This section concerns the history of British Blues. Our focus is physical displays and the ambition to create a permanent physical home for our exhibits, but here we are also placing links which address a great deal of the history of British Blues music.
If you’d like to hear some British Blues history woven in with its roots and branches across the world, including Robert Johnson, Cream, and Led Zepellin, listen to the five hours of this broadcast by Blues Brother Elwood Blues on his BluesMobile, here: https://soundcloud.com/thebluesmobile/now-streaming-roots-of-rock?in=thebluesmobile/sets/last-weeks-show.
A very brief history follows, with useful links. It starts in modern times, because British Blues isn’t just important for where it came from, it is most important for where it has got to, and that is where we start.
British Blues History In Summary
In February 2012, British music artists Mick Jagger and Jeff Beck appeared in US President Barack Obama’s White House to perform alongside American artists BB King, Keb Mo, Buddy Guy, Booker T. Jones, Derek Trucks, Gary Clarke Jr, Shemekia Copeland, Warren Haynes, Trombone Shorty, and Susan Tedeschi.
‘In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues‘ was a PBS special taped in the East Room of the White House celebrating Blues music. President and Mrs. Obama hosted the concert in recognition of Black History Month. The show honoured the musical form that sprang from the Mississippi Delta and flourished in the Westside of Chicago with deep roots in Africa and slavery. The performances explored those roots and paid homage to the great figures of the Blues and the songs they made famous by tracing the influence of the Blues on modern American music from Soul to Rock ’n’ Roll.
Have you spotted what is remarkable about this, apart from it being at the White House and in front of the President (who famously sang a little Sweet Home Chicago)? It is the fact that this very American celebration featured two British artists in Mick Jagger and Jeff Beck.
If any proof is needed of how important British Blues is alongside American Blues, this is it.
So, where did British Blues come from?
First, there was the Blues, in the US, that is popularly thought to have begun with WC Handy and early performers like Robert Johnson in the early 20th century. The music rapidly grew and spread from its Southern roots. Records found their way to the UK from around the 1930’s, often confused with the US Jazz output of the time.
The earliest American Blues artists to come to the UK were brought here in the 1950’s by Jazz music bandleader Chris Barber, a supporter of the British Blues Exhibition, namely Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters, whose eldest son, Mud Morganfield, is also a supporter of the Exhibition. It was their appearances and those of others, and more imported records, that fired the enthusiasm of those such as Alexis Korner (Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated), Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones), Eric Burdon (The Animals), Van Morrison (Them), Jeff Beck/Eric Clapton etc in The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Paul Jones (Manfred Mann) and more.
In the 1960’s, these artists built on the Blues songs already beginning to be played by British Skiffle artists, to cover American standards and to write and perform American Blues-inspired original songs. Thus the Blues was embedded in the meteoric rise of British Rhythm and Blues and into Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Even more remarkably, some of those pioneers of British pop and Rock ‘n” Roll then travelled to America and added to the impact of white American artists such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis in taking American roots music, including the Blues, to new audiences, leading to sharp revivals in the careers of Blues artists such as Muddy Waters. This period has been described as the British Blues Explosion.
In ensuing decades, more and more British Blues performers have joined those early pioneers, and many of those pioneers are still performing – The Rolling Stones, Eric Burdon, Van Morrison, John Mayall, Eric Clapton, and Paul Jones, to name a few. So too are some of their contemporaries, including The Pretty Things and The Downliners Sect.
Now we have a numerous crop of new, young British Blues talent, with their sounds ranging from quiet soloists through to strong guitar-driven music, to bigger band line ups and with many, many variations. Artists to look out for include Andy Twyman, Tom Attah, Laurence Jones, Katie Bradley, and more. They are joined in the UK by numerous touring US acts, old and new, including Mud Morganfield, The Billy Walton Band, Debbie Bond, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
The transcript of the President’s introduction on that significant White House night is here.
More from the British Blues Exhibition:
Blues in Britain before 1950 blog post here.