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Discovering Differences in the Blues: The Rural and Urban Genres

by Patrick Joseph O’Connor

The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn, 1991
(Pittsburg State University)
Reprinted in the book Wichita Blues: Discovery

The blues has fascinated writers and ethnologists since the early part of this century. Some dismissed it as primitive, though evocative, extemporaneous snatches of song. Other ethnomusicologists and anthropologists have granted the blues a dignity, finding in the lyrics a poignant eloquence, and in the haunting melodies a simplicity that adeptly describes the plight of the African American of earlier days.

Between 1905 and 1908, Howard Odum, a folklorist, collected 115 songs from Mississippi and Georgia, printing them in an article for The Journal of American Folklore (24, 1911). Half of these were blues--folk music originally composed or learned from others. This was the first such attempt to document the music.

Another important study with field work was done by John Lomax in 1917. While he held a somewhat distressed view that blues singers were incapable of expressing themselves with a rigid point of view but instead "shape their lyrics to suit their needs and current mood," Lomax played an important role. He discovered many blues artists, traveling the South to record them for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and '40s.

The black poet Sterling Brown wrote "The Blues as Folk Poetry" in 1930 for an anthology, Folk-say, A Regional Miscellany. He called for a closer inspection of blues lyrics, stressing the folk tradition of the blues and making the point that the lyrics were poetry for the people.

W.C. Handy, the famous black composer, published an autobiography in 1941. Many of his musical themes, as he related, came from the folk blues he heard. His claim to be "the father of the blues" was derided by Rudi Blesh, a writer on the blues in the 1940s, who bestowed that title on Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton.


Blesh moved away from the folklorist categories of folk and popular (sheet music) blues, instead categorizing the music as archaic, classic, and postclassic. This allowed the rural or folk blues to be classified as archaic; the early recorded female vocalists such as Bessie Smith or Victoria Spivey who were accompanied by piano or ensembles featuring horns were termed classic; and postclassic was the urban blues which had emerged in the late 1930s.

Modern writers have accepted these categories, using folk, country and rural interchangeably, letting stand the classic nomenclature, but adopting urban or city blues instead of postclassic.

In 1959 Samuel Charters' book, The Country Blues, began a revival of interest in the folk blues. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, folk music of all types came into vogue. It was during this renewal that many white performers took up the blues.

Another serious student of the blues is Paul Oliver, a British architect. Oliver has a detachment and appreciation for the blues as an art that make his several books on the subject worthwhile reading. His survey, The Story of the Blues, was published in 1969. David Evans, William Barlow, and Bruce Bastin are also among the upper tier of blues scholars.

First Hearing

In 1903 W.C. Handy was sitting in a railroad station in Tutwiler, Mississippi. As he waited for a train, a "lean, ragged, and loose-jointed black with toes poking out of his shoes" played a guitar outside on the street, using a knife blade to fret the strings. He heard:

Goin' where the Southern cross the dog


Repeat (Handy, 78)

Handy thought it the weirdest music he had ever heard. This music was the blues. Handy had been playing band music and popular songs of the day. He found this new plaintive style oddly compelling.

This is a remarkable story in that it shows the disparity in taste and lifestyle between the small group of middle-class blacks and the majority who were far less fortunate. Also, it shows that the blues came from the fields and hollows of the South, was of no easily traceable origin, and that it had a remarkable effect on blacks.

David Evans believes that the first generation of blacks born into freedom, following the Civil War, found the differences between their expectations and the reality of their experience to be disturbing enough to warrant releasing their disappointment in the blues (Evans, 40). The music of the slaves was as controlled as any other aspect of their lives. Drums were forbidden on plantations for fear they would be used to communicate plans of uprisings or escapes. Spiritual music was allowed, as well as work songs which seemed to help blacks abide the merciless rigors of field work. Field hollers, sung a capella, come closest to the disturbing message of the later blues:

Well er workin' man

Ain't nothin' but a dog;

Well I'm worried now

But I won't be worried long (White, 292-293)

This holler was collected in 1915 in Alabama. The most common surviving lyrical structure in blues repeats the first verse, allowing the message to be easily apprehended, with the final verse offering some answer or additional insight:

I got a letter this mornin'; how do you reckon it read?


