by Adam Compagna
“I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees,With the emergence of rock and roll in the late nineteen fifties and early nineteen sixties, many different sounds and styles of music were being heard by the popular audience. These early rock musicians blended the current pop style with the non-mainstream rhythm and blues sound that was prevalent mainly in the African-American culture. Later on in the late sixties, especially during the British “invasion,” such bands as the Beatles, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, and the Yardbirds used this blues style and sound in their music and marketed it to a different generation. This blues music was very important to the evolution of rock and roll, but more importantly, where did this blues influence come from and why was it so important? The answer lies in the Mississippi Delta at the beginning of the twentieth century, down at the crossroads. From this southern section of America many important blues men, including Robert Johnson, got their start in the late nineteen twenties. A man who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil for the ability to play the guitar, Robert Johnson was a main influence on early rock musicians not only for his stylistic guitar playing but also for his poetic lyrics.1 An important factor in the creation of the genre of the Delta blues is the era that these blues men came from. Although life for the black man in the southern region of the United States was never easy, the Great Depression made life even worse. Because of the Great Depression, many out-of-work black men picked up their guitars and started traveling, playing their music wherever they could and for any kind of payment. The Great Depression shaped these men’s lives and was the instigator for many of their problems, which were expressed through their music. The music of Delta blues men such as Robert Johnson was important to the evolution of rock and roll because it shaped the style that the musicians used and because it served as the basis for material, especially tonally and lyrically, that was used for decades by rock and roll artists.
I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees,
Saw the Devil and begged for mercy, help me if you please
--- Crearn, “Crossroads”
From Memphis to Norfolk is a thirty-six hours ride
A man is like a prisoner, he’s never satisfied
A woman is just like a dresser, some man always
ramblin’ its drawers (repeat)
It cause so many men wear an apron overall
He tells us in “Ramblin’ on My Mind” that he’s got “mean things on my mind,” and in “When You Got a Good Friend,” he tells us about a mean thing:
I mistreated my baby
and I can’t see no reason why
Everytime I think about it,
I just wring my hands and cry
As in this example and most of Johnson’s lyrics, there seems to be a damned if you do, damned if you don’t attitude, one many black men of that day must have felt. Many artists have been influenced by his lyrics and subject matter, with many covering entire songs or just borrowing his lyrics as he did so many years before. In Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song” Robert Plant screams, “squeeze my lemon ... till the juice runs down my leg.”15 This extremely suggestive line is taken directly from Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Elmore James took Johnson’s song “Dust my Broom” and made a career out of it. Johnson’s song “Cross Road Blues” has been covered by Cream and the Allman Brothers Band as “Crossroads,” and the Rolling Stones, a group heavily influenced by the blues, recorded a famous version of Johnson’s “Love in Vain.”
Another aspect of Johnson’s appeal lies in his legend and his supposed relationship with the Devil. According to black folk culture, Johnson had a number of traits that might have been seen as demonic: he had a cataract in one eye; he often played with his back turned to other musicians, causing people to believe he had something to hide; and he favored unusual guitar tunings.16 Devil imagery abounded in many of his songs such as “Hell Hound on My Trail ... .. Me and the Devil Blues,” and “Crossroads Blues,” which is supposedly his story of what went on with the Devil at the crossroads. Just as supposedly “evil” musicians in present day gain audiences for being so bad, the notion that a performer was evil incarnate caused many juke joint revelers in the thirties to get very excited. Johnson’s supposed association with the Devil has only helped to seal his fate as one of the most remembered of the early blues men.
Although Robert Johnson is the name many people associate with the blues, other such artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Son House also had a very important influence on early rock. Son House was born around 1902 just outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi.17 He spent a good deal of his boyhood in Louisiana, and it was not until he came back to Mississippi around 1926 that he really took an interest in the blues or even took up the guitar. When he came back home a twenty-seven year old who had only played the guitar for three years, he met Charley Patton, who would become his mentor and companion for the rest of his life. Together with Patton and Willie Brown he played all around the Delta and perfected his art. He gradually became the best known blues man around. As Muddy Waters recalled, “Seem like everybody could play some kind of instrument and there were so many fellers playin’ in the jukes around Clarkesdale I can’t remember them all. But the best we had to my ideas was Sonny House.”18 House first recorded through H.C. Speir in Grafton, Wisconsin where he recorded ten tracks that met with little commercial success.19 He recorded again for the Library of Congress in 1941 when he recorded eighteen tracks. In 1952 his good friend Willie Brown died and he decided to stop playing the guitar forever. In 1964 House was rediscovered by white blues enthusiasts and was coaxed into performing again. What he is most remembered for now is that he was the teacher of Robert Johnson.20 Johnson did hang around House and may have picked up a few things, but House was definitely not Johnson’s only influence. House gave Johnson and future generations powerful guitar accompaniment and exceptional vocal control, exemplified in his a capella pieces, that have been copied and used for decades.
