The earliest reference to what might be considered blues in Texas was made in 1890 by collector Gates Thomas, who transcribed a song titled "Nobody There." Thomas doesn't mention whether the singing was accompanied by an instrument, but he does indicate that it was a pentatonic tune containing tonic, minor, third, fourth, fifth, and seventh chords, all of which combined to produce something similar to a blues tune. Later, Thomas published other song texts that he had collected from African Americans in South Texas. Some of these included verses that had been noted by other writers in different areas of the South. The song "Baby, Take a Look at Me," for example, was transcribed both by Thomas and Charles Peabody in Mississippi, and "Alabama Bound" and "C. C. Rider" are variants of blues songs that Jelly Roll Morton sang in New Orleans.
Geographically diffuse sources suggest that blues musicians were itinerant and that blues was part of an oral tradition that developed in different areas of the South. By all accounts, the blues was widespread in the early 1900s. Thousands of Blacks during this period were migratory, looking for work and escape from all too prevalent racism. Blues singers were often migrant workers who followed the crop harvests or lived in lumber camps and boomtowns. Many settled down and labored as sharecroppers, leasing small tracts of land controlled by white landowners. Others continued roving from town to town, working odd jobs in the growing urban centers of Dallas, Houston, Shreveport, and Atlanta; some went north to Chicago and New York.
Blues music expressed the hardships of newly-freed African American slaves. The freedoms offered by Reconstruction were hard-won. Racism, Jim Crow laws, and the Ku Klux Klan were major obstacles to economic independence and self-determination. Still, leisure, even under the most desolate circumstances, was vitally new and served as a catalyst in the development of the blues. Early blues answered the need for a release from everyday life. The blues is an intensely personal music; it identifies itself with the feelings of the audience—suffering and hope, economic failure, the break-up of the family, and the desire to escape reality through wandering, love, and sex. In this way, blues is somewhat different from African songs, which usually concern the lives and works of gods, the social unit (tribe and community), and nature.
With its emphasis on individual experience, blues reflects a Western concept of life. Yet, as a musical form it shows little Western influence. The traditional three-line, twelve-bar, AAB verse form of the blues arises from no apparent Western source, although some blues does incorporate Anglo-American ballad forms that have six, ten, or sixteen-bar structures. Early blues drew from the music of its time: field hollers and shouts, which it most closely resembles melodically; songster ballads, from which it borrows imagery and guitar patterns; spirituals and gospel, which trained the voices and ears of Black children. These, with the exception of the ballad, were the descendants of African percussive rhythms and call-and-response singing.
Although blues drew from the religious music of both African and Western cultures, it was often considered sinful. Blues singers were stereotyped as "backsliders" in their own communities. In many areas blues was known as the devil's music. As historian Larry Levine points out, blues blended the sacred and the secular. Like the spirituals and folktales of the nineteenth century, blues was a plea for release, a mix of despair, hope, and humor that had a cathartic effect upon the listener. The blues singer had an expressive role that mirrored the power of the preacher, and because of this power, blues was both embraced and rejected by African Americans and their churches.
In Texas, blues musician Lil' Son Jackson explained to British blues aficionado Paul Oliver that it was, in effect, the spiritual power of the blues that made the music sinful. "If a man hurt within and he sing a church song then he's askin' God for help....if a man sing the blues it's more or less out of himself....He's not askin' no one for help. And he's really not really clingin' to no one. But he's expressin' how he feel. He's expressin' to someone and that fact makes it a sin, you know....you're tryin' to get your feelin's over to the next person through the blues, and that's what make it a sin." Because of the frequent lack of centralized authority in Black churches, however, community opposition to the blues varied from place to place. Rarely were blues singers completely ostracized. They lived on the margins of what was acceptable and derived their livelihood from itinerant work at house parties and dances.
In Texas, blues has developed a unique character that results from the cross-pollination of musical styles—itself a result of the migratory patterns of African Americans—as well as the impact of the recording industry and mass-media commercialization. Not only is the Black population of Texas less concentrated than that of other states in the South, but blues music in Texas also evolved in proximity to other important musical traditions: the rural Anglo, the Cajun and Creole, the Hispanic, and the Eastern and Central European.
