BluesFilter: Help with a blues sub-genre
June 18, 2009 10:52 PM   Subscribe

I had no idea there were so many different sub-genres of "blues" music. After doing a little research, I'm still confused at to what the style of blues I like is actually called. (More inside)

I like the slower blues that we heard in "Love Song For Bobby Long" (great movie!), typified most I suppose for many by Robert Johnson. As much as I like Johnson, Fred McDowell, Son House, etc. my favorites incorporate the acoustic guitar along with use of the harmonica and some piano. And like I said, at a slower pace and not the frenetic "blues" you hear so often today with heavy electric guitar riffs. So what is the "blues" genre I like called? Suggestions for musicians I may have never heard of?

I'm pretty new to the whole blues thing, but since I've been listening, it sounds like I've known this stuff for decades. I feel at home with it, though I was raised thousands of miles from the hotbeds of blues music. It's odd. But it would sure be nice to know what it is I actually like.


As always, thanks in advance.
posted by Gerard Sorme to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
There are not that many sub-genres for blues (it might even be argued there are no sub-genres of the blues), although there are many individual voices in the pantheon who have their own unique takes on the spirit of the music.

The primary stylistic distinction is between country blues (primarily the pre-war Mississippi Delta blues associated with the very different sounding innovators of the 1920s-30s, Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, etc) and electrified Chicago blues (often, post-war musicians who left the south for work, like Muddy Waters especially, the father of Chicago blues).

In addition to these two broad and sometimes overlapping categories, one also finds "jump blues" (of Kansas City and elsewhere), which is where jazz and blues intersect musically with such artists like Count Basie, Louis Jordan (the father of rock as much as Elvis), etc., and also Piedmont Blues and various regional variations.

There is also a kind of sub-genre in the classic female blues singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, etc, and in piano and boogie-woogie blues. And of course blues-rock, R&B, etc. But in general "blues" is a term that covers a wide range of moods, and rather than look for sub-genres I would just listen to as many different artists as you can in order to figure out what you like.
posted by ornate insect at 11:32 PM on June 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

I would say "Mississippi Delta", but I too can't find much beyond the artists you mention. The guys who opened the Chappelle Show typify this kind of vibe.
posted by phrontist at 11:40 PM on June 18, 2009

John Lee Hooker

yeah, probably "Delta Blues" might most typify it
posted by edgeways at 11:54 PM on June 18, 2009

This list of blues artists from wiki might prove useful.

Memail if you want any recommendations: I am more than familiar with the tradition.

If I had to say who the "most important" mainline blues musicians of all time were (putting aside "jump blues," boogie woogie and blues-rock), I would list:

1) Robert Johnson
2) Charley Patton
3) Son House
4) Sonny Boy Williamson
5) Big Bill Broonzy
6) Bessie Smith
7) Ma Rainey
8) Alberta Hunter
9) Leadbelly
10) Mississippi John Hurt
11) Skip James
12) Fred McDowell
13) Blind Blake
14) Sleepy John Estes
15) Robert Lockwood Junior
16) Lightning Hopkins
17) John Lee Hooker
18) T-Bone Walker
19) Elmore James
20) Slim Harpo
21) James Cotton
22) Josh White
23) Freddy King
24) Albert King
25) BB King
26) Buddy Guy
27) Muddy Waters
28) Little Walter
29) Howlin' Wolf
30) Jimmy Reed
31) Willie Dixon
32) Magic Slim
33) Albert Collins
34) Stevie Ray Vaughan
35) Clarence Gatemouth Brown
36) Otis Rush
37) Furry Lewis

posted by ornate insect at 11:58 PM on June 18, 2009 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks ornate insect for your thoughts. The whole "lots of genres of blues" is a thing I heard on a blues special on Big Road Blues. When I looked into it, I found this page - List Of Blues Genres on Wikipedia. There's a lot of information on history, etc. but nothing that really defines the various genres (at least that i could make sense of).

But if I understand you right, you don't really think there are different genres/sub-genres of blues. I do listen around and discover what I like. I cited a few of the artists in my OP -- I just don't know what it's called.

