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Country Blues

Country blues (also folk blues, rural blues, backwoods blues, or downhome blues) refers to all the acoustic, mainly guitar-driven forms of the blues. After blues' birth in the southern United States, it quickly spread throughout the country (and elsewhere), giving birth to a host of regional styles. These include Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, Texas, Piedmont, Louisiana, West Coast, Atlanta, St. Louis, East Coast, Swamp, New Orleans, Delta and Kansas City blues.


According to Richard Middleton (1990, p. 142) folk blues "was constructed as a distinct discursive category in the early decades of this century [20th], mostly as the result of the activities of record companies, marketing 'old-fashioned' music to rural Southern 'folk' and newly arrived urban dwellers." Also contributing to the documentation of the genre were John and Alan Lomax, Samuel Charters, Paul Oliver, David Evans, Peter B. Lowry, Jeff Todd Titon, Bruce Bastin and William Ferris (all bourgeois, as pointed out by Middleton).

Country blues were constructed from "a much more heterogeneous, fluid musical field" participated in by black and some white people including ragtime, early jazz, religious song, Tin Pan Alley, minstrel, and other theater songs (Oliver 1984 and Russell 1970). Blues was "defined...functionally - it was 'good time music' - or experimentally - blues was a feeling - rather than by reference to any formal characteristics or stereotypes," though, "at the same time, many of those characteristics (pentatonic melody, blue tonality, typical chord progression and stanza patterns, call and response) could be found in other forms and contexts too: in hillbilly and Country music, gospel song, ragtime, jazz and Tin Pan Alley hits."

Titon (1977, p.xvi) points out, however, that "downhome blues not sound like the folk songs of singers like Leadbelly...yet...early downhome blues is best regarded as folk music...despite the dangers of the implication that if downhome blues is folk music, then downhome black Americans must constitute a folk group." (Middleton 1990, p. 144)

Countering the idea of country blues as folk music is the blues individualism. Abbey Niles wrote that the blues have to do with "the element of pure 'self'." W.C. Handy wrote that they are able to "express...personal feeling in a sort of musical soliloquy" (both quoted in Levine 1977, p. 222), and Robert Palmer (1981, p. 75) states that the singer's "involvement becomes both the subject and substance of the work."

"The blues was the most highly personalized, indeed the first almost completely personalized music that Afro-Americans developed. It was the first important form of African-American music in the United States to lack the kind of antiphony that had marked other black musical forms. The call and response form remained, but in blues it was the singer who responded to himself either verbally or on an accompanying instrument. In all these respects blues was the most typically American music Afro-Americans had yet created and represented a major degree of acculturation to the individualized ethos of the larger society." (Levine 1977, p.221)

Middleton describes the rural blues artist as a wanderer and social outsider whose lyrical themes not surprisingly include loneliness, alienation, and travel. He and Keil (1966, p.76) suggests that blues artists may have served as "licensed" critics containing "unflinching the context of its time and place...was positively heroic. Only a man who understands his worth and believes in his freedom sings as if nothing else matters" (Palmer 1981, p. 75).

Szwed (1969, p. 118-9) argues that the "Blues arose as a popular music form in the early 1900s, the period of the first great Negro migration north to the cities...The formal and stylistic elements of the blues seem to symbolize newly emerging social patterns during the crisis period of urbanization...By replacing the functions served by sacred music, the blues eased a transition from land-based agrarian society to one based on mobile wage-labor urbanism."

Notable country blues musicians

Etta Baker (19132006) North Carolina
Robert Belfour (1940- ) Holly Springs, MS
Blind Blake (18931933) Jacksonville, FL
Barbecue Bob (19021931) Atlanta, GA
Big Bill Broonzy (18981958) Chicago, IL
Gus Cannon (18831979) Memphis, TN
R. L. Burnside (19262005) Holly Springs, MS
Bo Carter (18931964) Memphis, TN
Jaybird Coleman (18961950) Birmingham, AL
Elizabeth Cotten (18951987) North Carolina
Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup (19051974) Chicago, Il
Reverend Gary Davis (18961972) New York, NY
Frank Edwards (19102002) Atlanta, GA
Terry Garland (1953- ) Johnson City, TN
Frank Hutchison (18971945) Logan County, WV
David "Honeyboy" Edwards (1915- ) Chicago, IL
Sleepy John Estes (1899 or 19041977) Memphis, TN
Blind Boy Fuller (19071941) North Carolina
King Solomon Hill (18971949) McComb, MS
John Lee Hooker
Lightnin' Hopkins
Son House
Mississippi John Hurt
Skip James
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Willie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson
Robert Johnson
Tommy Johnson
Richard Johnston
Junior Kimbrough (19301998) Holly Springs, MS
Furry Lewis
Mance Lipscomb
Robert Lowery
Doug Macleod
Tommy McClennan
Papa Charlie McCoy
Fred McDowell
Brownie McGhee
Blind Willie McTell
Memphis Minnie
Buddy Moss
Charlie Patton
Robert Petway
Jimmy Rogers
Ramblin' Thomas
Muddy Waters
Arthel "Doc" Watson (1923- ) Deep Gap, North Carolina
Peetie Wheatstraw
Bukka White
Josh White
Robert Pete Williams
"Homesick James" Williamson
Huddie William Ledbetter