Another blues man that follows this tradition and stands as a direct link to rock and roll is Muddy Waters. His music has been copied by many musicians, importantly the bands that came over from England in the British “invasion” of the 1960’s, and most importantly by the Rolling Stones, who took not only their name but most of their early material from Water’s collection. Waters was born on April 4, 1915 in Rolling Fork, Mississippi.21 He was born in the Delta, but grew up in Clarkesdale about a hundred miles away, where his grandmother raised him after his mother’s death in 1918. Like most everyone else, Waters started out on the harmonica and started playing the guitar when he was seventeen. While playing in juke joints around the area, he came into contact with Son House and Robert Johnson, both of whom influenced his style, adding imaginative slide techniques and unique rhythm patterns. In 1943, at the age of twenty eight, Waters left Mississippi for good and headed to Chicago, a mecca for the black population in the North. He got a day job working on a loading dock and would play seven nights a week at local clubs. In 1948 he recorded for the Chess label, and his first hit was “Rolling Stone.” His reputation built while he played bigger and better venues and by 1952 he was a nationally established recording star who had already had three records place on the R&B charts in Billboard’s Top Ten.22 All of the Chicago blues artists of later generations and of today emulate him in order to generate a following that compares to Waters’. With his use of the electric guitar and his wide range of songs, early rock and roll artists emulated him as well.
As important as the blues men were to the blues becoming rock and roll, the blues songs themselves also had aspects that became integral parts of rock and roll. The lyrical qualities of blues songs were very important. Many lyrics of blues songs were used as the lyrics of early rock and roll songs. The earliest influences for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf songs, and this shows in their almost predominately blues song driven live sets. 23 Led Zeppelin took Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson songs, amplified them and turned that into a career. As well as directly copying lyrics, many early rock musicians used the same lyrical style as the blues men. Instead of talking about the normal pop themes such as puppy love, happiness, and Caucasian middle-class life, they wrote and sang about the realities of life; the heartbreak, the cheating, the pain, and the carnal pleasures. Another important similarity between the blues and early rock is the structure of their songs. Almost all blues songs lyrics follow the AAB form of rhyme. The first line would be sung, then repeated, and then another line would be sung that rhymed with the first line. This is evident in almost every blues song, and is very prominent in early rock, such as Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog:
You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog A
cryin’ all the time
You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog A
cryin’ all the time
You ain’t ever caught a rabbit and you B
ain’t no friend of mine
Elvis’ roots were steeped heavily in blues, country, and gospel music. Another aspect of blues structure that is found in early rock and today in music is I-IV-V chord progression sequence. In a blues song the I-chord, or the tonic chord as it is called in musical terms, is played for four measures.24 Then the IV-chord, or the dominant chord, is played for four measures. The I-chord is then played for four more measures, with the V-chord following this with four measures. This is exemplified in Cream’s song “Politician,” one that is nothing but a blues song set with electric guitars.25 Another aspect of blues songs that comes through in rock and roll is the off-beat, back-beat style that much of rock has, actually more then the blues ever did. The off-beat, back-beat style is when the bass drum plays on the first and third beat of the measure, and the snare plays on the second and fourth beat of the measure. The emphasis on the second and fourth beats of the measure, played primarily on the snare drum, created a body movement that excited the listener.26 Although blues musicians tended to convey this beat style with their rhythm patterns on the guitar, it wasn’t until rock and roll added the drums that this beat style could be fully appreciated. Another aspect of blues songs and playing, especially of Robert Johnson’s, were major scale boogie patterns.27 These patterns were played on single strings of a guitar, played chromatically, sounding today like a walking bass line. The origin of the bass line itself comes from these early boogie patterns. Early rock and roll musicians played these major scale patterns on the bass, guitar, and piano to drive songs and make them feel more “upbeat.” These structural qualities along with the lyrical aspects of blues songs show how important the blues was to the development of rock and roll and how rock and roll is basically just an updated version of the blues.
Many early rock musicians used the blues in their music, but two of the most important early rockers were Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry, born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in St.Louis, Missouri on October 18, 1926, is considered the poet-laureate of the first generation of classic rockers.28 As rock historian Loyd Grossman says in A Social History of Rock Music, “Berry was the first performer to demonstrate that rock and roll could be philosophically and artistically worthwhile as well as good to dance to ... he put a measure of quality into rock and roll.”29 Berry taught himself saxophone and piano, but is best known as the self-taught father of rock and roll guitar. He fused certain elements of the blues, such as repetitions, chokes, and bends, techniques that he learned from listening to Robert Johnson and his contemporaries, with country music sounding speed licks and slides. An important innovation in the development of rock guitar that Berry seems to have come up with is his rhythm guitar style.30 Using bar chords he would strum an eighth-note beat on the bass strings of the guitar while alternating with his pinkie every two beats four frets above the bar. This created a driving sound to his material that continues to be used by modern rock guitarists.31 In the early 1950’s Berry, who had a wife and two children, supplemented his income as a hairdresser by leading a small blues combo. His combo became widely known and he decided to visit Chess records in Chicago to secure a record deal. Chess records did not like Berry as a standard blues musician, but instead asked him to rework a few of his songs at a faster tempo. One of these re-workings became “Maybellene,” and Leonard Chess, the founder of Chess records, rushed it to New York and disc jockey Alan Freed, the premier rock disc jockey of that day.32 “Maybellene” reached number one on the R& B charts and number five on the pop charts that summer; within the next four years he recorded eight more top-forty hits. Berry wrote tales of teenage existence with a freshness and humor that was not coming from the pop sensations of that day, and the population soon fell in love with his music. His songs dealt with important adolescent concerns such as romance, sex, school, cars, and parents that could be accepted by almost anyone. In 1964 Berry had three top-forty tunes that went up against the British invasion, but it was eventually a losing battle. Many sixties groups recorded Berry’s songs and often cited him as a major influence in their development, but he never again achieved his previous popular status.
Considered by many to personify the pinnacle of classic rock and roll, Elvis Presley, a second-generation classic rocker, fused elements of the blues, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, country, and gospel. Although there he had many contemporaries, such as Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, he was separated from the rest because he became the vehicle for the mass popularization of the rock and roll genre. He was in the right position at the right time, and he fused the right elements of music so that everyone could embrace him. Elvis was born in a two-room shotgun shack in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935.33 In 1948 his family moved to Memphis, where Elvis’ interest in music began to grow. He would listen to many famous black artists of the day, such as B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin’ Wolf, on the radio as well as country artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. He later claimed all of these as influences.34 Elvis’s recordings, especially his early ones, clearly show the influence of the blues, with the twelve-bar blues pattern being prominent.35 After high school Elvis secured a truck-driving job for Crown Electric. One evening in 1953 he stopped in at Sun Records and recorded two sides of a 45-rpm disc for $3.98. The owner of the store, Sam Phillips, was not impressed. The next year Elvis recorded “That’s All Right (Mania)” at Sun Records and this time his record was noticed. The song created a stir in Memphis, went to number one on the local country charts, and enabled him to start touring. During this tour he perfected his live performances with hip shaking and dancing. Elvis described that he got the moves from his experiences with black gospel revival meetings. Elvis signed with RCA and recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” and “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” on January 10, 1956 at RCA’s Nashville studios. Both songs went to number one and Elvis scored ten more number ones and twenty more top forty hits during the next four years.36 By the 1960s classic rock was slowly dying out. Elvis no longer dominated the charts but became simply a major recording artist. By 1970 Elvis’s professional life consisted of concentrated touring, but his edge was definitely gone and it was obvious that he had abdicated his throne as the King of Rock and Roll. On August 16, 1977, Elvis died at his Graceland mansion from a supposed drug overdose. Elvis Presley’s contribution to the story of rock and roll will always be important because he carried rock to everyone in the United States, thus helping solidify rock and roll’s permanence as a popular music form. After Elvis, rock and roll was there to stay.
