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Blues

The Blues

Since the birth of the blues in the mid-19th century, the genre has spawned a great many offspring – classical, modern, urban and swamp among them. The blues were a major influence on rock, soul and funk and to this day remain one of the cornerstones of American popular music. Its most notable practitioners include such legends as B.B. King and Buddy Guy, each of whom has inspired legions of followers.

The Blues

The blues first came out of the cotton fields of the southern United States – particularly in the Mississippi delta – in the mid-1860s, when African slaves, deprived of their customs and culture, transformed work songs and field hollers into a vocal and instrumental music that featured the banjo, violin and guitar or any other object capable of producing a compelling sound.

Some claim the official baptism of the blues dates back to February of 1920 with the recording of the Mamie Smith LP Crazy Blues in New York City. Before then, however, guitarist and Delta Blues pioneer Charley Patton, born in Mississippi in 1891, had written such songs as Down the Dirt Road Blues and Poney Blues, though his first recording (A Spoonful Blues) was not released until 1929. Also popular at the time were such classic blues singers as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Ida Cox.

The Blues Hit the Road

The 1920s were also marked by the migration of Afro-Americans from the South to the big cities of the northern United States. In search of jobs and hoping for a better future, they were also fleeing racial segregation. These circumstances gave rise to different regional blues styles, including the East coast blues, a version much lighter than its soul-searing Mississippi delta cousin.

Before and after the Second World War, Chicago, then a bustling industrial hub, was a destination of choice for newcomers and job seekers. Among them were John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson and Big Maceo. With bluesmen from everywhere flocking to the city, which was home to several recording studios, Chicago was soon anointed "Home of the Blues."

Legendary Names

B.B. King Gravel-voiced bluesman Muddy "Mississippi" Waters was among leading figures in the development of urban blues, a phenomenon that grew mainly out of Chicago and was characterized by the addition of instruments such as electric guitar, bass and amplified harmonica. Chuck Berry and Buddy Guy would draw heavily from the urban blues style of the 1950s – be it from Chicago, Detroit or Kansas City. Each in turn created an updated versions of the rural work songs out of which the early blues emerged, and each exerted a powerful influence on rock groups from the 1960s, including The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones.

John Lee Hooker The name B.B. King is synonymous with the blues. Born in Mississippi in the 1920s, the blues guitarist and singer/songwriter moved to Memphis, where he patented a sometimes mordant, cutting style influenced by the swing- and jazz-inspired blues of Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker. In the late 1940s King put together a string of hits (including You Know I Love You and Woke Up This Morning) that spurred legions of imitators. In the 1960s and 1970s, King even tried his hand at rock. The great B.B. King was an inspiration to an entire generation of musicians, from Eric Clapton to U2.

John Mayall Detroit-based guitarist John Lee Hooker cut his teeth in the 1940s and 1950s. His career really took flight in the 1960s, however, at the time of the British blues boom with Alexis Korner, John Mayall and The Rolling Stones. Even today, the one-of-a-kind Hooker, forever his own man, remains one of the icons of the genre.

The 1970s Until Now

The 1970s witnessed the emergence of blues-rock with the likes of Johnny Winter. The 1970s were the golden age of the electric guitar, revered, more than ever, after the sudden death of Jimi Hendrix. During this period, the blues, increasingly, were being played by white musicians, and the talented Fenton Robinson, Phillip Walker and Lonnie Brooks, to name but a few, were largely overshadowed by such blues titans as Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker. As a consequence, several Afro-American artists soon turned to soul, reggae or hip-hop.

Also making his mark at this time was American guitarist George Thorogood, flanked by his group The Destroyers. By the 1980s the genre had lost a bit of its soul at the hands of a more commercial brand of blues, yet its popularity remained undiminished thanks to the genre's legendary figures. In 1983, Stevie Ray Vaughan injected new life into the blues with the album Texas Flood, as did Robert Cray, with his 1986 hit album Strong Persuader.

In 1990, Vaughan's death in a plane crash robbed the blues of a monster talent. In the ensuing decade many of the genre's classics were remastered in CD format, and blues artists such as Lucky Peterson and Kenny Neal vaulted to success on Chicago's newly-minted Alligator label, whose roster also included some veteran talent. Also in the 1990s, Eric Clapton marked a comeback with the album Unplugged.

While the new generation of bluesmen such as Bernard Allison and Popa Chubby seem to bear the influence of Vaughan, Hendrix and hard rock, the early blues, as poignant and nostalgic as ever, are still played and enjoyed the world over.

Blues at the Festival

Bob Walsh is undoubtedly among the torchbearers of the blues in Québec. Walsh has performed at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal on more than ten occasions since 1984. To mark the Festival's 25th edition in 2004, the bluesman served up a concert for the ages, and in 2009 Walsh returned to deliver another rousing performance, serving notice that the blues, in Québec, are in good hands.

Buddy Guy Steve Hill, another big name on the Québec blues scene, is also a favourite of Festival fans. Hill has appeared at the Festival on several occasions, and in 1999 he shared the stage with Buddy Guy and Jimmie Vaughan. In the summer of 2009, Hill gave an impressive show alongside Jean-Sébastien Chouinard, aka Johnny Flash.

With guests such as Jim Zeller, Carl Tremblay and Jean Millaire, we can safely say that the Festival has given fans the very best that Québec blues has to offer. Accompanied by grizzled blues veterans Bob Harrisson and Jimmy James, the three musicians were on hand to launch Blue Wednesdays at L'Astral a few months after the conclusion of the 2009 Festival.

The great B.B. King is also among the blues legends who have graced the Festival stages over the years. In addition to his visit in the summer of 2006, King was part of a memorable showdown with Buddy Guy in 1995. A Festival regular, the latter was on hand to mark its 30th anniversary, performing alongside Susan Tedeschi. Also bringing their warm and powerful voices to the 2009 Festival were blues artists Eli Paperboy Reed, Chocolate Thunder and Diunna Greenleaf.

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