Before 1950

1. ‘Jazz Me Blues’: Telling the story of British Blues’s early years

Welcome to the Before 1950 section of the British Blues Exhibition website. If you’ve come here first, then I’m assuming you want to get right back to the beginning of the story of the Blues in Britain.

We could begin with the day in October 1961 that Mick Jagger met Keith Richards on the platform of Dartford railway station, where the two men struck up a conversation about the Chicago Blues LPs that Jagger was carrying. Or, we could discuss guitarist and singer Alexis Korner’s first Blues record, Blues from the Roundhouse Vol. 1, released in 1957.

Yet although musicians such as Jagger, Richards, and Korner have become renowned as some of the most influential musicians in British Blues – and of course Rock – they were by no means the first British Blues musicians. In fact, the Blues could be heard in Britain at least twenty years earlier. Throughout the 1940s, British audiences and musicians became increasingly interested in the Blues recordings that were becoming available in the UK, learning its rudiments and researching its history. By the mid-1950s, the Blues was being performed in nearly every pub and community hall that hosted amateur music making, and could be heard in many of the nation’s theatres and clubs.

So why do we not know more about the history of the Blues in this early period? Most obviously, the relentless march of time means that the 1930s, 40s, and even 50s are swiftly fading from living memory. At the same time, the omission of this period from most histories of British Blues also comes from our understanding of what ‘the Blues’ is itself. The most famous types of Blues today are Chicago Blues, and Mississippi Delta Blues. This means that, when we think about British Blues, we look for the earliest instances of Chicago and Delta style blues in Britain – i.e. the late 1950s. Unfortunately, our modern day emphasis on Chicago and Delta Blues styles can obscure the different definitions of what ‘the Blues’ was in earlier years.

Before the 1960s, most Blues enthusiasts were first and foremost Jazz fans, who heard the two genres to be intertwined. This can be seen in the yearbook Jazz Junction Jive, published by the West London Rhythm Club in January 1944. In one article, club organisers and a number of Jazz critics selected their ‘Desert Island Discs’, in homage to the successful BBC radio programme of the same name. Their picks are quite revealing:

untitledAs you can see, several musicians are particularly well represented: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Blues vocalist Bessie Smith. What is more, many other pieces have the word ‘Blues’ in the title, such as Frankie Trumbauer’s ‘Singin’ the Blues’ or Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang’s ‘Farewell Blues’, or follow a twelve-bar Blues form, such as Billie Holiday’s ‘Fine and Mellow’.

Importantly, the Desert Island Discs format would have encouraged its participants to pick a representative set of recordings to illustrate their tastes. The inclusion of at least one Blues piece in each participants’ choices is an apt illustration of how these listeners heard the Blues: it was but one part of a wider field of Jazz music. Indeed, journalist and critic Iain Lang summed up this attitude in 1943, in the first study of the Blues by a British writer, Background of the Blues. Lang asserted that:

“the blues is not the whole of jazz, but the whole of blues is jazz, having no existence apart from this idiom.”

From the Desert Island Disc selections, it is clear that British listeners of the 1940s were clearly more interested in female vocalists accompanied by small Jazz bands than they were in male vocalists who accompanied themselves on guitar. When 1940’s critics talked about the Blues, they usually referred to the likes of Bessie Smith, Lizzie Miles, and Rosetta Howard, or to Blues piano players such as Albert Ammons or Jimmy Yancey.

Perhaps most significantly, ‘Country Blues’ musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, or ‘Delta Blues’ musicians such as Big Bill Broonzy or Robert Johnson, were almost entirely unknown in Britain until the turn of the 1950s. In fact, on the rare occasions that these musicians appeared in magazine articles, they were depicted as ‘Folk’ musicians. They represented the historical roots of Jazz, but had very little musical value for 1940s Jazz fans.

One final thing to note from the Desert Island Discs article: aside from a few choices, the vast majority of records chosen were issued on British labels. This suggests that African American music was readily available in Britain, even during wartime. My next post will explore the Blues available on British record labels, and how the world of the ‘Rhythm Club’ shaped the early British Blues scene.

Lawrence Davies
King’s College London

Lawrence Davies is a PhD student at King’s College London, researching the history of the Blues in Britain c.1929-1962. He is also interested in the link between African American music and American national culture. He blogs about his research at allthirteenkeys.com.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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