How the Blues Birthed Rock ‘n’ Roll

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 10.16.13 in Spotlights

Which acoustic guitarist had the greatest influence on rock ‘n’ roll — arguably as significant as electric counterparts like Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, B.B, Albert and Freddie King, and Buddy Guy? No, not Robert Johnson, though I’d name him and Mississippi John Hurt runners-up. Judging from John Milward’s new book Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues), I’d say the honors go to fingerpicking Piedmont bluesman Rev. Gary Davis.


Davis, a street singer who specialized in religious songs, was born in South Carolina in 1896 and moved to New York in the 1940s. His guitar style — swift, sonorous, supple and heavily syncopated — incorporated elements of blues, jazz, gospel, pop and parade marches though it was based most heavily on ragtime. In the ’50s and early ’60s, as the folk music movement was gaining momentum, Greenwich Village guitarists discovered him and began flocking to his shack in the Bronx for lessons. By the time he died in 1972, his students had included guitarists who today are well known (David Bromberg, Ry Cooder), moderately well known (Stefan Grossman, Roy Book Binder) and still obscure (Woody Mann, Ian Buchanan). But from them the Davis influence spread to names like Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary (who did his “If I Had My Way” on their 1962 debut album, which bought him a house in Queens), Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and others. And from them Davis’s style soon reached down into popular culture.

These are the kind of connections Milward makes in Crossroads as he traces the earliest exposure of masses of white kids to country blues via collegiate folkies and the Newport Folk Festival (where Hurt was the first rediscovery to appear, in 1963, followed quickly by Skip James, Sleepy John Estes, Robert Wilkins, Fred McDowell and Son House). Around the same time, Chicago masters like Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf were starting to lose their grip on black audiences, which were evolving into R&B and soul music, and before long they, too, were playing Newport. As long as the electric blues bands remained black, the folk purists were mollified. But by the time the Paul Butterfield Blues Band played Newport in 1965 (with some of them additionally backing Dylan on his infamous electric set), the battle was over and there was little doubt which way popular music was headed. “To me, the Butterfield Blues Band was the most important thing to happen at Newport in 1965,” said Geoff Muldaur, “not Dylan going electric, which people have milked for so many years. The thing that happened that changed the world map of music was that an integrated band came in from Chicago to play real Chicago blues…the fact was that this white guy was so good, and had a band that could pull it off and hold their own among the kings, which they did.”

In England in the early ’60s, blues was likewise picking up steam — the main difference was that British kids didn’t have to deal with the racial questions of their American counterparts. The British blues scene grew out of the skiffle craze of the mid ’50s, and the Brits who broke out of that to start introducing each other to their favorite bluesmen related to the music on a highly personal level that, in retrospect, might seem rather naïve, but that allowed Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, John Mayall and others to make it their own. For Milward, the penultimate British blues artists were not Clapton with the Yardbirds or Cream, or the Stones, but the pre-stardom Fleetwood Mac featuring Peter Green on guitar. Blues vets like B.B. King, Otis Spann and Buddy Guy considered Green the Brit guitarist with the most original blues style and the greatest feel for the music; even when Green and the band moved into more experimental phases with their third album, 1969′s Then Play On, the lessons of the blues were imprinted on everything they played. But Green flamed out dramatically, a bad LSD trip exacerbating his fear of success, and his music turned into improvisations both spineless and rudderless. His life since the early ’70s has been an unmitigated disaster that largely excluded music entirely, while Clapton became king of the British blues and the Stones evolved into the self-declared World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.

Meanwhile, blues rock powered through the late ’60s, most of the ’70s and well into the ’80s. Surviving bluesmen like B.B., Muddy, John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy became fixtures at the rock ballrooms and then the white clubs, often performing (and recording) with the white artists they’d inspired. Jimi Hendrix straddled black and white, American and English, blues and rock. White blues and blues rock took on as much variety as blues itself had in its heyday, producing stars such as Bonnie Raitt and ultimately Stevie Ray Vaughan, who commanded the respect of the African-American musicians they idolized, as well as garish spectacles from Ten Years After to Led Zeppelin, who, for the most part, didn’t. Milward pretty much ends the evolution of the blues with brothers Stevie Ray and Jimmie (once of the Fabulous T-Birds, but long a solo artist) Vaughan and the ZZ Top of MTV video fame. All are Texans, the Lone Star State being where blues seem to have settled in as the rest of the nation pretty much lost interest. (Inexplicably, he virtually ignores Robert Cray’s triumphs from the mid ’80s on.) That the music is still tattooed on the American soul is suggested, according to Milward, by how often slide guitar appears on TV commercials, by the small underground school of traveling acoustic bluesmen, by the way artists like Dylan, Cooder and Tom Waits have continued to mutate the blues to their own ends, by the continuing vitality (and adaptability) of bluesmen like Buddy Guy and by the occasional young upstarts like the North Mississippi Allstars. If only there were more of them.