Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tuesday is Blues Day (#5)

Let's talk about T-Bone Walker.

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.

Aaron Thibeaux (T-Bone) Walker is an interesting figure partly because he has his foot in so many different doors and partly because he's the one who made some of those doors in the first place. Taught to play guitar by Texas blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone began his recording career way back in 1929 at just 19 years old. Then he disappeared from recording for over a decade. A couple scratchy acoustic songs from the late '20s and nothing else would have left him with the type of resume some blues legends are made of, but that wasn't the end for him. Instead he had moved away from Texas and begun developing his chops by playing live. He was preparing, consciously or not, to break back onto the scene in a way that would change everything.

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.

Due to the smooth, light, jazzy flavor of his music, T-Bone Walker has often found himself on the fringes of many blues fans' palettes, myself included. It was a natural development, occurring well outside the heartland of jazz or blues, as he spent much of his time in the '30s playing alongside jazz musicians in Los Angeles dance clubs. This pattern, the big city becoming a melting pot that created an electric fusion of more localized music styles from different parts of the south, would also emerge later on in Chicago, where all the different breeds of roots blues would fuse together into one monolithic electrified entity. Basically, most of the innovation Muddy Waters gets credit for from the 1950s was sort of him playing catch-up with what T-Bone Walker had already done a decade earlier. Waters was a great musician in his own right, but this post isn't about him so I won't go into that.

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.

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