With an extensive history of being a blue collar town, London has always been a city that needs to blow off some steam. Thankfully throughout the summer, there are many festivals held in the downtown core. The most rockin’ of these festivals, of course, is London Bluesfest, London’s annual celebration of all things blues and classic rock. In terms of sheer sweat and raw volume, there’s little to compare; if you want a good time, guaranteed, then London Bluesfest is the place you need to be.
I was raised in the house of a blues purist. Forget King Crimson, or Elvis the King. The only kings of my adolescence were Freddie, Albert, and B.B. While he accepted that there were some Englishmen who were capable of playing the blues well – Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Jimmy Page once in a while – it was largely an American phenomenon and his approach to it could be summed up in the title of Mississippi Fred Dowell’s classic album: I Do Not Want No Rock ‘n’ Roll. Rock ‘n’ Roll was a whole different thing: an amalgamation, a pastiche, a mutation. The blues itself was the pure, Platonic form, lifted whole and breathing from the history of the 19th and 20th Centuries and set forth to the masses.
What Are The Blues?
The blues came from the songs sung by African-American field hands in the American South, songs meant to regulate the speed of the planting and harvesting work, as well as from spirituals sung as a form of prayer. From this there evolved a form of music that had a few basic rules governing what it meant to “play the blues.” First was the call-and-response nature of the music, an outgrowth of the form’s origins in the fields. While working, the lead hand would call out a chant and the workers would respond with a chant of their own. This simple work pacing strategy can be seen in the structure of later blues standards like “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday’s Just As Bad).” The call and the response are both right there in the title, although in the case of the song the singer (sometimes also known as a “blues shouter”, especially when they can get their voice over the crowd without the need for amplification) handles both roles. This is the whole of a single blues verse: a quatrain of the same two lines repeated followed by a third, finishing line:
“They call it Stormy Monday / But Tuesday’s just as bad / They call it Stormy Monday / But Tuesday’s just as bad / Wednesday’s worse, and Thursday’s oh so sad.”
In a sense this is repeated as well in the actual musical structure of a blues song. Like all great art forms there are specific strictures to how a blues song is formed. W.C. Handy, the “Father Of The Blues” and the man who moved it from the Mississippi Delta to Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, laid it down in writing. The blues are played in twelve bar segments, popularly known as “the 12 bar blues.” These twelve bars follow a specific chord progression, based on the key: the chords will be the first, fourth, and fifth chords of that key. The melody will always involve the use of some “blue notes”, typically minor-sounding notes, for example the third and fifth in the key. This has been popularly described as a sound akin to a person crying, or sometimes a woman screaming (hence Clapton’s famous “woman tone” that he dialled out of his guitar when he played with Cream in the mid 1960s). At the end of the main chord sequence, blues bands often throw in a “turnaround” sequence for the last two lines as well, a little pattern that reverses the chords and walks them back in a new direction. A great example of this latter feature is found in Elmore James’ classic standard “The Sky Is Crying.”
In addition to the twelve bar structure and the use of specific chord progressions, the blues is also a certain subject matter. The blues are, at their heart, an anguished and passionate cry against everything that’s sorrowful in one’s life. If your job is getting you down, money is a worry, then the blues are there to worry along with you. Otis Rush’s “Working Man” and Fenton Robinson’s “Somebody Loan Me A Dime” are two great examples of this. Much more common, of course, is the blues about relationships. B.B. King’s classic “The Thrill Is Gone” talks about how painful it is when you fall out of love. Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is about going back when you know you shouldn’t. Buddy Guy’s “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In (Slippin’ Out, Slippin’ In)” is about infidelity, as is Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man.” Love, and it’s fallout, has been the fodder for popular songs since time out of mind, and it’s no different when it comes to the blues. Relationships are the closest thing we have to a universal human experience, so it’s popularity as a subject matter should come as no surprise.
From The Crossroads To The Smokestacks
The blues came from the fields, to be sure, but it’s origins as a form of popular music stem specifically from the Mississippi Delta. The long-standing practice of blues players to play a specific form of the blues (known quite naturally as “Delta Blues”) around the turn of the 20th Century as well as the success of W.C. Handy in mixing the blues with ragtime and jazz led to some record producers to come poking their nose around the area as early as the 1920s. Freddie Spruell went to Chicago to record “Milk Cow Blues” in 1926 and it’s largely regarded as the first recording of that Delta blues sound. Son House and Robert Johnson would also record, the former in Wisconsin and the latter in Texas. Robert Johnson is likely the origin of the blues’ reputation as having a sinister vibe. The legendary bluesman who goes to the crossroads at midnight to receive unearthly abilities from the devil himself is an amalgamation of Johnson’s life and music. He sung about going down the crossroads and falling down on his knees, after all, and his life and death were mysterious and complicated. He died at the age of 27 under suspicious circumstances. Blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson claimed he had been there and that Johnson had died after drinking poisoned whiskey supplied by the jealous husband of a woman that Johnson had been flirting with. As for the unearthly abilities, his only recordings from 1936-1937 show the power and passion that the Delta blues offered. Keith Richards, a longtime Johnson devotee, claims that when he and his friends first heard Johnson’s recordings they assumed there must have been two guitarists on the recording; the idea that such complicated patterns could be wrought by one guitarist did not even cross their minds.
