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Blues for Hard Times
KEXP Documentaries presents a new series–"Blues for Hard Times" with UW Music History Professor Larry Starr!

"A musical tour of the last century"--"Blues for Hard Times" brings us back to the city blues of Bessie Smith. Takes us for a walk in the worn shoes of country bluesmen Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson. Introduces the electric guitar into songs by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. And follows the blue note into pop music with artists like Patsy Cline, Ethel Waters, Big Mama Thornton and Booker T.

This 10-part series of short radio documentaries will be part of a class taking place at University of Washington that’s open to the public as part of the Simpson Center and Seattle Arts and Lectures’ Wednesday University program. You can sign up for this class at Seattle Arts and Lecture – lectures.org. The first class starts March 31st.


# 10 Green Onions by Booker T and The MGs

Memphis, Tennessee, 1962 at the Stax label studios the house band, Booker T and The MGs, are waiting for a musician to show up for his session. Jim Stewart, Stax's co-founder and the engineer for the night asks Booker T and The MGs to play a song they wrote while they wait. They record then Stewart asks them for a "B-side". And 18-year old organ player Booker T starts to jam on a song he wrote on piano, and the band kicks in. They jam on it for a while and in the middle of the jam the engineer starts the tape. The start and end of the song fade out because the band never stopped playing. When the single "Relax Yourself" is released to radio, the DJs ignore the intended song and start to play "Green Onions" and it hops onto the charts. Where it becomes one of the most memorable blues songs, and definitely one of the top-charting "accidental records" of all time.

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Booker T and The MGs

# 9 Johnny B Goode by Chuck Berry

In the 1950's one main man sparked the form and feel of rock-n-roll. By mixing country music with blues and aiming his lyrics to a teenage audience, Chuck Berry took a whole generation to new heights. Not only was he a phenomenal guitar player, but he cut a fashionable figure onstage in sharp suits and a swanky hairdo. He could dance and the poetry he sang made you want to shake. And when he'd do his famous "duck walk", squatting down to walk while tearing up a lead on guitar, the crowd would go wild.

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Chuck Berry

# 8 Walkin' After Midnight by Patsy Cline

In the 1950s Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters helped put the blues forward as a new kind of popular music. It was also in this decade that many pop artists added blues stylings to their songs. Patsy Cline is still one of the most popular female vocalists of all time. In 1957 the hit song "Walkin' After Midnight" not only stormed the country charts, but crashed the pop charts too. Patsy's incredible talent, and specifically this song where she added what's called "a blue note" to the chorus, changed the way that women were looked at in country music. Not just an opening act, Patsy Cline was obviously headline material.

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Patsy Cline

# 7 Smokestack Lightnin’ by Howlin’ Wolf

One of the most electric performers who ever lived, at 6'3" and 300 pounds, Howlin' Wolf cut an imposing figure in the Memphis and Chicago blues scenes in the 1950s. It was not only his gravelly voice, passionate harmonica playing or wild animal stage antics that made him the hottest act in town. He also used electric guitars in the band, and overdrove the amplifiers to create a sound that was so unique it still sounds modern today.

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Howlin' Wolf

# 6 Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton

Big Mama Thornton hit the charts with "Hound Dog" three years before Elvis did. She left her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama when she was 14 years old. Made her living on the African-American vaudeville curcuit as a harmonica player, drummer, singer and comic. She was discovered in Houston by producer Don Robey who took her into the studio and recorded "Hound Dog" but it wasn't until much later that it was released to radio. Big Mama herself was shocked when she was driving to her theatre job in 1953 and heard the announcer say "Here's a record that's gone nationwide! "Hound Dog" by Willie Mae Thornton!"

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Big Mama Thornton

# 5 Hoochie Coochie Man by Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters' influence on rock and roll can't be underestimated. He was also the "Father of the Chicago Blues" and like Howlin' Wolf used the electric guitar to take the blues to the next level. A level that would shake you to your bones with volume and passion. He said."My blues are made from hard times I had. I came up as a poor kid, my family was poor. And I had a lot of trouble women. And I always did like women. I was 14-15 years old, I always liked a woman whether she was my woman or not. That's the way my blues live, between money problems and women problems and good times."

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Muddy Waters

# 4 Crossroad Blues by Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is known as the "Grandfather of Rock n' Roll". The 29 this Delta bluesman recorded in 1937 and 1938 influenced the writing of the most famous names in rock including: Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. Many myths and legends surround this great player. The story goes that he sold his soul to the devil at midnight at a Mississippi crossroad in exchange for fame and guitar-playing ability.

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Robert Johnson

# 3 Stormy Weather by Ethel Waters

Thirty years before the civil rights movement 1930s singer Ethel Waters broke barriers of color and style just by sharing her feelings. Her charismatic personality appealed to people of every color, and as her career progressed she became the highest paid woman artist of her time. She was offered movie roles and the way she played them changed the way that the public looked at African-Americans.

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Ethel Waters

# 2 Black Snake Moan by Blind Lemon Jefferson

Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the most distinctive artists of all time. He grew up in poverty and learned to sing among the farm workers--you can hear the "field holler" tone in his voice. And he picked up guitar styles from country players and pulled in Latin flavor from the Mexican field workers he knew. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s raw sound is hard to listen to at first. But after a while it starts to stay with you. The subtle changing rhythms, the primal outcry of emotion. The sexy simmering quality. All this found on a scratchy recording made in the 1920s.

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Blind Lemon Johnson

# 1 St. Louis Blues - Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong

Written by African-American composer W.C. Handy, “St. Louis Blues” was one of the first popular blues songs. Handy had lived on the streets in St. Louis, trying to get some sleep in the winter, outdoors on the cold cobblestone. The opening lyrics are “I hate to see the evening sun go down…” This version of the song is a collaboration between Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.

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Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith


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