[A guest post by Chris Donaghue. – AC]
Most people think rock ‘n roll started in the 50’s. But that’s just when white people started doing it. The first rock ‘n roll song is considered to be Rocket 88 from 1951, by The Kings of Rhythm, on Sun Records, (distortion also comes from this band). This is what Alan Cross has stated on his radio show. But that might be because it actually has the word rock in it. I think it was Mick Morganfield, because he played the feedback of magnetic amplification instead of fighting it. He learned to surf on electricity, and rock began.
The First Electric Blues Players
Muddy Waters, (born McKinley Morganfield), the 1st widely successful electric bluesman, moved upstream from the fertile Mississippi mud to Chicago in ’43, and started playing electric guitar the next year. He did one recording for the Library of Congress before he left Mississippi, Country Blues/ b. side: I Be’s Troubled. His first recording is ironic considering that some see rock ‘n roll as a melding of the blues and country music. Muddy moved north as part of a massive migration of black people from the south of The US during WWII to work in factories that were part of the war effort. He did his first recordings in Chicago in ‘46. But Muddy wasn’t the first, just the most widely successful.
The first electric blues guitarist is thought to be T-Bone Walker, who started playing around 1940. The electric guitar was first made available in 1928, but was mainly played by jazz guitarists. He recorded Mean Old World in 1942. And Johnny Harper, author of T-Bone Walker: Blues Guitar Godfather, called it, “the first important blues recordings on the electric guitar.” T-Bone recorded in Chicago in 1944, & 1945 for the Rhumboogie label. And John Lee Hooker was active in Detroit at the time and started recording in 1948. But things coalesced in Chicago around Chess records.
Chess was originally called Aristocrat Records, and Muddy began recording for them in 1947. Chess released singles and albums by people like Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Howl’n Wolf, and many of the other progenitors of rock ‘n roll. So rock ‘n roll was around before white people heard much of it. It was originally the music of displaced people and their interaction with the society around them. It’s the story of the troubles that black people had with society that uprooted them from Africa, and then from the southern U.S. to the north. And the music is about the record labels and other artists that didn’t give proper credit. But mostly the blues was about how black people felt.
Because this music comes out of a history of oppression, the blues is a synonym for sadness, and the cultural expression of it. But there is also a longing and a faith in freedom. The Blues was a way for black people to take their suffering and turn it into presentations of many emotions. But the music is about triumph over sadness. In many ways early rock ‘n roll is the story of immigrants attempting to make their way as outsiders in North America, and the cultural clashing as well as mixing that resulted. This mixing went on to be the highest selling music ever, and that just might bode well for culture to come. And these feelings ignited many kinds of music, from rock ‘n roll, to soul, to funk, to hip hop, to post doo-wap, and dub-step, and whatever step is next for music.
If the actual credit is given back to the innovators, then we can be more honest about the future than we have been about the past, and those gifts the originators of modern pop music bestowed on all us listeners. And those of us who want to see a more multicultural and equitable world, just might get to see more of that. I feel that is happening in Canada, but at the same time society seems even more polarized and extreme after the pandemic. But I think there is more singing the blues away to be done. I think it’s what we all need.
But rock ‘n roll represents perhaps the first time that different cultures collaborated so much to create an artform. There was a huge clash between society and the civil rights movement in that era when white and black music were coming together for the first time. Some white people really helped with the civil rights movement, like The Freedom Riders. However with music, white people appropriated much and gave back little. But the beginning of a multicultural cultural style is not just a significant difference, it is almost unheard of. The funny thing about rock ‘n roll being a blend of blues and country is that the blues is considered a very black style, and country a very white style. And now rock is mostly played by white people. But it is still a style that, while continuing to morph, is rooted in a poly-cultural beginning.
With other black styles of music, like jazz, white people played it, and even got famous for it, like Glenn Miller, or Lawrence Welk, but were never considered innovators. And there wasn’t any other music besides rock that became something that mostly white people did instead. But there have still been great black rock bands like Living Colour & TV on the Radio. And there were integrated bands like Sly & the Family Stone, Santana, Antibalas & Jaluka. But the blues from before the 50’s is what influenced most rock musicians of the 60’s.
The Rolling Stones named themselves after a Muddy Waters song. When the Beatles first got to America, Paul McCartney was asked what he wanted to see? “Muddy Waters,” he said. “Who?” The reporter asked. “Don’t you even know your own famous people?,” he responded. And I named my first business, “Muddied Water Co.” Because I considered him the originator of rock ‘n roll. And Winnipeg is Cree for “muddy water.” And there is even an investment research company called Muddy Waters. But apparently the company is named after the Chinese proverb, “Muddy waters makes it easy to catch fish.” Yet muddy water means, ‘to make things unclear.’ Like guitar feedback. But what came before Muddy?