It said hurry, hurry; the gal you love is dead

(Son House, "Death Letter")

There were touring black acts before 1900. Their repertories were stock minstrel songs, glorifying the old South and the happy "darkies," as well as current dance tunes, cakewalks, waltzes, and novelty numbers. Ragtime was the rage in the 1890s and provided a lively counterpart to the sentimental ballads of the period. Ragtime made use of syncopation to build tension in the composition, paving the way for a closer representation of the feelings and emotions of the African American. It was originally played on piano or banjo--a direct descendant of an African stringed instrument. Ragtime was quick tempo. The blues was also needed to display another side of the African American experience.

As the blues made its way from the backwaters and canebrakes to the towns on the minstrel circuits and the cities that had brass bands, the popularity of this new music grew astonishingly. It was a new century, a mechanical age that saw flight, electronic communication, and other marvels. The plain truth of blues lyrics and the fresh, sharp musical arrangements that took the traditional three-chord structure of Scots-Irish ballads and introduced flatted thirds and sevenths (the blue notes that give the distinguishing mournful quality) did much to focus attention on black culture.

World War I

The First World War brought about labor shortages in the North. During the conflict, European immigration ceased and the plants cried for help, encouraging the blacks to leave the South for Detroit, Chicago, and other manufacturing centers. The pay was a good deal more than they could make in Alabama or Mississippi sharecropping or working as servants, the major occupations available to them. The South's newspapers understood the economic calamity that would befall their communities if these laborers and consumers left in great numbers. They tried to stir up interest in stopping the migration through editorials warning the blacks that no one could take care of them as well as their "friends" in the South, and by urging the plantation owners and businesses to offer incentives to keep blacks there. This had little effect however, for in the North in 1919 men could earn $25.00 a week and women $15.00, as opposed to the standard dollar a day in the South.

As a result, between 1910 and 1920 the African American population in Detroit increased 611 percent, and that of Chicago 308 percent. Other Northern cities experienced similar influxes. When the War ended and the troops came home, race riots occurred--the worst in Chicago in 1919--as the soldiers found their jobs taken by blacks. Some African American returned to the South:

I'm Alabama bound


Ef de train don't run

I got a mule to ride,

Fur I'm Alabama bound (White, 306)

Recorded Music: Classic Blues

The next major force in spreading black culture was a technological marvel: the phonograph. "There's fourteen million Negroes in our great country and they will buy records if recorded by one of their own, because we are the only folks that can sing and interpret hot jazz songs just off the griddle correctly." So said Perry Bradford, a band leader who managed to get a contract with Okeh Records for the black Mamie Smith in 1920. Although she was accompanied by white musicians and performed two popular songs, it was a source of racial pride for African Americans. The record made money and six months later, Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" backed by her own band, the Jazz Hounds.

Selling 75,000 records at a dollar apiece in one month, "Crazy Blues" showed record companies that there was a market for the blues. This began the heyday for recorded blues, forever changing the method of song transfer, from that of actual attendance at a performance, or through sheet music, to the remarkable ease of hearing a song any time at all in any area of the country. The standardization of blues schools, based on locale and primary, influential musicians, had begun.

In the early 1920s, the classic blues was at its height, with either a lone pianist or the jazz band instrumentation of banjo, horns, clarinets, and drums backing the female blues stylist. This was city music, fitting the mood of blacks recently come to the urban centers, removed from the lone guitarist or string bands of the South.

Even though the 1920s was a decade of national prosperity, blacks experienced difficulty:

Mister rich man, rich man, help stop these hard, hard times


Give the poor man a chance, help stop these hard, hard times

Now the War is over, poor man must live the same as you


If it wasn't for the poor man, mister rich man what would you do? (Bessie Smith, 1928)

Moving to the cities helped the blacks' conditions temporarily, but they were relegated to ghettos and menial jobs once the war-related manufacturing ceased. They had sacrificed the clean country conditions for upward mobility but found it had stalled in the 1920s.

The classic blues satisfied the urge toward sophistication, allowing the rough blues to be refined and made more acceptable. But blacks were beginning to miss their homes as well as the real spirit of the music.

Rural Blues

The rural blues was very much alive in the country dances and little towns of the South, performed by males. Men were suited to the rough touring life of the traveling musician, singing on street corners or in juke joints (shacks that served liquor).

