What did African American blues musicians think of traveling and working outside of the United States? In this post, historic archive sources unlock a forgotten perspective.
Most histories of the British ‘blues boom’ of the early 1960s are told from the perspective of the listeners and aspiring musicians who made up the scene. Scholars like Roberta Freund Schwartz and Andrew Kellett have painstakingly documented how the blues spread to Britain, first through recordings and eventually through live performances by visiting bluesmen like Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. But we know far less about what African American musicians themselves thought of these journeys and the attention they were given by these new, white fans.
It’s clear that most visiting blues musicians were quite surprised at the attention they received from their British audiences. But this surprise is often evidenced by stories of things that went wrong, or misunderstandings between artist and audience. For example, the myth that Muddy Waters’s bold electric blues style was too loud for British audiences, who were more accustomed to the ‘folk blues’ of Big Bill Broonzy, demonstrates the common assumption that visiting bluesmen did not know what their new audiences would want to hear.
Other anecdotes attest to the eccentricity and volatility of visiting blues musicians in their new surroundings. The harmonica player Rice Miller (aka Sonny Boy Williamson II), for instance, decided to channel the ‘English gentleman’ on his European tours, appearing in a pinstripe suit and bowler hat during concerts. His interactions with British musicians were often incendiary: members of the then-fledgling Yardbirds recall his heavy drinking and his wanton changes to the tempo and keys of songs during performances (Kellett 2017, pp. 63-64).
Such anecdotes certainly capture an element of visiting musicians’ personalities, but they also help to amplify the sense of awe that their tellers would have felt when encountering their idols for the first time. Told by performers like Eric Clapton or Robert Plant, who have since become legends in their own right, these anecdotes filter the visiting musicians’ perspectives through the imaginations of their first British audiences.
Evidence from magazines of the day show another side to the story: in print, African American visitors often appeared more moderate – even diplomatic – and were often acutely aware of the potentials of a new audience in Europe.
In July 1961, the Melody Maker published a short interview with the pianist Memphis Slim, who was already building an intercontinental career. By this time he’d already toured Britain, France, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and Israel and Israel that year, and had since worked in France, Switzerland, and Scandinavia.
Slim observed that London was ‘a haven for blues’ and that ‘everybody in Chicago wants to come over.’ Indeed, the pianist speculated that he could himself make money by acting as an intermediary for American blues artists wanting to play abroad: ‘If I could sell all the blues players who wanted to come,’ Slim joked, ‘I wouldn’t have to work any more.’
Interestingly, too, Slim understood the importance of distinguishing European blues tastes from those of his African American audiences back home:
‘I can play things in England – in most of Europe if it comes to that – that I couldn’t play at home to my own audience in Chicago. […] [T]he Negro audience don’t want those old rolling blues that I learned in my younger days. At least, most of the time they don’t. Not until it gets late, and then somebody’s sure to call for the real blues.’
Slim’s comments allude to the widespread belief that African American audiences were abandoning an existing generation of blues performers in favour of more contemporary, aspirational, and cosmopolitan R&B and Soul musicians, although it is clear that the blues still held an important place in African American cultural life.
But more importantly, Slim shows that he and other blues musicians were already adapting to these circumstances, and that this ability to adapt to diverging audience tastes was imperative for continued career success. While blues musicians had to satisfy their audiences at home with new music, they could not bring the same repertoire to Europe: ‘This is something the Chicago singer has to learn before he comes’, Slim asserted; ‘He has to do the older kind of song. Otherwise he’s liable to be misunderstood.’
Slim’s comments provide an alternative take on this period of musical history. Most historians see the late 1950s and early 1960s as a period of discovery and change: audiences across Europe began to embrace the blues, prompting groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to change the face of popular music forever with their blues-inspired pop. But we should also bear in mind that the African American musicians that these audiences encountered were making discoveries of their own, as they adapted to a new musical landscape that positioned them as the ‘roots’ – rather than the innovators – of popular music.
‘London Loves Blues, Says Memphis Slim’, Melody Maker, 15 July 1961, p. 7.
Andrew Kellett, The British Blues Network: Adoption, Emulation, and Creativity (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017).
Roberta Freund Schwartz, How Britain Got the Blues: The Transmission and Reception of American Blues Style in the United Kingdom (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).