Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s Prove it on me blues affirms her independence from orthodox norms by boldly celebrating her lesbianism.
Rainey’s sexual involvement with women was no secret with both colleagues and audiences. The advertisement for the song (above, click to enlarge) shows her dressed as a man, obviously flirting with two women, while a policeman keeps an eye on her.
The song’s lyrics include:
They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me/Sure got to prove it on me
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men
It’s true I wear a collar and tie/Make the wind blow all the while
‘Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me/They sure got to prove it on me
This according to Blues legacies and black feminism: “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Y. Davis (New York: Pantheon, 1998 p. 39)
Today is Rainey’s 130th birthday! Below, the 1928 recording.
The music of Roosevelt Sykes demolishes the notion that blues is too depressing to enjoy.
His romping boogies and risqué lyrics such as Dirty mother, Ice cream freezer, and Peeping Tom characterize his monumental contributions to the blues idiom; he was also responsible for the influential pieces 44 blues, Driving wheel, and Night time is the right time, and his rollicking version of Sweet home Chicago presaged all the covers that would surface later on.
This according to “Roosevelt Sykes could play those 88s” (The African American Registry, 2006).
Today would have been Sykes’s 110 birthday! Below, his signature song The honeydripper.
In an interview, Bobo Jenkins discussed the genesis of his first song and hit recording, Democrat blues.
He wrote the song on election day in 1952, while Eisenhower was being elected. He explained that it was really a song about the Great Depression and the especially hard economic times that plagued the poor during Republican administrations.
“I was workin’ out to Chrysler…and I sat down at the end of the line and wrote that song…The whirrin’ of the machines gives me the beat. It’s like listening to a band play all day. Every song I ever wrote that’s any good came to me on the assembly line.”
In 1954, with the help from John Lee Hooker, he went to Chess Records with his new song. “So I goes to Chicago with my guitar and a little amplifier, and the man says ‘What you got now? Usually everybody comes from Mississippi and brings a hit with them.’ I said, well, ‘I’m from Mississippi.’ See, I was lyin’ ‘cause I was livin’ in Detroit, but it sound good to hear it.”
This according to Bobo Jenkins: A bluesman’s journey by Fred Reif (Detroit: Detroit Music History, 2001).
Today would have been Jenkins’s 100th birthday! Below, the original Chess recording.
B.B. King’s guitar technique drew from many sources, both direct and indirect.
At first he functioned primarily as a vocalist, making little idiomatic use of the instrument; in subsequent recordings the influence of T-Bone Walker became quite apparent.
He also adapted embellishments used by earlier blues guitarists (Lonnie Johnson) as well as those of jazz guitarists (Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Bill Jennings). King’s distinctive finger tremolo was inspired by Bukka White’s bottleneck style.
This according to “B.B. King: Analysis of the artist’s evolving guitar technique” by Jerry Richardson (American Music Research Center journal VI  pp. 89–107.
Today would have been King’s 90th birthday! Below, live in 1974.
Using conventional musical devices for blues compositions as a basis, Willie Dixon expanded the possibilities for blues songwriting by introducing elements from pop song forms, using a quatrain refrain text form with longer musical structures than a 12-bar form, and amalgamating the 12-bar/a-a-b form with the 16-bar/quatrain refrain form in different sections of a composition.
Dixon also helped artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Koko Taylor to intensify their public images; his development of their performing personae is relevant to the tradition of the blues as a secular religion, and Dixon’s casting of them originated in traditional black badman tales circulated in the postbellum South.
This according to Willie Dixon’s work on the blues: From the early recordings through the Chess and Cobra years, 1940–1971 by Mitsutoshi Inaba, a dissertation accepted by the University of Oregon in 2005.
Today is Dixon’s 100th birthday! Below, he sings his own Back door man, first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1960; the song is a classic example of Dixon’s innovations in blues song forms.
BONUS: The inimitable Howlin’ Wolf recording:
Junior Wells began working as a street musician when he was 7 years old, and when he was 18 he replaced Little Walter as Muddy Waters’s harmonica player.
In 1958 he started performing with the guitarist Buddy Guy, and their band became a fixture on the blues circuit until they went separate ways in 1978.
Some of Wells’s best recorded work came during this time, on tight, exciting records made for Delmark, like the 1965 Hoodoo man blues. The band became a favorite of rock musicians, and during that period Wells and Guy played to rock audiences at the Fillmore West and made a State Department tour of East Africa; in 1970 they toured with Canned Heat and The Rolling Stones.
This according to “Junior Wells, central player in Chicago blues, is dead at 63” by Ben Ratliff (The New York times CXLVII/51,040 [17 January 1998] p. A11).
Today would have been Wells’s 80th birthday! Below, Wells and Guy at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in the band’s heyday.
The roadhouse is an American institution—the little bar on the edge of town that comes alive when the sun comes down with back-to-basics roots music. Texas is the honorary home of roadhouse music, and Stevie Ray Vaughan was its uncrowned king.
Vaughan arrived in a blaze of guitar glory in the early 1980s, following on the trail of his Texas forebears from electric guitar pioneers like Eddie Durham and Charlie Christian to blues legends like T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Albert Collins, and his own big brother Jimmie.
This according to Roadhouse blues: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Texas R&B by Hugh Gregory (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003).
Today would have been Vaughan’s 60th birthday! Below, live in 1982.
BONUS: One of his legendary Hendrix covers.
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown (1924–2005) spent his career fighting purism by synthesizing old blues, country, jazz, Cajun, and R & B styles.
Asked in an interview about his early blues-based recordings, he gave a practical answer: “I had to sound like that because I was just starting out. Seeing as how I was a newcomer, I obliged.”
“But after a while, I thought, ‘Why do I have to be one of these old cryin’ and moanin’ guitar players always talking bad about women?’ So I just stopped. That’s when I started having horns and piano in my band, and started playing arrangements more like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, rather than some old hardcore Mississippi Delta stuff.”
This according to “Guitarist Clarence Gatemouth Brown dies at 81” by Ben Ratliff (The New York times 12 September 2005).
Today is Brown’s 90th birthday! Above demonstrating his multi-instrumental skills. Below, at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 2004.
An examination of Bessie Smith’s first two released recordings—Down hearted blues and Gulf Coast blues—demonstrates that her interpretative originality and expressive individuality were evident from the start of her recording career in 1923.
Full transcriptions of her vocal line on each of these recordings combined with detailed descriptions and analysis of the pitch content, the main rhythmic and melodic characteristics, and the melodic-harmonic and text-music relationships reveal the micro-components of Smith’s early vocal tendencies, demonstrating how, although Smith’s phrases display some similarities with each other, they constantly vary in imaginative ways, matching her with the great jazz improvisers.
This according to “Bessie Smith: Down hearted blues and Gulf coast blues revisited by Alona Sagee (Popular music XXVI/1 [January 2007] pp. 117–127).
Today is Bessie Smith’s 120th birthday! Above, the singer in 1923, the year of the recordings; below, the recordings themselves.
In 2010 Johnny Winter decided to make recordings of some of the classic blues songs that had inspired him to become a musician. The result was his 2011 album Roots.
“The whole thing was a lot of fun,” Winter said in an interview. “They were songs I loved and grew up with, that I was influenced by.”
Recalling imbibing Delta blues from the source, as a sideman for Muddy Waters, he said “Playing with Muddy meant so much to me as an artist. It was a big pleasure, a big thrill. I loved every second I spent with him.”
This according to “Living blues talks to Johnny Winter and Paul Nelson” by Steve Sharp (Living blues XLII/5:215 [October 2011] p. 41).
Today is Johnny Winter’s 70th birthday! Above, a publicity photo from the album’s release; below, Winter and his band plays Dust my broom, a song first recorded by Robert Johnson and later covered by Muddy Waters; the video is from Winter’s tour supporting Roots.