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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: September 2011

6 - A century of blues guitar

from Part II - Jazz, roots, and rock

The pioneers

A century ago, the first strains of blues guitar echoed across the American South. While the style's exact origins are lost in the distant traditions of field hollers and work songs, African influences, spirituals, ragtime, minstrel tunes, folk and pop fare, parlor instrumentals, and other musical forms, one thing is certain: From the beginning, the blues and the guitar have traveled side by side.

The earliest reported sighting of a blues performance occurred in 1903, when bandleader W. C. Handy was awakened in the Tutwiler, Mississippi train station by the strange sounds of a ragged black guitarist. “As he played,” Handy wrote in his autobiographical Father of the Blues, “he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by the Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly: ‘Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog.’ The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.“ The man was singing about Moorehead, Mississippi, where the Southern Railroad crossed the Yazoo–Delta Railroad, “the Yellow Dog.” Once Handy began orchestrating “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” and other popular black folk tunes, his bookings increased. His conclusion? “Negroes react rhythmically to everything. That's how the blues came to be.” Handy also described the fundamental structure of the blues which has remained a constant for almost a hundred years: “The songs consisted of simple declarations expressed usually in three lines and set to a kind of earth-born music that was familiar throughout the Southland.”

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The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar
  • Online ISBN: 9781139002028
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