Louisiana Music: Blues
Be it swamp blues, jump blues, urban blues, swing blues, Delta blues, funk blues or blues-based jazz, the blues abound from the swamps to the cities of Louisiana.
Blues may not be the first music that comes to mind when people think about Louisiana. New Orleans is renowned as the birthplace of jazz and Southwest Louisiana is noted for its homegrown zydeco and Cajun styles. It’s nearly impossible, however, for a state bursting with music not to have a strong dose of blues in its mix.
Louisiana has produced a wealth of bluesmen, perhaps most notably the now legendary Buddy Guy. The GRAMMY®-winning guitarist, vocalist and Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee was born in the small town of Lettsworth located near the Atchafalaya River. Guy moved to Chicago when he was 21 and built his reputation as an electrified Chicago blues guitarist and influenced a next generation of greats from Clapton to Hendrix. Yet to this day, Guy's Louisiana roots can be realized in his style and particularly in his showmanship.
Another Louisiana bluesman who's renowned for getting a crowd involved is Bobby Rush. The guitarist and vocalist was born in Homer, in the northern part of the state. Though he also moved away, he retained the area's musical flavors and showed his love on his album Decisions.
Guy and Rush are just a couple of the big draws to the popular Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival. The free event presented in the autumn by the Jazz and Heritage Foundation features three days of nonstop blues. The aroma of barbecue and the vibrations of the blues fill the air surrounding the festival site at Lafayette Square Park in the heart of downtown New Orleans.
Naturally, there's an abundance of this city's purveyors of the blues at the fest including the wonderful urban sounds of the late Walter “Wolfman” Washington who played weekly at the Frenchmen Street club, d.b.a. Once the leader of the band who backed “the Tan Canary” Johnny Adams, singer/guitarist Washington typified the R&B tinged, late-night blues that remains core to New Orleans' identity. It is carried on by his protégé, guitarist/vocalist Kipori “Baby Wolf” Woods. Larger modern ensembles are reminiscent of Deacon John & the Ivories and Luther Kent & Trick Bag.
Up the Mississippi, Baton Rouge could be considered the hub of blues in Louisiana. It gained its reputation, in part, by being the home to the legendary Tabby's Blues Box, which was owned by guitarist/vocalist Rockin' Tabby Thomas. Many a great blues musician went through the doors of the Blues Box. Thomas, who died in 2014, was the father of GRAMMY®-winning guitarist/vocalist/composer Chris Thomas King. Many might recognize the younger King for his role in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” In New Orleans, he plays most often at Snug Harbor.
The Neals are another important blues family from Baton Rouge. The patriarch, the late Raful Neal, played a mean harmonica, dug in on some earthy vocals and raised a whole clan of musicians. His son, guitarist and vocalist Kenny Neal, is the best known of the group and plays what has been appropriately dubbed swamp blues. Kenny Neal is a GRAMMY® nominee and in 2016 won two Blues Music Awards for Best Contemporary Blues Artist and Best Contemporary Blues Album. Visit his Baton Rouge venue, Neal's Juke Joint for live music. Kenny’s brother Noel Neal plays bass with harmonica man James Cotton. Another Baton Rouge native, guitar/vocalist/composer Tab Benoit, who played alongside both Rockin' Tabby Thomas and Raful Neal as well as Louisiana legend pianist/vocalist Henry Gray, is recognized not only for his musicianship but for his work in coastal preservation. In that effort, he leads the allstar band Voice of the Wetlands that has focused national attention on the erosion of Louisiana's shoreline.
Baton Rouge annually celebrates with its the Baton Rouge Blues Festival that takes place in the spring.
Just down the highway in Lafayette, Louisiana was where slide guitar master Sonny Landreth grew up. Landreth, who continues to live in the southwest of the state in the small town of Breaux Bridge, dazzles with his stunning, unique approach to his instrument. To be sure, a lot of guitar players are in the audience for his club and festival gigs including those at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. A large tent at Jazzfest is dedicated solely to the blues. No mention of the blues would be complete without heralding two of New Orleans' most important artists, the late guitarists and vocalists Snooks Eaglin, Guitar Slim and Earl King. Their music, like Eaglin's classic “Young Boy Blues,” Slim’s “The Things That I Used to Do,” and King's “Big Chief,” live on in the repertoires of a next generation of musicians.
Be it swamp blues, jump blues, urban blues, swing blues, Delta blues, funk blues, or blues-based jazz, the blues abound from the swamps to the cities of Louisiana.
Jan Ramsey is the founder and author of Offbeat Magazine.