As I was thinking about what I wanted to discuss for today's blues post, I had a few different ideas. I could talk about the interplay and eventual fusion of different rural blues scenes, especially between the storied Delta blues and its venerable acoustic neighbor, the early Texas blues. Or, I thought, I could talk about the Chicago scene and how electric blues took over from the more primitive sound of the genre's origins. Next I started thinking about how blues and jazz are so closely related but have formed very distinct identities and fan-bases, kind of like hardcore punk and metal, which seems like fertile ground for discussion. Then it hit me: pretty much all of those ideas can be touched on in a single post about a single man.
In the early '40s, T-Bone Walker became the first electric blues man. His style, originally rooted in the rural folk blues of his Texas home, had matured into a mellower sound that sat right on the middle of the fence between blues and jazz. Throughout the 1940s he would release a series of successful albums for California-based labels, establishing the precedent for blues players to go electric and leave the south to find success in the big city. Granted, Walker's destination was Los Angeles rather than Chicago, but that's largely because he made his move before Chess Records was founded in 1950. He helped form the environment that made Chess Records seem like a good idea in the first place, but at the time Chicago had not yet become the key destination that it would eventually be for the blues musicians who followed Walker out of the south.
The '50s were an odd decade for Walker, though, because while blues were more popular than ever, and he was still playing and recording, he found himself on the wrong side of several dividing lines. He'd lead while others followed, but now those followers had diverted to a new destination to make camp and he'd turned around to see that there was nobody behind him anymore. Chicago was the new center of the blues universe, and California was out on the fringes. Similarly, a large-scale electrified fusion of blues from Texas and Mississippi was the new core sound, and Walker's jazzy tendencies also placed him out on the fringes stylistically. His career from that point on would be a slow, gradual slide until his death in 1975.
T-Bone Walker was a pioneer, possibly the greatest in 20th century music history. He is not totally forgotten or anything, but in many ways he's like the Leif Eriksson of the electric blues to Muddy Waters' Christopher Columbus. I don't know about you, but personally I think it's high time we gave the Leif Erikssons of the world their due credit. So join me on this Tuesday Blues Day, as we celebrate the first white man to discover America and the first black man to discover electric blues guitar.
Bet you didn't see that conclusion coming.