Railcar Blues


There was the first of a terrific two-parter, on BBCTV4 yesterday evening, about the story of American Blues music.

You can watch it, here, on iplayer…


Or, on Box of Broadcasts.

There were lots of good things here…Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker for starters. Then, there were some pale kids who came later: Mick and Keith, the Kinks, and Eric Clapton.

The film began with a few shots of old American trains – this was brilliant for me. The trains made the point that Blues music is always connected to a kind of movement or diaspora…as the slaves of the Confederate states tried to find new work, and establish new communities. Because of white American anxieties, the black Americans were always moved on…It’s Biblical really.

The two main ports-of-call were Chicago in the north, and the Delta to the south. Both these places offered jobs…and, they were connected by the Chicago to New Orleans railway. One of the most important lines in the USA. The place names along the line, including Memphis and Jackson, amongst others, frequently turn up in songs…

The first film was about the Delta, so I’m guessing the second part will be about the city…

The agricultural development of the Delta provided work for many unskilled labourers – building the levees, clearing the ground, felling trees, and so on. The concentration of people, attracted by the work, also allowed a specific musical tradition to build up – based on field calls, chants, and simple musical instruments. The absence of electrification and amplification also meant that a booming voice was always part of the early Blues.

I was interested in the people who explored the Delta looking for songs and singers…chiefly W C Handy. This was a name I recognised from a Joni Mitchell lyric…but, I had no idea who he was. It turns out he was the first person to document the Blues and to make a fortune from it.

This was easier said than done. Because the spirit of the Blues is indigent and because people are always moving, looking for work and so on; they were hard to track down. It would sometimes take months to catch-up with singers as they moved around the Delta. It’s amazing how we take a fixed address, and a mobile phone, for granted.

The BBC will be scheduling more Blues music around these films later in the week.

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