The Annual UMiss Blues Symposium is the “must attend” event for all serious blues fans, particularly those who appreciate the early blues musicians, aka country blues, or pre-war blues. These guys, mostly from the early 1900s on up through World War II, are the bedrock upon which blues is based. People such as Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Johnnie Shines, Tommy Johnson, and of course the most famous of all, Robert Johnson.
Although Robert Johnson is certainly the man best known as bringing country blues to the masses in the 20th and 21st centuries, you’re doing yourself a great disservice if you don’t expand and catch some of the other great musicians from this era. Everybody knows the story of how RJ, as he was known, made a pact with Satan at a certain crossroads in Mississippi one black, black midnight. But most people don’t know that this particular story is bullshit.
The story itself has been around since long before RJ could count himself among the living, and it’s been applied to several others since, although not with the notoriety attributed to RJ. The way the story goes is that in exchange for learning how to play the catchiest, meanest, bluesiest licks possible on the guitar, RJ gave his soul to the Devil. Although it was mostly likely hard work and practice that made him great, the fact remains that he went from a bumbling, not even amateur-rank player to the one everybody knows in the span of about a year. His contemporaries were known to tell him in no uncertain terms, “No, you cannot sit in!” when he made the rounds of the juke joints. And the fans stayed away in droves during his pre-pact with the Devil days. But it’s still a max-cool story.
RJ is also the guy who ultimately brings people today and many of those from the recent past into the country blues world, including the British Invasion from the 1960s. Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Alexis Korner, Long John Baldry, Led Zeppelin, and many other equally famous rockers and blues rockers still famous today were hypnotized by this country blues music, and were the British beginnings of being brought into the blues fold.
The Newport Folk Blues Festivals of the mid-1960s brought men like Son House, Skip James, and Howlin’ Wolf from the original country blues pioneers, and modern musicians such as Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and many others, to the attention of the mostly college kids from that era who were the pioneers of that particular American roots music wave of interest. And it’s these musicians who brought many of us who are blues fans today into the fold.