There are as many shades of the blues as there are bluesmen named Junior, Slim, or Little. Here's a sampling of the spectrum:
The Mississippi Delta spawned the earliest blues artists, spinning out their tales of woe on $5 Sears guitars and homemade strings. Gruff yet compelling vocals and spare accompaniment are part of the charm.
Originators: Charlie Patton, Son House, Skip James, Robert Johnson.
Transitional figures: Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee.
Contemporary: Taj Mahal, John Hammond, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Kelly Joe Phelps.
When a handful of blues singers plugged in their guitars in the late '40s, an exciting (and loud) new form of the blues was born.
Originators: John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, T-Bone Walker. Transitional: Johnny "Guitar" Watson; Buddy Guy; Albert, Freddie, and B.B. King; Paul Butterfield Blues Band, early Fleetwood Mac, The Animals, Yardbirds, Albert Collins, Taj Mahal.
Contemporary: Eric Clapton, Ronnie Earl, Shannon Curfmann, Robert Cray, Susan Tedeschi, R.L. Burnside.
This jazziest form of the blues came primarily from the West Coast. It's a happier, finger-snappin' brand of blues, made for dancing.
Originators: Louis Jordan, Johnny Otis, Roy Brown, Big Joe Turner, Lucky Millinder, Nat "King" Cole.
Contemporary: Rod Piazza's Mighty Flyers, Roomful of Blues, Brian Setzer Orchestra, Mighty Blue Kings.
Bo Diddley created the first rockin' blues on Chicago's Chess Records in the '50s, while Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm were driving that "Rocket 88" down in Memphis.
Originators (besides Bo and Ike): Elmore James, Freddie King, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry.
Transitional: The Rolling Stones (first 3 albums), Johnny Winter, Canned Heat, the Allman Brothers, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt, ZZ Top.
Contemporary: Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
This portable instrument found a place in the pockets of bluesmen in the early '20s. Its crying and moaning tones are the perfect vehicle to express the recurring themes of the blues.
Originators: Sonny Boy Williamson (II) and Little Walter (both great vocalists and songwriters as well).
Transitional: Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield, Junior Wells.
Contemporary: Rod Piazza, Paul DeLay, James Harman, Kim Wilson.
The piano has had as big a role as the guitar in defining the blues. It was the most-often recorded instrument in the early days of blues records.
Originators: Cow Cow Davenport, Roosevelt Sykes, Big Maceo, Albert Ammons, Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim, Eddie Boyd, Leroy Carr.
Transitional: Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Ray Charles, Memphis Slim.
Contemporary: Butch Thompson, David Maxwell, Fred Kaplan, Marcia Ball, Dr. John.
The first great blues singers were women, recorded in the early '20s. Originators: Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith set the tone with very un-PG-rated tales of bad men, bad whiskey, and bad, bad trouble.
Transitional: Dinah Washington, Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Billie Holiday, Helen Hume, Lavern Baker.
Contemporary: Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, Shemekia Copeland.
Male originators: Bobby Blue Bland, T-Bone Walker, and Charles Brown took the blues uptown, with a smoother, more romantic delivery. Jazz hipsters Mose Allison and Georgie Fame sing their piano blues in a bebop style, and Dr. John brings a rollicking New Orleans flavor to everything he plays. Keb' Mo' and Ben Harper are current radio-friendly bluesmen, combining blues and pop styles.
There are many more in-between shades of the blues, and volumes of reviews and commentary about the merit of one style of guitar-slinger over another have been written. One of the best books is the "All Music Guide to the Blues," (Miller Freeman Books), which also appears online at www.allmusic.com.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor