What was your first musical memory?
"[In the 1940s I was at a Harvest Camp with]… a friend of mine, who was actually killed in the war so I only knew him briefly… These were camps that used to be put on for harvesting so the Scouts and young people could be employed because others were away in the services… This chap, Stan Higham, came up to me and said, 'There's something I want you to hear.' He took me down to a kind of hedge between the two farms and there was this extraordinary crying and yelling, I couldn't call it singing but it was quite spine-chilling. He said, 'Do you know what this is?' I said, 'No, I've no idea' and he said 'You're listening to blues'… I thought it quite extraordinary. It was in Stoke-by-Clare in Suffolk and a lot of the American army sites were in Suffolk."
Taken from an interview on EarlyBlues.com with his friend Alan White in 2009, this is the story of renowned British blues historian Paul Oliver's first brush with the genre. Birthed by African-Americans in the slavery-scarred southern states of America in the late 1800s, the blues is a conversational form, lyrically preoccupied with heartbreak, emptiness, societal sadness and the futile but immortal urge to persist against the odds. In fact, Oliver's description of having his mind opened by those "quite extraordinary" field hollers feels, in itself, like a blues song: emotive, pocked with the tragedy of death, and relayed – in that idiomatically colloquial way in which most blues songs unfold – to a friend.
The real question here, of course, is this: how did Oliver and White – two white teenagers in rural Suffolk – come to fall in love with the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Lead Belly; with songs written by and for the descendants of African-American slaves, at a time before the internet, before pop radio, during the Second World War? Perhaps the most striking thing about the blues is how well it's travelled, not just across borders but from generation to generation. At the risk of stating the obvious, you can hear the blues in every genre and style of music – jazz, R&B, rock and roll, punk, prog, heavy metal, disco, techno, rave, rap – that has periodically come to dominate British pop culture since 1945. In a way, it's apt that it was during the twentieth century's most bloody conflict that the country's love affair with the blues began.
Lead Belly - Black Betty, 1939
As you may have already guessed from Oliver's story, the shock troops of this early blues invasion were the American GIs, most of whom were African-American, who found themselves stationed at army bases in Britain as the Allies waged war on Hitler. Dances would be held regularly at these bases and – alongside jazz, R&B, swing, dixieland, and country and western – the blues was popular with the resident military personnel and their British guests, many of whom were ready to embrace anything to escape the daily reality of life under wartime. In fact, there are plenty of stories of GIs giving records away to local kids in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the locals, like a kind of charitable, heavily-armed, walking version of Discogs. If that seems like a decadent way to behave during wartime, remember that the Americans were often earning five times what their British counterparts were, and had no living costs to worry about either. You'd imagine this disposable income, along with their accents, chewing gum, cigarettes, nylon, jukeboxes, Coca-Cola and jitterbugs, would make them the centre of attention in British pubs too – the kind of environment where people tend to enjoy having the odd chat about music.
Others who deserve a place in this story are the early adopters of jazz in Britain, who were seeking out blues records before WWII even began. It took a while for jazz to be adopted by the contemporary British music press but once they did, it was with real gusto – and the blues, promoted as "the roots of jazz", got swept along in that. As The Background of the Blues, a pamphlet published during WWII and described as "enormously influential" in Roberta Freund Schwartz's book How Britain Got the Blues, put it: "the blues is not the whole of jazz, but the whole of the blues is jazz, having no existence apart from this idiom. It forms a bridge between southern folk music – work songs and gospel songs – and the organised harmonic and rhythmic complexities of the improvising band." This led, basically, to obsessive jazz eggheads competing against each other to show they knew the most about where their music came from by zealously buying up every blues record they could find.
Muddy Waters - You Got to Take Sick and Die Some of These Days, 1941
For all its initial spread, it wasn't until the decades after the war that the impact of the blues was most keenly and spectacularly felt in this country and beyond, as kids who'd grown up raised on the stuff in provincial, parochial Britain found a way to turn the old blues standards into pop phenomena, and themselves into megastars. Again, the role of American GIs was key: Mick Jagger first heard Muddy Waters after befriending an army cook at a US airbase his dad, a PE teacher, was working at. Van Morrison was another – the legendary Northern Irish R&B star's father worked at the shipyards in Belfast and, during WWII, built up a record collection by trading with the American GIs and marines who'd pass through. This hoard, full of the work of bluesmen like Mose Allison and Josh White, would later prove a deep well of inspiration to "Van the Man" – as the genre would, in general, to people like The Who, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and Fleetwood Mac, all British acts whose incredible success wouldn't have been possible, or at least would have looked very different, without the blues.
Sadly, further verifiable evidence of the wartime blues invasion is thin on the ground – while Paul Oliver's anecdote is a vivid one, he is 90 years-old next year, and not an easy man to get hold of. Many others whose memories may have proved useful are no longer with us. But what seems clear is that the blues is not just the first musical memory of Paul Oliver, but also the first musical memory of the modern world – the genesis for so much, the seed that still germinates. And, if you ever find yourself wondering why it's proved so durable, it might be worth attempting to picture the scenes in the public air raid shelters when the BBC used to pipe the likes of Lead Belly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee into to calm people's nerves. The blues might have been born in slave-era America, but misery and heartbreak are infinite and universal – and so, finally, is the need for humanity and solace, two things the blues will always provide.
Header image of African-American soldiers stationed in Europe during the Second World War from Wikimedia, Library of Congress.