Blues Then and Now - The History of the Blues (Chapter 7, page 1 of 3)


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Chapter 7

Nothing could have been more influential on the development of the blues than the field recordings. Record companies in the early 1920s dispatched talent scouts into the Deep South to search out potential blue artists of the future.

Record companies were encouraging the blacks to sing their original songs for the sole purpose of enhancing this new music to attract the younger people. In addition to promoting the blues as a new music, the record companies retained the copyrights of the blues and secured the royalties from them. Not all field recordings were of the blues type. The blacks sang ballads, spirituals, gospels, work-songs, protest-songs, barrel-house songs and the blues. Also, not all of the field recordings were made by songsters. Some recordings were made with string bands, brass bands, washboard bands and jug bands.

Field recordings were made on location with non-­professionals as well as with professionals that traveled with the medicine shows, vaudeville circuit, carnivals and minstrel shows. As can be expected, these field recordings had successfully enhanced the careers of rural and classic blues sinners. The unsung heroes of those discoveries were the talent scouts who with a keen ear for music recognized the talents of the artists and recorded them. Lawrence Gellert of Greenville, South Carolina was among the first to make a field recording in 1924. He was followed by other notable scouts such as Frank Walker in New York, Arthur Laibley in Chicago, Polk Brockman from Atlanta, Georgia and H.C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi.

Field recordings gave a clearer description of the mood and feelings of the blacks as they were singing what they were enduring. Gellert would search out his discoveries in the chain‑gangs where the singers would search out his discoveries in the chain-gangs where the singers would chant about protest and hardships of their mistreatments by the white guards. "Down in the Chain-Gang" was recorded by an unknown singer on Heritage Label in 1924 by Gellert with the lyrics describing the singer's dilemma.

Robert W Gordon., the first field recording administrator for the Library of Congress recorded "Glory to God My Son's Come Home" in 1926. Gordon's recording interest was the work songs, ragtime, spirituals and gospels and had very little regard for the blues. In 1933, he was removed from his position and replaced by John A. Lomax as curator. John, along with his son Alan traveled the southern states and made numerous blues recordings. His first stop was at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Huddie Ledbetter, A.K.A. Ledbetter provided a number of songs for Lomax to record. With his 12 string guitar, Leadbelly sang some ballads, like, "Ella Speed," "Becky Deem. She Was A Gamblin' Gal" and "Frankie and Albert" which was later changed to "Frankie and Johnny." Leadbelly boasted that he was the "King of the twelve-string guitar player of the world." He recorded his biggest hit "Good Morning Blues" for the Bluebird Label in 1940.

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