Before the Blue Notes
Before the blues was an instrumental or guitar style, it was a ‘call and response’ system of signals and entertainment in the cotton fields of The U.S. south. After it became codified, “the blues,” was considered a musical style that played “blue notes,” the notes that were usually considered discordanant. The blues often employed the semi-tone notes in between notes that are often employed by slide guitar players. The use of these micro-tones is something that was considered undesirable, but appropriated for new melodies, for new effect, to express different emotions than found in most pop music. Kind of like the tritones of Purple Haze, or how Muddy, and Jimi Hendrix made feedback part of the music, or the way Drake uses auto-tune as an actual instrument on Passion Fruit.
In the early days, the people forced to pick cotton were playing African drums in the fields. But the drums were banned, since talking drums can send semantic messages in languages and codes that the plantation owners couldn’t understand. Talking in English they could understand. And the human voice is hard to silence.
Out of this call and response style of singing came the melodic and rhyming pattern of 12-bar singing compositions.12 bar refers to 3 verses of lyrics of 4 bars each where the first verse repeats and then the third is a play on the first verse, or a ‘response.’ This is often sung by a chorus of people listening to a lead singer. (The song structure known as AAB), like in the fields. Now it is seen in the verses and choruses of so many styles of songs from Toronto to Timbuktu that are now considered verse/chorus, verse/chorus, or ABAB. And the call and response of the fields was replicated by blues singers who responded to themselves with their guitars. That style of playing became the solo’s or instrumental sections of songs known as bridges, or a part C. And now most pop-songs go AB ABC AB, or verse/chorus, verse/chorus, bridge, verse/chorus.
12-bar went from a singing style, to a guitar style, to being the underlying motif and song structure for many musics that came after it, almost all of pop music really. Even the music that is no longer 12-bar in structure is still influenced by the chord progressions and melodies and the storytelling lyrics of blues songs.
The first person to publish a song in the pattern known as 12 bar, was trumpeter W.C. Handy. The Memphis Blues from 1909. This song was the beginning of “race records,” and credited as the inspiration for the “foxtrot” style of dance by Vernon & Irene Castle. Then this singing style got accompanied by guitar, and singer/songwriters were born. The first blues guitarist is thought to be Sylvester ‘Curly’ Weaver, who recorded Guitar Blues & Guitar Rag, in 1923.
The First Modern Singer-songwriters
Bob Dylan is considered the first successful singer/songwriter, but he didn’t invent it, he just made it big. Before him there were songwriters of the Mississippi delta like Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Little Willie John. These are some of the people who influenced T-Bone, Muddy & Howl’n Wolf and the other Chess Records artists in Chicago. And they influenced Chuck Berry who influenced Jimi Hendrix, who influenced TV on the Radio, & Michael Kiwanuka. But rock really begins with the electrification of the delta blues.
First blues turned into jazz, then came the influence of country music melded into blues, which became rock and roll. But in between, jazz influenced country in the form of swing country. This upbeat dance oriented form is the influence of country that I hear in early upbeat rock ‘n roll, and the twanger stuff I hear in the ballads, like Stand By Me. And then rock ‘n roll became a much more varied and multi-cultural music in the 60’s. And then you had people like Jimi Hendrix & Robbie Robertson, whom Muddy appeared with in The Last Waltz.
Hendrix is known as a blues guy, but he only released one 12-bar composition in his lifetime: Red House. But the melding of blues, which Jimi was steeped in, and the amalgamation of many other influences that ranged from the simplest folk music of Dylan, to devices for the electronic manipulation of sound, became the template for so much more. And some of these effects were co-invented by Hendrix with Roger Meyer. After Hendrix melded elements of black and white music, he made rock ‘n roll something that wasn’t people ripping off the blues, or trying to express a pain that Muddy didn’t feel white people could know. But ripped off is what many blues musicians got.
What Muddy brought to Chicago was the stories of the delta blues, which were the story of a displaced, and oppressed people who wanted to tell their stories. And then Muddy migrated to Chicago which spread the music and stories of an uprooted people even further. The melding of blues and electricity lead to many new styles of music, rock ‘n roll being the first. But black storytelling evolved through many styles into hip hop. And someone once made a prediction about black music migrating even further north.
The Migration of Black Music
20 years ago I saw an interview on T.V. with Chuck D. from Public Enemy, at a music conference in Toronto on the future of music. And he said that one day there would be a new black music coming out of Toronto. He said it would be similar to black music in The U.S., but not quite the same. What Chuck foresaw was Drake and Abel Tesfaye. Their music is known for being a more emotional, more melancholy take on hip hop and RnB. This original feeling of sadness that the blues portrayed is now being done in the black music of Canada that is different in exactly the way that Chuck D. predicted. Basically Mr. D. realised that multi-culturalism is not a new word for cosmopolitan, and as a result of multiculturalism, black people would make something new out of this different cultural climate and milieu.
