The story and origins of the blues are almost mythical in nature. With no agreed-upon “home,” the claim to the original blues has floated all over the country. What makes the question so difficult is the nature of the genre itself.
The blues is so organic, so genuine and so innovative that it is almost impossible to pinpoint its home, especially since a number of areas can make factual, historical claims to it. I, like any, have my own perceptions.
The blues genre has many hometowns and father-figures hoping that their claim to it will prove the most binding.
Some look for age to give them the best argument, like Oklahoma, which boasts the first known recorded blues song, “Dallas Blues” by Hart Wand in 1912. Some Baltimore natives say that the blues was in Baltimore as early as the 1890s.
Other locales, like Memphis and New Orleans, claim the genre due to the massive amount of blues musicians who flocked to their urban areas and found a home there.
This is slightly more convincing to me, as these places not only use their historical fact, but also their own identity, arguing that the atmosphere and character of these cities created the blues just as much as the musicians themselves.
New Orleans folks like to define the blues as some byproduct of the jazz explosion in the late 19th century; with some similar rhythms and many New Orleanian names playing a hybridized style of jazz and blues, they make a good case.
New Orleans hopefuls even have their own “we came first” story. Anthony Maggio, one jazz/blues welder, recorded “I Got The Blues” in 1908, four whole years before our friend Hart recorded his “Dallas Blues.”
Memphis boasts one name that sets it apart from almost all of the blues’ suitors: W. C. Handy, often called the Father of the Blues.
Look no further! Father of the Blues; that’s his title. He found his base in Memphis, and since then, the blues hasn’t looked back. Handy, with the blues, in the ballroom, right? Wrong. It can’t be that simple.
Handy is legendary for his work in developing the blues, as he used 12-bar patterns in almost all of his work from the first half of the 20th century, even producing the 1912 staple “Memphis Blues.” His influence is indeed astounding.
All of these founding fathers were essentially musicians skilled in ragtime or jazz or vaudeville, and they slowly began to experiment with blues theory and technique, but they weren’t playing the blues.
In my opinion, the blues was and is played from within, not from a page of sheet music.
Around the same time in the early 1900s, something more natural occurred for the blues in Mississippi. These musicians were mostly poor, uneducated, newly-freed African-Americans, still suffering from the hateful hangover of the Civil War and slavery.
Unlike the other parts of the country, these musicians didn’t have musical theory, much less any sheets upon which to write it.
They had only themselves, their work, their broken hearts and their guitars.
Blues in Mississippi was around as early as, if not earlier than, all the recorded and documented “original” blues from Memphis or Oklahoma or New Orleans. And it was the real blues.
These weren’t sheet music ditties that had hints of blues theory; these were beautifully gritty, angry, heartbroken, body-beaten songs, direct descendants of the camp hollers and field songs with which these legends grew up.
Mississippi created the blues, but not cheaply.
From Mississippi’s poisonous color line, the endless and brutal workdays, the perpetual cycle of poverty and the ashes of an evil institution emerged a bright, blue light.