Ray City Blues

John Guthrie

During the 1920s and 30s in Ray City, GA the emergence of the Blues music genre in the local African-American community reflected its birth in the Mississippi Delta.  Folk musician, John Guthrie (1911-1985), was just a young white kid with a keen interest in music when he developed deep admiration for the talent of black musicians performing in the turpentine “Quarters” of Ray City, GA.

 

John Elwood Guthrie (1911-1985) , folk musician and merchant of Ray City, GA. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

John Elwood Guthrie (1911-1985) , folk musician and merchant of Ray City, GA. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

According to Allaboutjazz.com, “The Blues has deep roots in American history, particularly African-American history. The blues originated on Southern plantations in the 19th century. Its inventors were slaves, ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves – African-American sharecroppers who sang as they toiled in the cotton and vegetable fields. It’s generally accepted that he music evolved from African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music.

Then, “The African American music combined with the folk music of white European settlers to produce new styles of music.

In a 1977 recording, Guthrie talks of local African-American pioneers of glass slides and crying strings, and plays a brief medley of Rocking Chair Blues, “a traditional oral formular that has been used in any number of songs” according to Brian Hoskin,  and Jimmie Rodgers 1929 “Blue Yodel #6 (Blues Like Midnight).  As a young man during the Great Depression, John Guthrie sometimes impersonated Jimmie Rodgers in hopes of obtaining a free meal.

John Guthrie (recorded 1977

Folks, I’d like to go back a little bit through ages. When I was just a kid and bought my first guitar I used to go down to a place they called the “Quarters.”

Now, I want to explain that a little bit further – the Quarters. We used to have turpentine stills in this part of the country. The man that owned turpentine stills, he would build shacks or shanties down for the black people to live in. Down in those shanties or shacks they would have a little place down there where they sold soda pop…well, the colored people called it ‘soady waters.’

I’d go down there and they’d have a guitar player down there and he’d have a bottle neck on the end of his finger and he’d be playing these old black tunes. There is no white man that can play a tune just like that black man could play one.

At this time I’m going to do the best I can about the way them guys used to play guitar. They’d pull the strings and it would whine and they call it ‘cryin’ strings, now if you know what I mean.

I’m going down to the river
I’m going to take me a rocking chair
I’m going down to the river
I’m going to take me a rocking chair
And if the blues don’t leave me,
Lord I’ll rock on away from here

I got the blues like midnight
Moon shinin’ bright as day
I got the blues like midnight
Moon shinin’ bright as day
I wish a tornado would come
and blow my blues away.

Folk musician Jimmy Rodgers recorded a series of Blue Yodel songs from 1927 to his death in 1933. “Rogers’ background in blackface minstrel shows and as a railroad worker enabled him to develop a unique musical hybridization drawing from both black and white traditions, as exemplified in the Blue Yodel sounds. In his recordings Rodgers and his producer, Ralph Peer, achieved a “vernacular combination of blues, jazz, and traditional folk” to produce a style of music then called ‘hillbilly.” Rodgers’ Blue Yodel #6, also known as Blues Like Midnight, was recorded in 1929 and has been covered by Wanda Jackson, Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Allman Brothers, among others.

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