Beginning in 1925, Papa Charlie Jackson, Blind Blake, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, among others, made substantial numbers of recordings and the market was still expanding. Rural blues suddenly was popular up North and the real-life lyrics detailing the homelands of listeners helped sell the records.

I got the blues so bad, it hurts my feet to walk


It have settled on my brain and it hurts my tongue to talk

(Blind Lemon Jefferson, 1927)

Although the above tune, "Lonesome House Blues," was written by George Perkins, Jefferson fit the mold of the itinerant blues man, writing many of his songs and originally performing them on the streets of Dallas. In a remarkably apt, tragic coda, he perished in a blizzard in Chicago in 1930. He was advertised as singing the "old fashioned" blues and was one of the most inventive guitarists that stayed in the folk blues vein.

Mississippi, specifically the Delta region, has produced more blues men of enduring influence than any other place on the globe. Delta blues is a classification in the rural type all to itself, often making use of open tuning so that notes can be made with a knife or bottleneck slide across the neck, giving the melody an eerie, whining sound.

One of the greats in this style was Charley Patton. Paul Oliver calls him "one of the most important figures in the whole story of the blues" (Story, 31). Born around 1885--births of blacks at the time were haphazardly recorded--Patton was one of twelve children. He lived on Dockery's Plantation (a commercial farming operation) from his teens until he was thirty-four. Dockery's was almost like a village in its size and layout, and it proved to be a good environment for the blues. Patton learned much of his style from a Henry Sloan who never recorded. Patton played for dances and weddings until he moved to Merigold, Mississippi. At the age of 40, he moved to the larger town of Clarksdale.

Charley Patton was an extremely popular performer, part Cherokee. He was small in stature but possessed a booming voice. His songs told of his experiences--much the hallmark of the blues. The vivid imagery and historical setting--plantations, high sheriffs, and the devastating floods and dry spells that occurred in the Delta--coupled with Patton's intense delivery and singing slide, can be enjoyed as much today as when they were purchased on the breakable, fast-wearing 78s. He died in 1934 from heart disease, exacerbated by his livelihood.

Eddie "Son" House was born in 1902 just outside of Clarksdale. House did the variety of jobs available to blacks in the South--picking moss, working as a field hand. He became attracted to slide guitar and made use of an extremely compelling voice, full of vibrato and searing high notes, to perform around his home town. In 1928, he was playing in a juke joint when a patron began firing a gun into the crowd. He hit House in the leg and the blues man returned fire, killing him. For this, House got a fifteen year sentence at Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary.

Yet after a year he was released and met Charley Patton and Willie Brown, who traveled together at the time. In 1930 House went with them to record for Paramount Records in Grafton, Wisconsin. But he returned to Mississippi and stayed there, playing for local audiences and preaching the gospel now and then. House played a steel-bodied National guitar that had a resonator and a distinctive sound. This acoustically amplified guitar was loud; played with a glass slide, it enhanced the mourning quality of the blues. The National sold for $60 to $195, a princely sum back then.

According to Muddy Waters, blues great of the 1950s who was also from Mississippi, House could "preach the blues." Playing at one time in a band with Willie Brown that included a trap set and trombone (clearly urban instruments), House is most remembered for his solo work. As with many folk blues performers, he was rediscovered in the 1960s and recorded his old blues admirably, though with a decided lessening of dash.

Robert Johnson, the most legendary and imitated Delta stylist, worked with House and Brown in the 1930s. House recalled:

He was just a little boy then. He blew harmonica and he was pretty good with that, but he wanted to play guitar. When we'd leave at night to go play for the balls, he'd slip off and come over to where we were.

(Charters, Blues Makers, 88)

The young Johnson quickly developed a lightning speed on the guitar, a prodigious skill in the dynamics of the blues, and synthesized several blues compositions of others into enduring standards. He put all his energy into performing and the adventures that came with it. He recorded in 1936 and '37 in field studios in Texas. One of his best known songs is "Sweet Home Chicago."

O, baby don't you want to go?


To that land of milk and honey, my sweet home Chicago

(Johnson, 1936)

This shows the mythical draw the North had on African Americans. In 1938 John Hammond tried to find Johnson for his Spirituals To Swing Concerts at Carnegie Hall--such was the talent of the young Mississippian. But Johnson was dead, poisoned from a drink of whiskey in a juke joint in Greenwood, Mississippi, likely from a jealous husband.

Other recordings in the late 1920s and early 1930s, while handicapped by the crudity of sound equipment and the use of field studios (to keep down production costs), offered the first serious look at the wealth of regional blues. The use of portable studios did much to maintain the authenticity of the music, and it was the spirit and poignancy of that era that all blues following attempt to recreate.

During the Great Depression, production of records fell drastically and record companies went out of business, despite price cuts of up to two-thirds. Those songs released had a soothing and unifying effect:

If I could tell my troubles, it would give my poor heart ease

But Depression has got me, somebody help me please

(Tampa Red, 1931)

The blues-buying public at the time was nearly exclusively black. Those who had moved north wanted to be reminded of their homes and bucolic life. And the number of Northern blacks was large--Chicago in 1930 held 38,000 black emigrants from Mississippi, more than many towns in the state.

When the Roosevelt administration began its public works program in earnest, the African Americans were quick to incorporate this into their blues.

Now the government took it in charge

Said they're going to treat everybody right

Give you some peas, beans and meal

And then four or five cans of tripe

(Speckled Red, 1938)

Urban Blues

With the gradual end of the Depression, a similarly lengthy transition occurred in African Americans' musical tastes. The rural blues waned and urban blues took over for the majority. Pianists had come up north from the barrelhouses and lumber camps, and found jobs in the new low-rent city clubs that served the ghettos. Greater concentration of population allowed for a larger ensemble of musicians. Piano, bass viol, drums, and the newly electrified guitar (late 1930s) all had their place in the new sophistication of the blues. Gone were the classic blues, tied to the previous decade. They were replaced by this latest urban blues.

Boogie-woogie piano became popular, as represented by the 1928 recording by Pinetop Smith. Though rural in origin, boogie-woogie's lively beat from the repetitive bass runs of the left hand mimicked the faster pace of city life. The messages were largely the same, however:

I had a woman, had a woman, her mouth was crowned with gold


That woman cause trouble everywhere she go

(Maceo Merriweather, 1945)

Big Maceo recorded in Chicago with Tampa Red on electric guitar, often with a drummer. He wrote his own material and since he was left-handed, he played a thunderous bass line that was matched by an agile right hand.

Blessed with good employment thanks to World War II, the African American in the North was not so anxious to look back on humble beginnings. A good many blacks served in the armed forces and when they returned from overseas, they certainly didn't want to hear the old blues of the South. The postwar urban blues was far removed from the rural type, and was recorded primarily in Chicago at first by major labels, and then by the emerging independent labels who took over. While the primitive rural blues still had its fans, the up-tempo, sophisticated urban style (sometimes called jump blues) was winning the popularity contest by far.

This was especially true of music recorded around World War II, and one producer, Lester Melrose, managed to put his stamp on 90 percent of the music coming out of Chicago. He did this by using a practice he began in the 1930s: employing the same personnel in the accompanying bands for artists. The instrumentation was guitar, piano, bass, drums, and harmonica or saxophone. When the record companies' practice of mimicking hits is factored in, it can be seen that during that time, the recording industry in Chicago did much to make the urban blues into a mere continuation of verses in one long song.

There were exceptions to this of course: the records of John Lee Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams are fine examples of early urban blues. But the record-buying blacks had turned their backs on the lone guitarist singing the rural blues. The 1940s and early 1950s held a stasis for that music. A few records sold, but it must have appeared to many that the blues had reached its artistic apex with Robert Johnson, Son House, and Charley Patton, and was in decline.

Rural Resurgence: Chicago Blues

Radio programming came to the rescue. The first radio station catering to a black audience was KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. One show in particular, King Biscuit Time, so named for the sponsor, King Biscuit Flour, featured Robert Lockwood and Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) playing updated rural blues with electric instruments. The sound of Sonny Boy Williamson's harmonica played close to the old condenser microphones, distorting the notes in a manner that conjures the feeling of the blues, gave the instrument a similarity to the human voice. Technology was used in a synthetic method, creating pertinent blues for modern audiences, based on the rural tradition.

Other stations put on similar shows and once again the rural-influenced South was the creator. A few record companies sprang up in Dixie to record the talent but they were short-lived. Also comparatively short-lived was the rural resurgence, as exemplified by the Chess Record Company (Chicago) releases of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II and others. Rhythm and blues, which offered a more sophisticated song structure than urban blues, using back-up vocalists and complicated arrangements, eclipsed the popularity of this type of blues in the mid-1950s. And as everyone knows, rock and roll came along soon after, opening up the basic form of rhythm and blues to a larger white audience.

The blues was still there--most rock songs followed the formula of African American treatment of the Scots-Irish ballad--but the audience for the real thing was limited to the older generation of blacks who had grown up with the music. The blues was out-dated once again, reminding African Americans of Jim Crow laws and economic deprivation. Rock and roll, the music it had spawned, became an astonishing success. Like many ungrateful progeny, rock pushed the blues out of the picture. It wasn't until the folk music boom around 1960 that any attention was paid to the blues, and this was predominantly to the historical Mississippi Delta, Piedmont, and other folk blues.

The old 78s were remastered and put on anthology albums, and through research of scholars like Charters and Oliver, the history and heritage of the blues began to be known. White folk performers included old jug band numbers in their repertories and a few mastered the slide guitar style, going so far as to refurbish the 1930s Nationals to achieve an authenticity.

There is no way to go back to those times however. The blacks certainly don't want to, although a few are nostalgic about the simple blues they heard when young. But the evocative, spontaneous spirit of the rural blues, that close-to-the-pure-folk vein, in competition with itself to master the intricacies of making each song unique, can be recreated.

The blues, like a true art form, sprang from uncertain origins. The rural influence shaped it and gave it its most important legacy, that of simple, expressive lyrics with an adaptable chord structure that fell within a recognizable form. The blues starkly reflected the moods and notions of the underclass blacks--not the entire African American population.

Yet it caught on and was wildly popular in the 1920s, surviving an attempt to upgrade it with the formality of the classic blues singers. The real story of the blues is that of unabashed life: the sorrows that were so likely to befall blacks and the gaiety and braggadocio that was also part of their being.

This rural music went through another attempt to alter it, to sophisticate it, resulting in the urban blues of the late 1930s and the 1940s. As the blacks migrated to the cities of the North, their musical tastes changed, slowly at first, but finally to such an extent that the blues is now more popular in the white population.

Blues is a retrospective music. The people creating it these days are actually recreating it, following the recipes of the Chicago, Texas, or California blues greats in the 1950s, or the folk revivalists in the 1960s. This essay hopes to draw attention to basic differences between rural and urban styles and to encourage study into the earlier, country forms. Since current blues is in reference to the past, the quieter rural blues have as much worthiness as the slick, city variety. There is little purpose in demoting the latter type; urban blues has its adherents. But to understand the breadth of the history and impetus of the blues, the rural type must be listened to and performed. The blues are a basic study in the hard lot and migratory solutions of the African Americans in the first half of the 20th century. This music can tell us a lot.

Works Consulted

Barlow, William. Looking Up At Down. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Bastin, Bruce. Red River Blues. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1995.

Charters, Samuel. The Country Blues. New York: Rinehart & Company, 1959.

--------. The Blues Makers. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991.

Evans, David. Big Road Blues. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982.

Handy, W.C. Father Of The Blues. New York: Macmillan, 1941.

Oliver, Paul. Aspects Of The Blues Tradition. New York: Oak Publications, 1968.

-------. The Meaning Of The Blues. New York: Collier Books, 1960.

-------. The Story Of The Blues. Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company, 1969.

White, Newman I. American Negro Folk-Songs. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928.

(Copyright © 1991, P.J. O'Connor; used with permission.)

Also by Patrick J. O'Connor:
The Black Experience and the Blues in 1950s Wichita
Cowboy Blues: Early Black Music In The West
Folk Music Clubs In Wichita: Melody And Protest
Minstrel and Medicine Shows -- Creating a Market for the Blues
The Weasels: Underground Success of A Kansas Rock Group
With Music the Ammunition -- Battles of the Bands in Wichita in the 1960s
Site author: George Laughead, manager, WWW-Virtual Library, at www.vlib.us . Thanks to Lynn H. Nelson, who explains HNSource, the first history site on the WWW. Posted: 10 February 2009.
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