Saturday 7 December 2013

An A-Z of the Blues

A is for Africa, which is where it all began, and for Angola, the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary which rang with prison worksongs, an echo of African call-and-response. 

B is for Blind, a prerequisite for any self-respecting bluesman, and also Bullfrog, as in, “I got those Bullfrog Blues”, a mysterious ailment common in parts of the Deep South and Ireland (Rory Gallagher, you dummy).   

C is for Cripple, probably as a result of hopping all those trains (see also H for ‘Honky Tonk Train’). And also Chicago, of course. 

D is for the Devil and the deep strain of hellfire and brimstone that permeates the country blues. Think ‘I’d Rather Be the Devil’, ‘Me and the Devil’, 'Hellhound on My Trail’, etc. 

E is for Estes. Sleepy John. Broke, Hungry, Ragged, Dirty yet Undefeated. 

F is for Furry, as in Furry Lewis and the effect of moonshine whiskey on the larynx. 

G is for Gutbucket, which is as low as you can go. 

H is for ‘Honky Tonk Train‘ and the eternal steam engine, an enduring symbol of romance and escape. Great Railway Journeys of the Blues include ‘Bald Eagle Train’ by Bukka White, and ‘Travellin’ Blues’ by Blind Willie McTell. 

I is for the first person singular, as in “I Feel So Bad”, or, more unusually, “I’m So Glad”. which brings us neatly to… 

J is for James. Skip James. For his ethereal falsetto voice and startling individuality. J is also for Jug, the poor man’s bass fiddle.  

K is for King. BB, Albert, Freddie. In fact, all sharp electric blues guitarists are called King, except for Eric Clapton, who isn’t. 

L is for Lucille, the name of BB’s guitar, and also Lucille Bogan, who explored the far frontiers of filth with the incomparably obscene and surreal ‘Shave ‘Em Dry’, recorded in 1935. 

M is for Memphis. Home to Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Bobby Bland, BB King, the Memphis Jug Band, Nathan Beauregard (see ‘O for Old’), Willie Mitchell, Elvis Presley and the Ancient Egyptians (oops, sorry, that’s another Memphis). 

N is for Nawlins, the cradle of jazz and romper room of R’n’B, as demonstrated by Professor Longhair, Guitar Slim, Huey P Smith, James Booker, Dr John (not to mention the Crescent City Soul Brigade: Irma Thomas, the Dixie Cups, the Meters, Allen Toussaint &tc &tc). What a town! 


O is for Old, as in Old-Time Blues, Old Friends and Old-Timers like Nathan Beauregard who made his record debut - on The 1968 Memphis Country Blues Festival (1968, Blue Horizon) - at the age of 102. “It seems amazing that no-one should have recorded this unique artist before” wrote the sleeve-note writer.  

P is for Pony, as in ‘Pony Blues’ and ‘Stone Pony Blues’ and Patton, Charley, the Founder of the Delta Blues and creator of the Pony Blues tune family. I also remember Gus Cannon exhorting “Mule Get Up in the Alley”. A similar beast and the same idea.   

Q is for Queen of the Blues, that’s Koko Taylor, as opposed to the Empress of the Blues (Bessie Smith) and the Mother of the Blues (Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey). 

R is for ‘Rolling Stone’, the Muddy Waters tune that gave the popular UK combo their name. 

S is for Smith. Just as early religions worshipped women, so did early blues fans. And an unfeasibly high number were called Smith! Notably Bessie, but also Mamie and Clara and Trixie.  

T is for Hound Dog Taylor. The infusion of raw punk energy into the blues, generally credited to RL Burnside’s 1996 record A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, has an earlier source in the eponymous album by Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers, a waxing on Alligator Records in 1971. Hound Dog Taylor radiated chaos and ramshackle charm up to his dying day (December 17, 1975).   

U is for Underdog, which is the root of the blues condition.  

V is for Victor. That’s Victor Brox, the veteran UK bluesman. When he found out I was writing a book about Bill Leader, the folk producer, and not Victor Brox, the veteran UK bluesman, he took it on the chin. “Did you know I used to sing with the Spinners?” he said, referring to the popular Liverpool folkies. No, I didn’t. “Of course they weren’t called the Spinners then. They called themselves the Sheep Shaggers.” Typical Victor. I might get round to that book yet.  

W is for Williamson, Sonny Boy. He appropriated another singer’s name and adopted the pinstripes and bowler hat of the London city worker of the time. He was foul-mouthed (“Little Village, muthafucker”), never sang a song the same way twice and played blues harp like no other.   

Y is for Yazoo, a peerless label founded in 1960 by Steve Perls, and dedicated to early US blues, country and even a little jazz. Robert Crumb cartoons graced some of the covers, as in the celebrated 'Truckin' My Blues Away' (above).    

Z is for Zydeco, the Louisiana offshoot of the blues. 


  1. What about 'Church' - under C or R.

    Reverend under C, D or R

    Piedmont under H - for Mississippi John...

    Or 'white men can't' - under B or W...

  2. Jack,

    How many blues Reverends do we know? Famously there's the Reverend Gary Davis ('D', right?) and also the Reverend Robert Wilkins. I also recall that Georgia Tom, a purveyer of bawdy blues, turned into the sainted Thomas A. Dorsey, the doyen of gospel songsmiths.

    I wouldn't mind steering well clear of the hoary 'Can White Men Sing the Blues' debate, though readers are recommended to the work of Joanne Kelly and Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, and it might be worth pointing out that UK bluesman Ian Siegal seems to have thoroughly absorbed the lessons of the masters, and there's probably no better bluesman currently active.

  3. M for Mike Butler. Thank you very much for this lesson of blues!


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