What is Memphis Blues Music?

Memphis blues music began in the 1920s with musicians who lived in the Memphis area like Frank Stokes, Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis and Memphis Minnie. This style of music was most popular in vaudeville and medicine shows throughout the Memphis, Tennessee area. Beale Street was an area in Memphis where all of the main shows and music were performed. The history of Beale Street has been detailed in many books over the last ten years which has increased its popularity and appeal.

Although most blues bands in Memphis at the time were based around guitars, there were jug bands as well that were wildly popular. A jug band is a group that centers around a jug player while the other members play homemade instruments. Typically, the homemade instruments are ordinary objects that have been adapted or modified to make sound. Some examples of this are the washtub bass, washboard, spoons, stovepipe, and comb and tissue paper. When jug bands first came onto the music scene, they included mandolins or guitars that were made from the necks of discarded guitars which were then fastened on to large gourds. The gourds were made by flattening one side and then carving a sound hole into the side that was just flattened.

Sometimes, banjos were made in the same way. The actual jug that the players used was generally made from glass or stoneware. Jug players would buzz the lips of the jug from about an inch or two away from it and were able to create different pitches by changing their lip tension.

Jug bands were commonplace in Memphis blues bands for years, but after World War II, electric instruments began to be used much more often by Memphis blues musicians. Many African Americans, who had been living in the Mississippi Delta among some other impoverished areas in the south, began to leave their homes in search of more urban areas. At this time, many musicians ended up in the heart of the Memphis blues scene and the classic style of the Memphis blues sound began to change.

B.B. King, Ike Turner, Howlin Wolf and Willie Nix were some of the artists who performed in West Memphis on Beale Street at this time and were responsible for a number of the classic electric blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll songs. They created a lot of records in these genres for the label Sun Records. These musicians had a very strong influence on blues at the time and we can still see their impact on rock and roll music today.

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