What someone like Drake represents is the mixing of multiple cultures that Canada has long promised but rarely delivered on. But what Chuck D. saw coming, he saw coming a long time. He said that people could say he was only talking up Toronto because the conference was there. But he explained that he’d played Toronto with Public Enemy many times. And he said that it was much like The U.S. in that it was mostly black people at their shows. But he said he didn’t see the gangs and the colours. It wasn’t the Jamaicans in one corner, and the Haitians in another. And he said that the fact that he couldn’t tell what people’s backgrounds were, made him forsee a new black music coming out of Toronto one day that would be more pan-African, but also even more multi-ethnic than what he’d seen in the past.
Cultural Appropriation, Theft, and Mixing
This cultural mixing is in part what happened when Muddy moved within The U.S. and added the cultural influences of two places into his music. This spirit of mixing influences continues. The way a delta bluesman sounded different in the city has become the way that black music is different in Canada where the weather makes us more melancholy. That kind of emotion characterizes the music of black Canadian musicians, and other storytellers from Canada. And multi-culturalism makes us influenced by many cultures. But there was so much that was not just influential, but outright stolen from the early bluesmasters.
When rock ‘n roll took off in England in the early 60’s, many of the biggest bands played all, or mostly covers of black American songs from the 50’s or earlier. Most openly credited them with the influence, and the songs, but some didn’t. Somehow it seemed people thought the bluesmen and women like Bessie Smith, who wrote When The Levee Breaks would be forgotten. Led Zeppelin credited themselves as writing songs by her, Leadbelly, Willie Dixon, and others.
But even when early bluesmasters weren’t being ripped off directly, they were not being properly credited. A New Yorker article from July 5th 2023, by John Seabrook, about a copyright case against Ed Sheeran on behalf of Marvyn Gaye’s estate states that:
“Almost all the major African American contributions to American music—ragtime, jazz, swing, hip-hop—were built on rhythmic innovations that weren’t transcribed in sheet music and copyrighted. (The bent third and seventh blue notes that lie at the heart of the blues can’t even be written in twelve-note chromatic-scale notation.) Ingrid Monson, the Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music at Harvard, who also served as an expert witness for the Gaye family in the “Blurred Lines” trial, told me, “There could be no copyright system less suited to rewarding the creativity of African American music than the one we have. It was obviously modelled on classical music, and on the idea that a real piece of music, one that was worthy of copyright, would be written in notation.””
The credits for Led Zeppelin have been changed, but the idea that the pioneers would be forgotten is very sad. But the future of diversity looks different in the music of the mutli-ethnic neighbourhoods even further north of Chicago, in Toronto. Other black musicians that are making a different kind of music there include Jasmyn Burke, and her band Weaves, who incorporate many styles and influences into a modern rock that is far from the blues, but owes a distant debt, like so many of us do to the black innovators of so much of modern pop music, and culture.
And the additions to culture of people like Muddy and Drake are gifts to us all. The kind of mixing that is continuing and coming to a new level in Toronto is carrying on the mixed race, and mixed influences of other musicians like The Afro-Celt Soundsystem, Johnny Clegg, and TV on the Radio.
Multiculturalism: Cultural Cross-Pollination, Multi-Culti, or, The Canadian Way.
But the new kind of black music coming out of Toronto that Chuck D. foresaw 20 years ago is fascinating to see here now. It’s nice when optimistic predictions of the future come true. It’s great to see the kind of cultural cross-pollination going on that can be an antidote to the cultural appropriation of the past. Multiculturalism really isn’t a new word for cosmopolitan. It is a new kind of culture that is attempting to lower the barriers between peoples of all kinds. It’s exciting to see. If it continues the way it can, we might have a blueprint for how all people can get along, the world over.
Listen to each other. Call and respond, jam along. Make up your own song. Stand together, on the same stage maybe. We don’t have a great history of getting along, or listening to each other. But music is a language that everyone can understand and feel. It needs no interpreter, translator, or sub-titles. Or, as the old Zimbabwaen saying goes, “If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.” And it might be the best way for us to continue to teach each other about ourselves, and in so doing, learn about ourselves.
I saw that Chuck D. saw that on TV 20 years ago. And now the future is here. I wonder what will come of this new version of pop music? And almost all pop music after rock ‘n roll really owes a debt to the blues Muddy brought north to Chicago. Now things are moving upstream in Toronto. But the whole world could use some new ideas to dance to. Some new human intimacy that we all need post-covid. I can’t wait to hear it, see it, and feel it.