The white crossover to blues in Texas began in the nineteenth century, when Black fiddlers and guitar songsters played at white country dances. Eddie Durham recalled in interviews that his father was a fiddler who played jigs and reels as well as blues. Mance Lipscomb's and Gatemouth Brown's fathers were songsters who played fiddle and guitar. White musicians were exposed to blues at country dances and minstrel shows and among Black workers in the fields, road gangs, turpentine camps, and railroad yards. Country singer Bill Neely said that he first heard blues when he picked cotton in Collin County north of Dallas in the 1920s, but he learned to play blues by listening to the recordings of Jimmie Rodgers. Although he was known as a country singer, "Jimmie Rodgers was a bluesman," Neely maintained. "A lot of those songs Jimmie Rodgers didn't write. He got them from the Blacks he heard when he was growing up in Mississippi and when he worked as a brakeman on the railroad." The influence of blues and jazz is also apparent in the early western swing bands of Bob Wills and Milton Brown, where the horn sections of the Territory jazz bands were imitated and developed through different instrumentation. In addition, blues and jazz influenced the growth of zydeco among African-American Creoles and impacted the Mexican American orquesta tradition, as well as a younger generation of musicians, including Freddy Fender and Ildefonso "Sunny" Ozuna who emulated the rhythm-and-blues sound.
With the growth of the recording industry during the 1920s the audience for blues expanded among African Americans nationwide. Dallas became a recording center primarily because it was a geographical hub. The major labels to produce "race records," those catering to a Black audience, held regular sessions in Dallas. OKeh, Vocalion, Brunswick, Columbia, RCA, and Paramount sent scouts and engineers to record local artists once or twice a year. Engineers came into the city, set up their equipment in a hotel room, and put the word out. Itinerant musicians found their way to Dallas, among them the legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, who recorded there in 1937, after having recorded in San Antonio a year earlier.
In March 1926, Blind Lemon Jefferson became the first male folk blues singer and guitarist to record. Jefferson was from the rural East Texas farming community of Couchman (near the town of Wortham) and made his way to Dallas, where he played for tips at the corner Elm Street and Central Avenue and was discovered by a Paramount recording scout. His first two recordings were made in December 1925 with the pseudonym, Deacon L.J. Bates, apparently because they were religious songs, but for his subsequent recordings he used his given name. Between 1926 and his untimely death in December 1929, Jefferson made more than eighty recordings for Paramount and was the biggest selling country blues singer in the country. However, studies indicate that Jefferson's records sold thousands of copies to Blacks in the urban ghettos of the North, but did not sell especially well in Texas.
Nevertheless, as a result of Jefferson's overall commercial success, blues singers from around the South flocked to Dallas with the hope of being recorded. Generally, these musicians lived and worked in the area around Deep Ellum and Central Track. Deep Ellum was the area of Dallas north and east of downtown, where Black newcomers to the city came. Branching off from Elm Street was Central Track, a stretch of railroad near the Union Depot, where the Texas and Pacific line crossed the Houston and Texas Central line. Lying east of the downtown business district and north of Deep Ellum, Central Tracks was the heart of the Black community. In the area were Ella B. Moore's Park Theater with vaudeville, minstrel, and touring blues and jazz shows, the Tip Top, Hattie Burleson's dance hall, the Green Parrot, and the Pythian Temple, designed by the Black architect William Sidney Pittman.
In addition to Blind Lemon Jefferson, other important blues musicians recorded in Dallas during the heyday of Deep Ellum and Central Track. These included Lonnie Johnson, Lillian Glinn, Little Hat Jones, Texas Alexander, Jesse Thomas, Willard (Ramblin') Thomas, Sammy Hill, Otis Harris, Willie Reed, Buddy Woods, and Babe Kyro (Black Ace) Turner. Jefferson was a major influence upon the development of Texas blues, influencing not only Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter but also Aaron "T-Bone" Walker. What distinguishes Jefferson from the other blues performers of his generation was his singular approach to the guitar, which established the basis of what is today known as the Texas style. He strummed or "hammered" the strings with repetitive bass figures and produced a succession of open and fretted notes, using a quick release and picking single-string, arpeggio runs. T-Bone Walker later applied this technique to the electric guitar and combined it with the influences of the jump and swing blues of the regional or "Territory" jazz bands of the 1920s and 1930s to produce the modern sound.
