last long. He retired into a life of anonymity in Indianapolis in 1935. In the late 1950's as folk music was the rage he was contacted by collectors of old record who wanted to him to perform again. He enjoyed a brief revival leading up to the release of a classic blues album, Mr. Scrappers Blues.

    Tragedy seems to haunt the world of the blues at every turn. And Like Sonny Boy Wiliamson, who was murdered in a robbery near his home. Scrapper Blackwell was murdered in a holdup in an alley near his home less than a year after his record. This is someone I will need to add to my wish list but I did find 1 track that was listed in archive of his work with Leroy Clark:

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    Big Bill Broonzy
    Big Bill Broonzy

    Big Bill Broonzy

    He was called Big Bill Broonzy because he was a big man in a muscular, not fat, way, The early details of Broonzy's life are a bit unclear and during his lifetime Broonzy did not help matters any as he tended to be the kind of guy who values a good story more than a factual one. He was born in either 1893 or 1903 in either Scott, Mississippi or Jefferson County, Arkansas. Regardless, it is known that he grew up in a family of 17 children in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. By 1915, Broonzy was married and working as a sharecropper. He was planning to give up sharecropping to become a preacher, but was offered 50 to play fiddle for four nights. Before he could reconsider to pursue his calling he spent the money and was obliged to perform. He was unsuccessful as a sharecropper and went bankrupt being forced to work at outside jobs until enlisting in the army in 1917 to serve in World War I.

    After serving two years in the war, Broonzy was discharged and returned to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. When he returned he wasn't given a heroes welcome. Typical of the racial attitudes of the day, he was greeted with a racial epitaph and was told "hurry up and get his soldier uniform off and put on some overalls." Disgusted, Broonzy left Pine Bluff to live in Little Rock. He would be there for less than a year before relocating to Chicago in 1920.

    In Chicago

    In the booming Chicago of the 1920's Big Bill Broonzy would set down his fiddle and pick up a guitar. He would steadily improve at the instrument, playing house parties and social gatherings while working odd jobs as a Pullman porter, cook, foundry worker and custodian.

    In early 1930's, Broonzy began to record for various labels with varying levels of minor success at best. In 1934 he began to record for the popular Bluebird label. It was then that fame struck. In 1938 He was asked to appear at Carnegie Hall For a production called Spirituals To Swing that featured many of the most respected black artists of that time. In addition to his own output on the Bluebird label, he was close friends with Tampa Red and was a half brother to Washboard Sam. He wrote many songs for both and was likely playing guitar on several of their recordings. Due to contractual obligations, Broonzy was careful to make sure that he was only listed as composed on the credits and not as a performer,

    During the 1940's Broonzy continued to record as well as improving his writing chops. He wrote many songs that were picked up and used by the emerging 1940's electric blues artists. Broonzy was said to have a big heart worthy of his name and reportedly did a lot to help younger struggling blues musicians a foot up into the music business. He would begin preforming in combos that featured piano, drums and upbeat song structures, His biggest hit during this period was "Keys To The Highway", re popularized later by Eric Clapton. Big Bill Broonzy was building a bridge between the older styles of the Chicago blues and the electric version that was emerging on the horizon.

    As the 1940's rolled on into the 1950's, the sound of blues music in Chicago had become more and more electric. Other blues men were taking the upbeat rhythms Broonzy had pioneered and working with new sounds that the electric instruments were capable of evolved into the popular Chicago blues sound we think of today. Big Bill Broonzy zigged when the others zagged. In the 1950's he adopted a spare stripped down acoustic style,

    A Song About Race

    In 1951, he recorded a song called "Brown, Black, and White" that seemed to recall his reception upon arrival home from World War I. It was an expression of the frustrations black Americans were feeling under Jim Crow as the civil rights movement began to take off. Here are the lyrics and a video:

        This little song that I'm singing about,
        Brother you know it's true.
        If you're black and gotta work for a living
        This is what they will say to you.


        They say if you's white, should be all right,
        If you's brown, stick around,
        But if you's black, well, brothers, get back, get back, get back.

        I was in a place one night,
        They was all having fun.
        They was all buyin' beer and wine
        But they would not sell me none.

        Me and a man was workin' side by side.
        This is what it meant:
        He was making a dollar an hour,
        They was paying me fifty cent.
        I helped build this country,
        I fought for it too.
        Now I guess you can see
        What a black man have to do

    European Success At The End Of His Life

    Also in 1951, Broonzy was toured Europe to great success with standing ovations in many places. This left him able to make a comfortable living from his music, traveling and recording extensively during the decade. Much of his success was in Europe. While in the Netherlands, Broonzy met and fell in love with a Dutch girl, Pim van Isveldt. Together they had a child named Michael who still lives in Amsterdam. In 1954, legendary journalist Studs Turkel took Broonzy to Circle Pines Center, a cooperative year-round camp in Hastings, Michigan where Broonzy had worked years before as a dishwasher. On July 4th, Pete Seeger joined Broonzy for a concert on the Center's lawn which was recorded by Seeger for the new fine arts radio station in Chicago, WFMT-FM. The following interview with Studs Turkel is likely from that appearance.

