THE SALT OF THE EARTH

1930s-1940s
Pre-electric Chicago blues

In between the first generation of Mississippi Delta acoustic blues players of the late 1920s and early '30s (Charley Patton, Skip James, Son House, etc.), and the great electric Chicago blues artists of the late 1940s and '50s (Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' 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.
 
 

BIG BILL BROONZY  (1893-1958)

One of the most influential figures in blues history, his influence on the Stones' music is nevertheless for the most part indirect.

This generation of blues musicians, and Broonzy in particular, though they were appreciated by the Stones, were not as crucial an influence as they were on people like Alexis Korner and those that initiated the London blues scene. The generation gap between the Stones and Korner, therefore, resembles that between Muddy Waters and Broonzy, for example, and is reflected in their musical preferences. Broonzy's acoustic, urban blues was admired by the Stones, but was not what they were aiming for.

Born in Mississippi, Broonzy, a singer and guitar player, moved to Chicago where he started
recording in the late 1920s. Along with Tampa Red, he was instrumental in getting the Chicago blues scene off the ground. He wrote many classics, including the enduring Key to the Highway. In the 1940s and '50s, he became a well-known ambassador for the blues, touring all over the world. He died of cancer in 1958.

Keith encountered Broonzy's music early on in his life, when he was attending art school with Dick Taylor and the musicians there that favored folk and folk-blues. Keith could appreciate the licks that his school mates taught him, but he remained somewhat of an outcast because of his reputation as a rock and roller. His difficult integration into Korner's scene seems to have been a furthering of the same pattern. Broonzy nevertheless made an impact on Keith, just as he did on future Rolling Stone Ron Wood. Ronnie's hearing Broonzy perform Guitar Shuffle is what apparently made him want to learn how to play the guitar.

Key to the Highway has been covered time and again by blues artists, the Stones included. They
recorded an early unreleased version of it in their early years, Clapton sang it with them onstage in 1976, they played it again in 1986 as part of Stu's tribute, and Keith recorded a version which he sang for a Johnnie Johnson album in 1991.

Broonzy. (I would have loved) to seen him live. I missed him just by a hare's breath.
There's a great film of him singing When Did You Leave Heaven in a little club in Belgium.
It was a classic video before its time.

                                                                                    - Keith Richards, 1992

 

TAMPA RED   (1904-1981)

Born in Georgia, Tampa Red moved early on to Chicago where he became known as the "Guitar
Wizard" in the 1920s and 1930s due to his great talent on slide guitar. Tampa Red recorded not only blues but songs called hokum, jug band-derived music that often featured silly, double-entendre lyrics, such as Tight Like That, as well as kazoo solos. He also created many blues classics, such as It Hurts Me Too. He collaborated often with his friend Big Bill Broonzy. Red was a pivot for the blues community of that time. An alcoholic, he stopped recording some time in the 1940s.

Stu and I have cut Worried Life Blues together and it has rather a Big Maceo/Tampa Red
feel to it.

                                                                                    - Keith Richards, 1977

 

SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON  (1914-1948)

There are two Sonny Boy Williamsons in the history of blues music, two legendary harmonica
players, and they are not to be mistaken for one another. In a strange twist of fate, the oldest, Rice Miller, achieved success later, when he became known as one of the fine, if older, exponents of electric Chicago blues. John Lee, the youngest, was, along with Big Bill Broonzy, the most important musician of the pre-electric Chicago scene.

Born in Tennessee, John Lee Williamson moved to Chicago in 1934 and basically invented blues harmonica playing. He was a tremendous influence on Little Walter and all the other harmonica greats who succeeded him. Starting in 1937, Williamson started recording one classic blues track after another, which he wrote and sang. His songs, which include Good Morning School Girl and Bluebird Blues, were later re-interpreted, as with Broonzy's, by the electric Chicago performers of the 1950s. He often cut records with other greats of the era, including Tampa Red, Big Joe Williams and Big Maceo. He was murdered at the age of 34 during a robbery.


Written by Ian McPherson, 2000.
Like all files on Time Is On Our Side, it is the exclusive intellectual property
of Ian McPherson and cannot be duplicated, in any form, without his authorization.

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