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Early blues and country music

Beginning in the early 1920s, and continuing through the mid 1940s, record companies separated vernacular music of the American South into two categories, divided along racial lines: the “race” series, aimed at a black audience, and the “hillbilly” series, aimed at a white audience. These series were the precursors to the also racially separated Rhythm & Blues and Country & Western charts, and arguably the source of the frequent racial divisions of today’s recording industry. But a closer examination reveals that the two populations rely heavily on many of the same musical resources, and that early blues and country music exhibit thorough interpenetration.

Many admirers of early blues and country music observe that black and white musicians from the 1920s to the 1940s share much with respect to repertoire and genre, and that the separation of the two on commercial recordings grew out of the prejudices of record companies. It becomes even more apparent how deeply intertwined the two traditions are when we examine blues and country musicians’ shared stock of schemes. Schemes are preexisting harmonic grounds and melodic structures that are common resources for the creation of songs. A scheme generates multiple distinct songs, with different lyrics and titles. Many schemes generated songs in both blues and country music.

There are several different types of blues and country schemes. One type is a harmonic progression that combines with one particular tune. The “Trouble In Mind” scheme, for example, generates both Bertha Chippie Hill’s “Trouble in Mind” (1) and the Hackberry Ramblers’ “Fais Pas Ça” (2). Both use the same harmonic progression, and the two melodies have relatively slight variation. Hill recorded for the “race” series, and the Hackberry Ramblers for the “hillbilly” series.

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1. Bertha “Chippie” Hill, “Trouble in Mind” (Bertha “Chippie” Hill—Document Records)

2. Hackberry Ramblers, “Fais Pas Ça” (Jolie Blonde—Arhoolie Productions)

A second type of scheme is a preexisting harmonic progression that musicians associate primarily with a specific tune, which they set to lyrics about various subjects, but which they also use to support original melodies. In the “Frankie and Johnny” scheme, the same melody combines with lyrics about Frankie’s shooting of Johnny (or Albert) (3), the Boll Weevil infestation at the turn of the twentieth century (4), and the gambler Stack O’Lee, who shot and killed fellow gambler Billy Lyons (5). Singers also use the harmonic progression to support original melodies, with lyrics about Frankie (6), Stack O’Lee (7), or another subject (8).

In all of the examples, the same correspondence between lyrics and harmony is evident in the harmonic shift that accompanies the completion of the opening rhyming couplet, on the words “above” (3), “your home” (4), “road” (5), “beer” (6), the first “Stack O’Lee” (7), and “that line” (8), and in the harmonic shifts that accompany emphasized words in the refrain, on the words “man” and “wrong” (3, 5, and 6), “no home” and “no home” (4), “bad man” and “Stack O’Lee” (7), and “bad” and “bad” (8). Four of the recordings given here are from the “race” labels, and two are from the “hillbilly” labels, but the same scheme generates all of them.

Jimmie Rodgers. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Jimmie Rodgers. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Jimmie Rodgers, “Frankie and Johnny” (The Essential Jimmie Rodgers—Sony)

4. W. A. Lindsey, “Boll Weevil” (People Take Warning—Tomkins Square)

5. Ma Rainey, “Stack O’Lee Blues” (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—Yazoo)

6. Charley Patton, “Frankie and Albert” (Charley Patton Complete Recordings—JSP Records)

7. Mississippi John Hurt, “Stack O’Lee” (Before the Blues—Yazoo)

8. Henry Thomas, “Bob McKinney” (Texas Worried Blues—Document Records)

MaRainey (1)
Gertrude Pridgett “Ma” Rainey c. 1917. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A third type of scheme is a preexisting harmonic progression that musicians use primarily to support original melodies. This type of scheme is the most productive, and often supports countless melodies. The most well-known and productive of this type is the standard twelve-bar blues scheme. All seven of the following recordings (9–15)—four from the “race” series and three from the “hillbilly” series—contain original melodies combined with the standard twelve-bar blues harmonic progression, and all demonstrate the AAB poetic form that typically combines with the scheme, in which singers state the opening A line of a couplet twice and follow it with one statement of the rhyming B line.

9. Ida Cox, “Lonesome Blues” (Ida Cox Complete Recorded Works—Document Records)

10. Charley Patton, “Moon Going Down” (Charlie Patton Founder of the Delta Blues—Mastercopy Pty Ltd)

11. Jesse “Babyface” Thomas, “Down in Texas Blues” (The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of)

12. Lonnie Johnson, “Mr. Johnson’s Blues No. 2” (A Smithsonian Collection of Classic Blues Singers—Sony/Smithsonian)

13. W. Lee O’Daniel & His Hillbilly Boys, “Dirty Hangover Blues” (White Country Blues—Sony)

14. Tom Ashley, “Haunted Road Blues” (White Country Blues—Sony)

15. Carlisle & Ball, “Guitar Blues” (White Country Blues—Sony)

A fourth type of scheme is a preexisting melodic structure whose harmonizations display considerable variance and yet also certain requirements. The following four examples—two by black musicians and two by white musicians—are all realizations of the “Sitting on Top of the World” scheme, and use the same melodic structure. Their harmonizations are in some ways quite similar—for example, all four harmonize the beginning of the second, rhyming line with the same harmony, and accelerate the rate of harmonic change going into the cadence—but the harmonizations vary more than the melodic structure.

16. Tampa Red, “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way No. 2” (Tampa Red the Guitar Wizard—Sony)

17. Bill Broonzy, “Worrying You Off My Mind” (Big Bill Broonzy Good Time Tonight—Sony)

18. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, “Sittin’ on Top of the World” (Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys Anthology—Puzzle Productions)

19. The Carter Family, “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” (On Border Radio—Arhoolie)

Finally, a fifth type of scheme is a preexisting melodic structure for which performers have little shared conception of the harmonic progression. The last four examples—one by a black musician and three by white musicians—are all realizations of the “John Henry” scheme, and use the same melodic structure, but very different harmonic progressions. Riley Puckett, in his instrumental version, uses only one harmony throughout (20). Woody Guthrie uses two harmonies (21). The Williamson Brothers & Curry also use two harmonies, but arrive at a much different harmonization than Guthrie (22). Leadbelly uses three harmonies (23).

20. Riley Puckett, “A Darkey’s Wail” (White Country Blues—Sony)

21. Woody Guthrie, “John Henry” (Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs—Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)

22. Williamson Brothers & Curry, “Gonna Die with My Hammer in My Hand” (Anthology of American Folk Music—Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)

23. Leadbelly, “John Henry” (Lead Belly’s Last Sessions— Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)

Record companies presented American vernacular music in the context of a racial divide, but examining the common stock of schemes helps to reveal how extensively black and white musical traditions are intertwined. There are stylistic differences between blues and country music, but many differences lie on the surface, while on a deeper level the two populations frequently rely on the same musical foundations.

Headline image credit: Fiddlin’ Bill Hensley. Asheville, North Carolina. Public domain via Library of Congress.

Recent Comments

  1. Paul Manning

    Interested in your Early blues and country music feature but can’t get any of the music to play – any ideas?

  2. Nick Stoia

    Hi Paul,

    Try using a different browser. It seems to work on Safari, but not on Firefox—a problem we’re trying to fix.

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