    In 1955, with the assistance of Belgian writer Yannick Bruynoghe, Broonzy published his autobiography, entitled "Big Bill Blues". He would also undertake a worldwide tour that included Africa, South America, the Pacific region and Europe continuing into 1956. Sadly, in 1958, he passed away as the victim of throat cancer and is buried in Lincoln Cemetery, Blue Island, Illinois.

    Route 66 Playlist Additions

    My music collection features a compilation Of Big Bill Broonzy;s output from his later period that is our first addition to the Route 66 playlist.
    Album:Trouble in Mind Big Bill Broonzy
    • Hey, Hey, Baby 2:54 
    • Frankie And Johnny 2:09 
    • Trouble In Mind 3:19 
    • Joe Turner No. 2 (Blues Of 1890) 5:16 
    • Mule-Ridin' Blues 3:45 
    • When Will I Get To Be Called A Man 2:20 
    • Poor Bill Blues 3:15 
    • Key To The Highway 2:35 
    • Plough-hand Blues 3:27 
    • Digging My Potatoes 3:00 
    • When Things Go Wrong (It Hurts Me Too) 3:00 
    • C.C. Rider 2:35 
    • Saturday Evening Blues 3:35 
    • Shuffle Rag 2:07 
    • Southbound Train 4:51 
    • Hush, Somebody's Calling Me 4:01 
    • Louise 4:01 
    • Black, Brown, And White - (spoken introduction) 1:25 
    • Black, Brown, And White Blues - (sung) 2:44 
    • Willie Mae Blues 3:30 
    • This Train - (spoken introduction) 1:21 
    • This Train (Bound For Glory) - (sung) 3:02 
    • In The Evening - (spoken introduction) 1:05 
    • In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down 4:22 
      I had no music from the 1930's and 1940's Broonzy so I turned to Archive.Org who once again gave me some new music for our play list. It did not disappoint. So to our play list we can add a group of 80 songs that aren't sorted by time, but rather alphabetically:

      Album: Bill Broonzy-01-75 Big Bill Broonzy
      • All By Myself
      • All I Got Belongs To You
      • Boogie Woogie
      • All By Myself 1941
      • Baby, I Done Got Wise
      • Baby Please Don't Go
      • Banker's Blues
      • Big Bill Blues 1927
      • Big Bill Blues
      • Black, Brown and White
      • Black Widow Spider 1936
      • Blackwater Blues
      • Bull Cow Blues 1932
      • C. C. Rider
      • Cotton Choppin' Blues 1939
      • Don't You Be No Fool 1939
      • Frankie And Johnny
      • Friendless Blues 1934
      • Goin' Down This Road
      • Going to Chicago
      • Good Jelly
      • Good Liquor Gonna Carry Me Down 1935
      • Goodnight Irene Goodnight
      • Hattie Blues 1937
      • Hell Ain't But A Mile And A Quarter
      • Hey Hey Baby 1956
      • House Rent Stomp 1951
      • I Don't Want No Women (To Try and Be My Boss)
      • I Feel So Goody 1941
      • I'm Woke Up Now
      • It's a low down dirty shame
      • It's Your Time Now 1938
      • John Henry 1951
      • Just A Dream
      • Key to the Highway
      • Kind Hearted Woman Blues 1952
      • Little City Woman 1953
      • Lonesome
      • Long Tall Mama 1932
      • Midnight Special
      • Mule Riding Blues
      • Night Watchman Blues 1941
      • Old Man Blues 1946
      • Out With The Wrong Woman 1936
      • Pneumonia Blues 1936
      • Rockin' Chair Blues 1940
      • Rukus Juice Blues 1932
      • Saturday Evening Blues 1947
      • Saturday Night Rag 1930
      • Sittin' and Thinkin'
      • Southern Flood Blues 1937
      • Stack O' Lee
      • Starvation Blues 1934
      • Stove Pipe Stomp 1932
      • Stuff They Call Money
      • Summertime Blues 1947
      • Tell Me Baby 1942
      • The Southern Blues 1935
      • Three Spirituals
      • Tomorrow 1951
      • Too Too Train Blues
      • Trouble And Lying Woman 1938
      • Trouble In Mind
      • Trucking Little Woman 1938
      • Unemployment Stomp 1938
      • W.P.A. Blues 1936
      • W.P.A. Rag 1938
      • Water Coast Blues 1949
      • What Did You Do That 1945
      • What's Wrong With Me
      • When Did You Leave Heaven
      • When do I get to be called a man
      • When I Been Drinkin'
      • Willie Mae
      • You Do Me Any Old Way 1937
      • You Got The Best Go 1945
      • All By Myself (with Memphis Slim)
      • Life is Like That (with Memphis Slim)
      • Bright Eyes (With Washboard Sam)
      • Diggin My potatoes (With Washboard Sam)
        That draws us to a close of Old Highway Notes look at Pre Electric Chicago Blues. Thanks for stopping by. Until we meet again, take good care of the Keys To The Highway.

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