The Blues Fathers


They are your fathers.. Well, the fathers of the blues anyway.

There are many variations of blues music. This ever-popular art form began back in the day as communication and expression for slaves. They engaged in a ‘call and response’ where a leader would ‘shout and holler’ on the field and others would answer. The slaves also introduced spirituals which “conveyed feelings of rootlessness and misery.” These African roots and traditions molded early blues songs.

In honor of Father’s Day this weekend, we are celebrating a few prominent figures in the early stages of the blues. These men, along with many other individuals, were pioneers at their craft and helped to pave the way for future musicians and genres. Without their contributions, we wouldn’t have the music and artists we love today.

W.C. Handy                                          

William Christopher Handy was not a guitar player. He actually played trumpet. But, he had a lot to do with pioneering the blues and making it “one of the dominant national forces in American music.” He did not invent blues music, but he was responsible for its growing popularity. While walking near a railroad station, Handy heard an indescribable and unique sound. A man was using a knife as a slide for his guitar. Handy noted that it was “the weirdest music I had ever heard, but the tune did stay in my mind.” This was his first experience with blues.

W.C. Handy’s upbringing with traditional African Folksongs, the fact that his parents were former slaves, and because he lived through many great hardships, all contributed to him composing blues music. Together with a songwriter named Harry Pace, Handy wrote and recorded Memphis Blues, “considered the first blues song ever published.” The song was a great success, but Handy had sold the rights to the song and could not benefit financially. However, the dynamic blues duo did not stop there.

In 1914, the song St. Louis Blues was recorded and became an instant sensation throughout America. By 1926, after recording many more tunes “Handy’s songs had helped to create an entire blues industry.” The floodgates had opened. Record labels began searching for innovative blues musicians to produce albums for. Thus, a new era was born and Handy became the ‘father of blues.’  




Robert Johnson

People administer, usually unsolicited terms to their icons and heroes. How many times have you heard names like king, father, pioneer, etc. being used to describe musicians? Robert Johnson is the archetype for these terms in blues. Robert Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911. Johnson became infatuated with music and “would hound the older blues musicians for a chance to play with them.” After a six-month stint in Arkansas, he returned to Mississippi as a ‘master of the guitar.’ In fact, Johnson was so good that an infectious rumor spread about him selling his soul to the devil. His command of the instrument was so natural and unexplainable that the notion of his devilish deal was unquestioned.

If you were walking down the streets of Mississippi in the mid 1930’s, you might catch a glimpse of Robert Johnson plucking away. He would busk on the street corners for hours and occasionally be invited to play in local ‘juke joints.’ In 1936, he was given a chance to record his music. Because he died at such a young age, there are only a few recordings of the master at work. However, the few tunes he did grace us with are now “considered anthems of the genre.”

Now 80 years later, Robert Johnson’s genius is fully recognized and he is dubbed a “founding father of the blues.” Little of his life is known. Many of his biographies are fragments of stories and baseless rumors. One thing is certain though, the main knew how to play the blues.


Muddy Waters

The acoustic blues era was groundbreaking. Some of the greatest blues guitarists were prominent way before guitars were electrified and amplified. But, there is nothing like hearing a raw, distorted guitar portraying the emotions of its commander. One of the early musicians who pioneered the electric blues style was McKinley Morganfield. He is known better as Muddy Waters. He was born in Mississippi but headed to Chicago in the early 1940’s as part of the ‘great migration.’

With a lot of musicians heading north, Chicago began producing a unique blend of electric, urban, and classic blues. Muddy Waters “perfected the style” and used rhythm sections and harmonicas to establish the authentic Chicago Blues sound. And in 1948 his tune “I Can’t be Satisfied” helped to jump start his recording success. Thus, he became the “father of modern Chicago blues.”  

Muddy Water’s impact on music was so profound that he described as “the guiding light of the modern blues school.” There is not one contemporary blues musician who was not inspired by Muddy Waters.





 By Patrick Ortiz