Broadcast: November 29, 2004
Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English. I’m Doug Johnson. This week ... the second of our two programs about the history of blues music.
If you listened last week, you heard that song. It's called “Soon Forgotten.” It is one of thousands of great blues songs. You might remember that we said it was sung by McKinley Morganfield. Who is that?
McKinley Morganfield was much better known as Muddy Waters, one of the greatest blues musicians of all. He died in nineteen eighty-three. He left a lasting influence on blues music.
Muddy Waters grew up in the American South, in the area by the mouth of the Mississippi River called the Mississippi Delta. Blues also grew up in the Mississippi Delta. Muddy Waters learned blues guitar from Robert Johnson there. Robert Johnson was another big influence on this kind of music. We talked about him last week.
Muddy Waters left Mississippi and moved north to Illinois in nineteen forty-three. It was in Chicago that the American public came to know him. It was in Chicago that Muddy Waters put together bands of several musicians. These bands played a kind of music that was soon called Chicago Blues.
Muddy Waters made Chicago Blues famous. And Chicago Blues helped make Muddy Waters famous. His first big hit was with a recording of an old Mississippi Delta blues song called “I Can’t Be Satisfied.”
The great guitar work you heard was also Muddy Waters. Soon after he recorded that song, he began playing electric guitar. The electric guitar became another strong voice for blues music.
With an electric guitar, blues musicians could add more to their music. The electric guitar permitted them to create sounds that were not really possible before.
For a moment, we would like you to listen to the man who is perhaps the best-known blues guitarist today, B.B. King. Listen to him and Lucille. Lucille is what he named his electric guitar. The song is called “How Blue Can You Get?”
B.B. King makes Lucille almost talk. She seems to speak a language. You might not understand the words, but you can understand the meaning. B.B. King and Lucille create all of the feeling and emotion that is the tradition of blues music.
The human voice was the first blues instrument. It still is. Lucille can get very close, but you still need the human voice for blues.
The words in blues music almost always tell a story. The words are usually simple and easy to remember. Usually, the opening line of a song is repeated and then followed by a third line that rhymes. It's like a poem.
That B.B. King song we just played begins with these lines:
"I’ve been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met.
"I say, I’ve been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met.
"You know our love is nothing but the blues. Baby, how blue can you get?
Those words were meant to be sung by someone who really knows how to sing the blues.
To feel "blue" is to feel sad or disappointed. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang says this term was in use by the late seventeen hundreds.
To "sing the blues," however, meant to complain, especially in the kind of sing-song voice of a child unhappy about a rainy day. The expression "singing the blues" goes back at least to nineteen eighteen.
Today a lot of people pay good money to hear musicians sing the blues. But what about the future?
Many blues musicians are playing and recording today. One of them is a young woman named Shemekia Copeland. She was born in nineteen seventy-nine. Shemekia Copeland grew up listening to blues. Her father is the famous blues musician Johnny Copeland.
Listen as Shemekia Copeland sings a song from "Wicked," one of her albums. The name of the song is "The Other Woman.”
Some people will try to tell you that blues music is sad. The words may be sad. But the music has always been a way to lift the soul, a kind of medicine for dealing with hard times.
Blues music came from the Mississippi Delta. It came from the cotton fields of North Carolina. It came from the red dirt farms of Georgia.
Blues music began as very much a part of the black experience in America. The beat and the vocal tradition came with the slaves from Africa. But, years later, it grew into an American form of music like no other.
Today, blues music comes from everywhere. Johnny Lang, a popular artist, is not even from the South. He is from North Dakota. His first album came out in nineteen ninety-seven. He was immediately recognized as a top blues performer. And Johnny Lang was only sixteen years old.
We end our program with the modern sound of blues music as performed by Johnny Lang. The song is called “Lie To Me!”
Our program was written and produced by Paul Thompson. I’m Doug Johnson. To send us e-mail, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English.