The journey of the blues from their steamy Mississippi origins to remaking the entire sound of popular music in their image got it’s kickstart during the upheaval of the 1940s. African-Americans in the South travelled north after America was brought into the Second World War in the finals days of 1941, chasing economic advancement in the bustling industrial works of the North. Chicago was the rail hub for all the lines coming up from the South, and so it was that Chicago was the city where the slippery, rain-making sound of the Delta Blues first met the roil and clang of modern industrialism and it’s resultant technologies. That is to say, it’s where the Delta blues got plugged in. Guitars became the real focus musically. In the humidity of the Delta they were an easy, portable way to accompany yourself; in Chicago, they became electrified, amplified, and carried all of the raw power that old Delta songs like “I’ll Be Your Hoochie Coochie Man” promised. The blue notes, played on guitar, evoked a new kind of power that made people’s ears perk up. That electrified Chicago sound found its way across the continent rapidly after the end of the war: it filtered back into the South, where it caught fire again in Memphis. The common mythos is that Elvis Presley picked up the sound and married it to the fast-shuffle rhythms of Southern country & western music to create rock ‘n’ roll; in truth he was just a mainstream face for artists like Chuck Berry who were already lighting a fire in the youth of the towns they visited.
From The Smokestacks To A Theatre Near You
Rock ‘n’ roll was especially popular in England. Kids in the 1950s ate it up and merged it into their own musical traditions, giving birth to, among other things, the Merseybeat scene that sent The Beatles out into the world. A small number of those early rock ‘n’ roll scene kids took the time to go further back and find out where Elvis and Co. were copping their moves from. This would involve importing old blues records from America – The Anthology Of American Folk Music, which highlighted a number of the old Delta players, as well as select records by icons like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson. This was considerably expensive, so the English blues movement was at first very localized; it’s a popular and important fact that Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page all went to the same high school and traded records.
The influence of those imported blues records on the subsequent landscape of rock ‘n’ roll cannot be overstated. Robert Johnson was the driving force behind Richards, Jagger, Watts, and Jones to form The Rolling Stones. Led Zeppelin’s first two albums are practically Willie Dixon cover albums. The graffiti around London in the mid-1960s might have claimed Clapton as God but he was really just riffing off the Bible written by the old American blues masters. Jimi Hendrix, who shaped the blues into something raw, expansive, and psychedelic, was at the root a disciple of Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy. Furthermore, while the actual note-for-note sound of the blues diminished over the decades as that original blues-rock sound became mixed with countless other genres, the blues are still constantly present in all forms of popular music. That I-IV-V chord progression is insidious; it gets into everything, and if you listen closely to songs on the radio you’ll realize that most of them are either using that progression or have mutated it carefully in some way. Even music that explicitly rejected the old way of doing things couldn’t help it; if you take The Ramones and strip away the leather jackets, the wide-leg stance, and the snotty attitude, you’re left with 25 years of I-IV-V chord progressions. The blues are still everywhere, and still have an effect on how we shape and consider popular music as a whole.
The London Bluesfest
The annual London Bluesfest, typically held in Harris Park near downtown London, Ontario, is a celebration of all of this history and musical sentiment. For four days Harris Park is taken under the wing of those soaring blue notes and audiences are shown what it means to “play the blues.” The festival attracts blues acts both local and international. Past and present shows have included local favourites like Bill Durst (formerly of London legends Thundermug) and Ray Fuller. At the same time, they’ve attracted international names in droves, including Canadian blues icon Colin James as well as American acts like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Robert Cray; the 2018 lineup included Savoy Brown, one of the earliest of those fateful English blues bands. In an effort to attract a wider audience (since the blues unfortunately is still a niche genre on it’s own, despite how much of modern music is made in it’s image) London Bluesfest also features a number of extremely recognizable classic rock acts: past and present performers have included Canadian icon Burton Cummings, southern rock standard bearers Molly Hatchet, jazz-rockers Blood, Sweat and Tears, Rick “Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo” Derringer, and Blue Oyster Cult. While this move has been controversial in some circles, the classic rock bands that London Bluesfest have brought in are all offshoots of the blues themselves, so the heart of the festival is still based around the mournful, lonesome cry and the jumping jukebox shuffle of the blues.
While the blues have power and majesty when listened to at home, on record, when they are experienced in a live setting it is another thing entirely. The late Gord Downie once said “the blues are still required” and part of that requirement is seeing them performed live, by a band that’s been doing them for years, a band that plays the blues as well as they breathe, or walk. If you are a fan of live music – or of music at all, really – then the London Bluesfest is the annual summer festival to go to in London, Ontario.