Since the end of the 1950s rock had gradually moved away from its R&B roots. Mainstream rock was on the verge of extinction in the early 1960s. There were all kinds of pop music, but very little real, raw, basic rock and roll. With the British invasion of the 1960’s, this music that had its origins in the blues came back to the mainstream and was now accepted everywhere. The Beatles, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones brought with them their knowledge of the blues from their early days. The influence of the blues in these bands can be seen and heard all over their songs. The Beatles frequently used the standard I-IV-V blues progression in their songs, but often expanded on this formula in their later songs, taking rock to an all-new level.37 Their musical direction in their songs, along with the blues musicians, influenced many later bands. The blues in Led Zeppelin’s music is very apparent. Six of the nine songs on their second album Led Zeppelin II are classic blues standards, words exactly the same, set to louder music and different melodies. The chord patterns of many of their songs are in the classic blues form, and they sing about all of the things a blues man would have: hatred, hard work, romance, sex, and death. Their song “The Lemon Song,” a basic twelve-bar blues, illustrates the continuing thread from the blues through the blues based British bands to early heavy metal and modem rock.38 A contemporary of Led Zeppelin was Cream, another band that shows the heavy blues influence. In their brief two-year career they recorded two albums that were met with critical acclaim. They were one of the first rock trios (guitar, bass, drums) and successfully mixed their knowledge of the blues with their improvisational skills, creating classic rock songs. The blues structure and form is prevalent in most of their songs, especially in ‘Tolitician” and “Crossroads.” One of the members of Cream, Eric Clapton, is considered the father of many blues revivals in popular culture, the most recent being around 1992. With his early bands he always played blues standards, was considered one of the best soloists ever, and always cited his influences as early blues musicians such Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.39
Rock and roll has a long and tumultuous history. It started in the little shacks on Southern plantations as the blues, with blues men picking and singing to drive their troubles away. When the Depression hit, these blues men no longer had real jobs and were forced to move around, trying to make music into a career. Some blues men succeeded, some did not. The ones that did though helped shape and influence music forever. The blues became rock and roll through a series of steps and through many different ways. The blues was most influential in giving rock lyrical and structural form. The lyrics of blues songs and the lyrical quality of blues songs are apparent in early and modern rock. As with the lyrics, certain blues structures (AAB form, I-IV-V chord structure) are prevalent in early and modern rock. The blues give musical creativity to rock and roll, and will continue to influence rock and roll for as long as it lasts.
1 Frances Davis, The History ofthe Blues,
(New York: Hypernion, 1995) p. 132.
2 Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression, (New York Times Books, 1984) p. 48.
3 Davis, p. 132.
4 Davis, p. 47.
5 Davis, p. 48.
6 Davis, p. 47.
7Peter Guralnick, Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock and Roll, (New York: Random House, 1972) p.53.
8 Guralnick, p.53.
9 Davis, p. 129
10 Davis, p. 126
11 Davis, p. 127
12 Davis, p. 129
13 Paul Friedlander, Rock and Rolk A Social History, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996) p. 18
14 Guralnick, p.55
15 Davis, p. 132.
16 Davis, p. 129
17 Guralnick, p. 50.
18 Guralnick, p. 50.
19 Guralnick, p. 52.
20 Guralnick, p. 53.
21 Gurainick, p. 65.
22 Guralnick, p. 70.
23 Friedlander, p.83.
24 Joe Stuessy, Rock and Roll. Its History and Stylistic Developmeni, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990) p. 30.
25 Friedlander, p. 217.
26 Friedlander, p. 18.
27 Friedlander, P. 19.
28 Friedlander, p. 33.
29 Friedlander, p. 33.
30 Freidlander, p. 34.
31 Friedlander, p. 34.
32 Friedlander, p. 34.
33 Friedlander, p. 43.
34 Friedlander, p. 43.
35 Stuessy, p. 29
36 Friedlander, p.45.
37 Friedlander, p.88.
38 Stuessy, p. 307.
39 Davis, p. 223.
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