Once upon a time there was a little cross-eyed boy in Kentucky who grew up with a mess of pickin’ an’ singin’. And since he was littlest, he played the mandolin, and since his voice was highest, he sang high harmony. And that little boy grew up to father bluegrass, that high lonesome sound, sometime around the end of the Second World War:
Bluegrass wasn’t forever. It had a Father. And Mr. Bluegrass Prime was Bill Monroe.
Let’s all tip our hats to Mr. Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass.
Once upon a time there was a piano player in New Orleans, who grew up playing on pianos with missing keys—so sometimes he had to jump an octave—and even if you never heard him play, if you heard a New Orleans piano player bustin’ out, then you heard this poor boy’s music. That was Professor Longhair. All New Orleans piano masters are referred to as “professors.” But ‘Fess was a professor of professors. There are two eras of New Orleans piano music: before Professor Longhair, and after him. Ask The Fat Man, Allan Toussaint or Dr. John.
Once upon a time there was an uppity box banger living on Dockery’s Plantation, kind of light skinned, with straight (that is, not curly) hair, who insisted on being called “mister.” Mr. Charlie Patton, how he could clown on that git-box. He made more noise and more fuss than any performer around, and if he thought a lot of himself, maybe he had a right. Because he gave birth to Tommy Johnson, Son House, and Bukka White, who begat Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, who begat…well, that’s another story.
It all began in the Delta, on Dockery’s Plantation, with Mister Charlie Patton, the Father of the Delta Blues.
Once upon a time in the African American South there lived Bluesman Prime. I know you haven’t heard of him. I know nobody knows his name, and mostly likely no one ever will. But let’s tip our hat to him, the man who took what was before and shaped it and sang it and taught it to his neighbours who taught it those who taught it to us.
Let’s tip our hats and curtsey to Mr. Bluesman Prime, the man who started the blues.
I don’t know your name, chum, but you’re a friend of mine.
Now the reason I believe there was a Bluesman Prime is because I don’t believe in magic. You don’t plant sorrow in the ground in the spring and harvest blues in the fall. The first blues song didn’t arise out of the soil of Mississippi, whole, naked and breathing, the product of some obscure “folk” process. A whole lot of people had a whole lot of trouble for a whole lot of time and never came up with the blues. It had to be invented. Composed. Written. That means it took a real human being to do it. A human being with a name—although we have forgotten it—with a birthplace—although we don’t know it. A human being who—despite living a life in the absolute and impenetrable obscurity of an African almost-slave in the post-civil war South—still ought to be remembered because of this gift he gave to the world, what we call the blues.
Thank you, Mr. Blues. It has always been a pleasure.
The person who spread it, who taught it to others, was almost certainly male, because in the 1890s, it would have been beyond tough—and highly dangerous—for a woman to navigate the world of an itinerant musician.
Bluesman Prime might, of course, have learned from a woman. Blind Willie McTell’s mother taught him guitar, which, because of Blind Willie’s importance, in turn influenced the direction of the Atlanta and East Coast blues styles of the 1920 and 1930s. But, even if the first bluesman had learned the blues from a woman, given the social conditions of the 1890s—just as in case of Willie and his mother—it would have required a man to evangelize and spread them.
We don’t know how long it was before other people were doing their own versions of the blues, but Bluesman Prime was certainly the first teacher. Somebody heard him play. Somebody stole his licks. And somewhere along the way people started singing his songs as if they were their own.
Bluesman Prime probably started preaching the blues sometime in the 1890s. What he preached was catchy, appealing. It caught on, grew and spread, added lyrics, added inflections, and through the assistance and intervention of other unknown voices, what was first a song sung by one man became the basis of a style. After awhile, without anyone really planning it, the blues was all around us.
Bluesman Prime, who had a name, planted the blues seed. It was harvested in a thousand voices, each one of whom also had a name.
And the crop was the blues which feeds us all.
And the story ends on a blue note…we were blue forever after. (Lucky us.)
(And because we’ve all been good, yes, very very good, here’s some music from Bill Monroe singing Blue Moon Of Kentucky, some from Professor Longhair singing and playing Tipitina, Charlie Patton doing High Water Everywhere Part 1, and Blind Willie McTell singing Broke Down Engine.)