Presented by NFA member and guest blogger, Paulette Brockington, whose organization Artspectrum/A Company of Dancers is the host of the American Lindy Hop Championships.
The blues has many flavors or styles. I prefer my blues like a dirty martini. It inspires movement innate in each of us since birth. As children we spin and jump then steady ourselves like surfers on a board riding a wave in the ocean. Sinuous waves or enveloping waves that treat us to endorphin rushes.
Some people hear the blues and don’t recognize it as such, because they hold preconceived notions about what it is and what it does. As dancers we look for the hidden meaning in musical notes. Once deciphered, we translate it for the world to see.
As a musical entity, the blues began to take shape in the antebellum south. The earliest purveyors of the music used the plaintive sound of their voices to cut to the heart of the matter. Their woe was visceral but could change to sounds of joy. By the early 20th century we had traveling troubadours who sang at house parties, in juke joints and as buskers on street corners throughout the south. They were mostly black males. But when it came to recording, however, the females led the way starting with Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920.
See how much you know about the blues with this short, educational quiz.
(Answers at the end)
It was a woman, a protégé of Ma Rainey, who truly became the foremost blues vocalist. She was called the ‘Empress of the Blues.’ Some of her hits were “Down Hearted Blues,” “The St. Louis Blues,” and “Backwater Blues.”
Who was she?
o Koko Taylor
o Bessie Smith
o Ethel Waters
o Billie Holiday
Did you notice the subtle name change from blues to jazz from the Ragtime Era to the Swing Era? All those popular dance bands syncopated their blues songs. Fletcher Henderson led the most successful of the blues Jazz Age dance bands.
Robert Johnson is, without question, the most celebrated figure in blues history. The voice, the lyrics and his guitar playing are legendary. He died in 1938 at 27, leaving behind a legacy of 29 recorded songs (41 with alternate tracks). The word is that he sold his soul to the devil to be that good.
Do you know how he met his maker?
o We don’t know that he died. He just disappeared.
o He died of pneumonia.
o He committed suicide.
o He was shot by a jealous husband.
The beauty of the blues at that time is that the songs were not the creation of people hunched over music sheets in Tin Pan Alley. They were conceived by the artists who performed them. Now dancers are caught up in patterns. But what is really attractive is what happens once the step patterns are thrown away; you really listen to the music and let it envelop you like a wave. So, like that solitary singer of yore, its result is yours alone.
Back then it was rare for colleagues and peers to cover another person’s work, at least until we get to the Rock Era. It’s generally pretty easy to identify classic songs with the performer. What do you know about Muddy Waters?
Which of the following classics was NOT one of his compositions?
o I Got My Mojo Working’
o Mannish Boy
o Rollin’ Stone
o Honey Hush
Jimmy Reed was another famous bluesman of the Chicago school. Many of his bigger hits on the black charts found broader appeal to the general public and made appearances on the Hot 100 charts. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
Which of the following songs was NOT a Jimmy Reed recording?
o Ain’t That Loving You Baby
o Hush, Hush
o Big Boss Man
o Ain’t Nothing you Can Do
Many blues artists, who may have been great, somehow fell through the cracks and never recorded. Other recorded a few sides and were never heard of again. In 1928 this singer was lucky enough to record 7 tracks for Okeh Records. None were big sellers at the time. He returned home to Mississippi, worked as a sharecropper and day laborer, and performed on weekends at local parties. He never had the chance to record again. Okeh Records folded with the onset of the Great Depression. He was rediscovered in 1963. His most famous piece was “Candyman Blues.”
Who is he?
o Brownie McGhee
o Sleepy John Estes
o Mississippi John Hurt
o Funny Papa Smith
Not all blues styles are about feeling blue otherwise we’d have never made it to the Swing Era. Jump blues is playful to the point of being downright raucous. Listen to these songs from the 1940s: “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” “Caldonia” and Choo Choo Ch-Boogie.”
What blues artist made those songs major hits on the contemporary charts of the day?
o Wynonie Harris
o Louis Jordan
o Amos Milburn
o Joe Liggins
The State of Louisiana has long been among the geographical areas in the forefront of ‘roots’ music in the U.S. New Orleans was the cradle of jazz, Dixieland style. Blues figured more prominently in other parts of the state. But Louisiana is also the home of Huey Ledbetter, better known as “Leadbelly.” He played adaptations of traditional folk songs beginning with the turn of the 20th century. He wasn’t discovered until the early 1930s and his repertoire was enormous. Many of those songs became identified with him.
Which of the following songs was NOT?
o Goodnight Irene
o Hellhound on My Trail
o Rock Island Line
o Midnight Special
Born in 1925, this bluesman was considered the reigning “King of the Blues” during the last half of the 20th century.
Who has the hits “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Rock Me Baby,” and “Paying the Cost to be Boss?"
o John Hammond, Jr.
o James Brown
o B.B. King
o Buddy Guy
Most bluesman composed their own songs and perform them exclusively. The exception to the rule was Willie Dixon, a bass man who backed up many greats live and in studio sessions starting in the 1940s. He made his mark with Chess Records for close to 20 years as a composer and arranger for other artists. His great collaborator from 1960-65 was Howlin’ Wolf.
Which of the following songs was NOT a collaboration of theirs?
o Little Red Rooster
o Singing the Blues
o Back Door Man
Born in Mississippi he migrated to Detroit in 1943 becoming a staple in the blues scene. His discography is enormous but only 9 were popular enough to make it onto Billboard R&B chart. “Boogie Chillen” and “I’m in the Mood” were number ones. He also made a cameo appearance in “the Blues Brother” movie.
Who is he?
o Otis Rush
o John Lee Hooker
o Lightnin’ Slim
o Peewee Clayton
A lot has been said about the influence that the blues has had on the development of rock and roll music over the years. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and many other bands had their roots in blues music. So if you have a hankering to see a blues artist in action you should. Until then you might want to try out one of these songs. The blues crosses dance genres. So paint a picture your own picture and create your own unique patterns.
Hoochie Coochie Man - Muddy Waters
The Thrill Is Gone - BB King
Stone Crazy - Buddy Guy
I Just Want To Make Love To You - Etta James
I’m Tore Down - Freddie King
Call It Stormy Monday - T-Bone Walker
Boogie Chillen - John Lee Hooker
Let’s Work Together - Canned Heat
Groove Me - King Floyd
Sweet Georgia Brown - Brother Bones & his Shadows
Good Foot - Pokey Bear
Hound Dog - Big Mama Thornton
Down Home Blues - ZZ Hill
Born Under A Bad Sign - Albert King
She Just Wants to Dance - Keb Mo
Lie to Me - Jonny Lang
She Caught the Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride - Taj Mahal
Honey Hush - Albert Collins
It’s Your Voodoo Workin’ - Bloodiest Saxophone feat. Jai Malano
Love on the Brain - Rihanna
If one of these songs doesn’t work for you try this one, "Sweet Home Chicago." Robert Johnson wrote it but Freddie King works it out.
Answers: Bessie Smith, pneumonia, Honey Hush, Ain’t That Loving You Baby, Mississippi John Hurt, Louis Jordan, Hellhound on My Trail, BB King, Singing the Blues, John Lee Hooker
Paulette Brockington is Artistic Director of Detroit’s A Company of Dancers. She is on the faculties of WCCCD, the Worship Arts Conservatory, & a Master Teacher at Michigan State University. She is a former World Fast Dance Champion, World Swing Dance Champion, & Open Hustle Champion. She directs the American Lindy Hop Championships, coaches, & teaches around the world.