In the Territory jazz bands of the Southwest, the guitar was used as a rhythm instrument to underlie the voice and horn sections. The introduction of the electric guitar occurred first in these bands, pioneered by Eddie Durham of San Marcos and Charlie Christian of Fort Worth. By using electric amplification, jazz guitarists were able to increase the resonance and volume of their sound. Charlie Christian is credited with teaching T-Bone Walker about the electric guitar and its potential as a solo instrument. In the rhythm-and-blues of T-Bone Walker the electric guitar assumed a role that superseded the saxophone, which had until then been the prominent solo instrument in jazz. The interplay between the saxophone and the guitar remained important in rhythm-and-blues, but the relationship between the instruments was transformed. The rhythm-and-blues band sound became tighter and depended more on the interplay of the electric guitar with the horn section, piano, and drums.
With the Great Depression of the 1930s, "race" recording declined. Among African Americans in Dallas, the locus of blues activity in the 1940s and 1950s shifted from the legendary Deep Ellum and Central Track area to North and South Dallas. The Rose Ballroom, opened by T. H. Smith in March 1942 and reopened as the Rose Room in April 1943, became a showplace for the best of the local and nationally known blues artists. T-Bone Walker performed there, as did Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Crayton, Lowell Fulson, Eddie Vinson, Jimmy Nelson, and Henry (Buster) Smith. The Rose Room was renamed the Empire Room in 1951 and continued to feature the most popular R&B of the day: Zuzu Bollin, Lil' Son Jackson, Clarence (Nappy Chin) Evans, Mercy Baby, Frankie Lee Sims, and Smokey Hogg. By the late 1940s, the railroad tracks on Central Avenue were torn up to make room for Central Expressway, which was built in the 1950s, and for R. L. Thornton Freeway in the 1960s. These changes choked Deep Ellum off from downtown, and the area became a warehouse district with industrial suppliers and small businesses mixed in.
In Houston, African Americans settled mostly in three segregated wards: the Third, Fourth, and Fifth. It was in the Third Ward where guitarist Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins accompanied his cousin Texas Alexander in the late 1920s, and where Hopkins returned by himself in the 1940s to play on Dowling Street. The Santa Fe Group gathered in the Fourth Ward. They were a loosely knit association of itinerant Black pianists in the 1920s and 1930s that included Robert Shaw, Black Boy Shine, Pinetop Burks, and Rob Cooper, who performed in the roadhouses and juke joints along the Santa Fe tracks, playing their distinctive style of piano, which combined elements of blues with the syncopation of ragtime. In the Fifth Ward also there were Black blues pianists, but their style of performance was even more eclectic. Probably the most well-known of these were members of the George W. Thomas family. The eldest, George Thomas Jr., was born about 1885, followed by his sister, Beulah, better known as Sippie Wallace, and her brother, Hersal Thomas.
In Houston there were fewer opportunities for recording than in Dallas until after World War II, when several independent labels were started. The earliest to record blues was Gold Star, founded by Bill Quinn in 1946 as a hillbilly label to record Harry Choates. In 1947 Quinn decided to enter the "race" market by recording Lightnin' Hopkins, whose down home country blues expressed the foibles, hardships and aspirations of rural Blacks and their migration to the city looking for a better life. By the early 1950s, competition among independent record labels in Houston was intense. Macy's, Freedom, and Peacock (as well as Bob Shad's New York-based Sittin' In With label) were all involved in recording local and regional blues musicians, including Lightnin' Hopkins, Goree Carter, Lester Williams, Little Willie Littlefield, Peppermint Harris, Grady Gaines, and Big Walter Price.