I would like to hear some thoughts from others as there's obviously different theories - not only as to the genres - but as to if they even exist. I look forward to hearing from others.

phrontist, Thanks for taking the time to look yourself. "Mississippi Delta" is what I was leaning to myself, so that's interesting. The introduction of the harmonica is a bit of a departure for "Mississippi Delta".....I think....but maybe not! That's why I am here asking the MetaHive.

edgeways, I guess that would be the same as Mississippi Blues. Thanks for your comment.

I'm still intrigued by ornate insects thoughts (first comment) that seems to indicate a musical theory that runs counter to what I hear and read, but I find it interesting because it seemed to be a well thought out position from somebody that seems to be into blues music.

I find this all fascinating.

Thanks again,
posted by Gerard Sorme at 11:59 PM on June 18, 2009

Response by poster: Wow. I just saw your list, ornate insect, and it's promising. Will look into them. Thanks a lot!
posted by Gerard Sorme at 12:00 AM on June 19, 2009

Best answer: Ornate Insect's list is more a general list of blues artists...if you have Stevie Ray Vaughn and Charlie Patton on the same list, that's what you are going to get.

Sounds like you are liking Delta could also say acoustic blues.

For the record, in blues, you generally have piano blues or guitar blues. Not often together although it definitely does happen. I think guitar blues tends to be rootsier, poorer, less sophisticated (this is not a qualitative thing...just piano blues tends to be more intricate, guitar blues tends to be more visceral, at least to my ear).

I'd say, run, don't walk, and get
Muddy Waters: The Plantation Recordings
Muddy Waters: The Real Folk Blues
Charlie Patton: There's a lot of old scratchy 78s you can get. They are real rough but you are hearing some of the earliest recorded blues.
Blind Willie McTell: His original version of Statesboro Blues blows Duane Almann out of the water. A truly beautiful voice and amazing guitar player.

Some things out of this genre you might like
The Black Keys: White guys playing rural modern electric Blues
Junior Kimbrough: the black guy the Black Keys stole all their stuff from

You'll probably be really interested in things Chess records put out. Chess mostly took rural artists who had moved from the South, and electrified them. But the recordings are basic and spectacular. Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson among others made explosive recordings for Chess.

Also check out Deep Blues by Robert Palmer for the history of what you are talking about.
posted by sully75 at 3:48 AM on June 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

Another vote for "country blues" or maybe "folk blues" (although it's worth mentioning that "slow blues with acoustic guitar, harmonica and some piano" may not be as specific a description as you think). Do any of the samples on these albums fit?

Brownie McGhee - The Folkways Years 1945-1959
Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry Sing
Lightnin' Hopkins [1959]
Lightnin' Hopkins - Blues in My Bottle
Elizabeth Cotten - Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes
posted by mediareport at 5:05 AM on June 19, 2009

Disclaimer; I am no expert and as Ornate says genres are a fraught subject.

As much as I like Johnson, Fred McDowell, Son House, etc.....

Does it imply that you're not looking for things like this?

These artists, I would say, are Delta blues. IMO this is generally exemplified by slide guitar and a more 'aggressive' style that jumps around more. Sounds like you might be more interested in 'country blues' style which is more rambling and usually more multi-instrumental. Picking out a couple, try Sonny Boy Williamson (the first) and Sleepy John Estes.

The way I got into blues music (since a lot of blues musicians were taught by other famous blues musicians) is simply to look up on wikipedia who you definitely like and listen to their influences or who they influenced.

A suggestion out of left field for variety: try listening to some Malian music, particularly Boubacar Traore and Ali Farka Toure

"I feel at home with it, though I was raised thousands of miles from the hotbeds of blues music."

