It begins with a moan, a plaintive whisper that grows more urgent as it insists that someone or something has done its singer wrong: a woman, a boss, a bottle, the devil. “I’m a motherless child, and I don’t know right from wrong.” “Early this morning, when you knocked on my door / And I said, ‘Hello Satan, I believe it’s time to go.’ ” “Treat me lowdown and dirty, any old way you do.”
Thus the blues, the folk music of the Southern countryside. The blues is a poetry, set to music, of longing and want, its singer just a step ahead of death, while in the background stretch a dusty dirt road, a cotton field on one side and a row of magnolias along the other, and the river that leads to Memphis or New Orleans.
Emerging in the 1910s, though with much older roots, the blues was the invention of African-American singers, a blend of field chants, country music, gospel, and other genres. The blues crossed the color line in World War II (see “Re-Enlistment Blues” in James Jones’s From Here to Eternity) at just about the time that it traveled out of the South to war-industry centers like Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles. When it got to such noisy places, all honking horns and grinding gears, the low moan of the blues could not make itself heard. It added the saxophone, drum kit, and piano, and thus amplified, the blues, now rhythm and blues, took on the swagger of a young man with money in his pocket far away from home, and happier for it: Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner are a world away from Sleepy John Estes and Robert Johnson, even if the kinship among them is obvious.
Asked about the distinction between the two genres, modern bluesman Eric Bibb tells me, “It’s true that rhythm and blues comes from a noisier world than blues. But for me, music is more like a river: It’s connected to a source, it goes around, it replenishes itself, and the boundaries we try to impose on it often don’t stand up. One way to think of it is that the blues is essentially a vocal music, while R&B is more instrumental—but the real way to think of it is this: It’s a good song, or it’s not a good song.”
With Bibb’s catholicity in mind, it’s worth watching YouTube clips of, say, Howlin’ Wolf and pondering just what he was playing: Blues? Rhythm and blues? Something in between? The fine distinctions hold up, but only just. For his own part, Wolf didn’t care about categories, either; he wasn’t above throwing a show tune or Tin Pan Alley song into a set if it fit, and he drew no color lines himself, as when he said of Elvis Presley, “If he hadn’t went over and played the blues, he might not have been able to press the numbers he wanted to play.”