Almost every genre of modern popular music has some blues heritage or cross influence, often from several directions (e.g. reggae is descended from ska which is based upon R&B).
posted by Erberus at 5:12 AM on June 19, 2009

No advice on the genre-identification -- in my house Dad just always called it all "blues," because in his world it was all good -- but if I read you right on the description, I have a song recommendation -- the version of Hard Time Killing Floor Blues Chris Thomas King did in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is transcendant.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:01 AM on June 19, 2009

Best answer: I agree with Erberus; I'd be more likely to name what you seem to be describing "country blues" rather than "Delta blues," although Delta blues is similar. For some more recommendations:

Mance Lipscomb (Texas piano blues artist, although his stuff might be faster and peppier than you're looking for)
Bukka White
Robert Pete Williams
Lightnin Hopkins
Tommy Johnson
James Cotton (current; a great harmonica player)
Blind Roosevelt Graves
David Honeyboy Edwards
Chris Thomas King
Skip James
Mississippi John Hurt

Here's an interesting compilation that features a lot of good early blues, and might expose you to some lesser-known artists.
posted by aka burlap at 6:17 AM on June 19, 2009

Best answer: A helpful description of the Delta Blues school:

"As Robert Palmer describes the music in his book Deep Blues, "The Mississippi Delta's blues musicians sang with unmatched intensity in a gritty, melodically circumscribed, highly ornamented style that was closer to field hollers than it was to other styles of blues. Guitar and piano accompaniments were percussive and hypnotic, and many Delta guitarists mastered the art of fretting the instrument with a slide or bottleneck that made the instrument 'talk' in strikingly speechlike inflections."
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:46 AM on June 19, 2009

The neat thing about the blues is that it is actually a fairly simple musical framework- music is either the blues or it's not. But because the framework is simple and also fairly narrowly defined, artists are able to insert a ton of their own personality into it. It's not about the song, as much as it is about the story and the storyteller.
posted by gjc at 7:46 AM on June 19, 2009

Best answer: The neat thing about the blues is that it is actually a fairly simple musical framework

I'd have to disagree with that. I don't think it's any more simple a framework than rock or even baroque classical music. Or fiddle music. There are defintely simpler artists, but listen to Blind Willie McTell for a while and you're going to hear some amazingly intricate, sophisticated music.

Or I'd agree with your statement but say that the framework for most music is fairly simple.

Delta Blues generally refers to guitar based blues from the Mississippi Delta...Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters, Charlie Patton...from my recollection they all come from a fairly small's all covered in Deep Blues.

Erberus, you are not far off in hearing a connection between Delta Blues and Malian music...I believe that most African slaves come from west africa. This interview with Gerhard Kublik, author of Africa and The Blues, is pretty great. I see the blues as basically an African tradition filtered through some European traditions (gospel music, which in itself is an amalgam of European, American and African roots). But I don't know exactly what I'm talking about...that's just how I've come to think of it.

I'm really hesitant to get on board the statement that the Blues is a part of all popular music. A song like When I'm 64 by the Beatles owes way more to English pop music than any african influences. There's plenty of Southern White singing traditions that are far more based on music that settlers brought with them from Ireland, Scotland and England than any African tradition. I think the fascinating part is hearing music and trying to figure out which tradition stands out more...this is particularly fascinating in old-time fiddle music, which seems to be maybe a 60/40% combination of Irish and Scottish fiddling and African rhythmic influences, filtered through abysmal poverty and moonshine.

I think you should start checking out the work Alan Lomax did in the south. He made a lot of amazing field recordings (including the first recordings of Muddy Waters). People criticize his methods but not the music he got on tape. So much insanely raw stuff.

Anyway, happy listening. Hard to find a more fascinating music.
posted by sully75 at 10:46 AM on June 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Some truly great replies here. It's very hard to select favorites. I think that sully75 has probably pegged the genre I am speaking of as "Delta Blues." While I understand those who say it's "all the same," my ear, it just isn't. Thanks to all those who gave specific artists to check out - I will most certainly do that. I plan to find the Deep Blues book, too.

Thanks to everyone. This was a good and thought-provoking thread.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 1:17 PM on June 19, 2009

Just saw this Alan Lomax book, looks like it's worth a read.
posted by sully75 at 3:34 PM on June 19, 2009

« Older Ultimate Equipment and Training Questions   |   How to keep earbud headphones untangled Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.