Of the Houston-based independent labels, Peacock emerged as the most prominent. Houston businessman Don Robey founded Peacock Records in 1949 to record Gatemouth Brown, who was the headliner at Robey's Bronze Peacock club. The first rhythm-and-blues singer with whom Robey made the charts was Marie Adams, whose song "I'm Gonna Play the Honky Tonks" was a hit in 1952. With this success, Robey expanded his recording interests by acquiring the Memphis label Duke Records. Through this acquisition Robey secured the rights to the stable of musicians who were then under contract to Duke. These included Johnny Ace, Junior Parker, and Bobby Blue Bland. In addition to Peacock and Duke, Robey started the Song Bird and Back Beat labels, as well as the Buffalo Booking Agency, which was operated by his associate, Evelyn Johnson.
During the 1950s, Robey's Duke–Peacock sound rose to national prominence, but by the mid-1960s, his business started to wane. He tried to keep pace with the ever-changing popular music scene, and even recorded the white musician, Roy Head, who scored a hit with his song "Treat Her Right" on the Back Beat label. In 1973, Robey sold his recording and publishing interests to ABC/Dunhill.
Concurrent with the growth of Peacock Records, a new generation of Houston-bred rhythm-and-blues musicians began their careers, but were not recorded by Don Robey. These musicians included Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Joe Hughes, Johnny Watson, Cal and Clarence Green, and Pete Mayes. Playing at the Club Matinee, Shady's Playhouse, the Eldorado Ballroom, and other nightspots around Houston, these musicians emulated the music of T-Bone Walker and eventually developed their own distinctive performance styles.
Austin was slower to develop as a recording center than Dallas or Houston, although there is a long history of blues in Central Texas. In addition to rhythm-and-blues, Austin had also been the home of barrelhouse blues pianists Grey Ghost, Robert Shaw, and Lavada Durst, and of country blues guitarist Alfred (Snuff) Johnson. However, the relatively small Black population of Austin made the capital unappealing for record producers until the 1960s, when the "Austin Sound" began to attract national attention. With the influx of white musicians, including Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Ely, Angela Strehli, and Kim Wilson, the enthusiasm for blues grew significantly. The success of these musicians also benefited many older African-American blues musicians who gained a larger audience outside of their own community and performed at Antone's the Continental Club, and other venues near the University of Texas campus. In Austin, T-Bone Walker clearly had the biggest influence upon aspiring Black blues musicians, including Dooley Jordan, Jewel Simmons, and T. D. Bell. Bell himself also inspired younger blues artists, such as Herbert (Blues Boy) Hubbard and W. C. Clark. The Victory Grill, opened by Johnny Holmes on Victory over Japan Day, 1945 on East Eleventh Street was an important venue for local musicians as well as for nationally touring acts.
Over the last four decades, the interest in Texas blues has swelled, especially in the cities of Dallas, Austin, and Houston. As early as the 1960s, Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records was a major force in recording Texas blues musicians--from the barrelhouse blues of Robert Shaw and Alexander H. Moore to the country blues of Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, as well as the urban blues of Lil' Son Jackson and L.C. "Good Rockin'" Robinson, who was part of a generation of Texas musicians that moved to California in the 1940s and 1950s. In Austin, Antone's, opened in July 1975, continues to be a showcase of blues musicians from around the country, and Texas Folklife, founded as Texas Folklife Resources in 1984, has produced touring programs and public concerts. The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin is an important repository for blues recordings, posters, photographs, and memorabilia in its numerous collections, including the John A. Lomax Family Papers, the Texas Music Collection, the Mance Lipscomb/Glen Alyn Collection, and the William A. Owens Collection. In Houston, Juneteenth Blues Festival, started in 1976 by Lanny Steele, has been a major catalyst for the recognition of the blues musicians, not only in Texas, but also across the nation. Since 1985, Documentary Arts, a nonprofit organization in Dallas, has been involved in the documentation and preservation of Texas blues through the production of folk festivals, radio features, films, videos, audio recordings, and the development of educational outreach materials. In 1987 Dallas pianist Alex Moore became the first African American blues musician from Texas to receive a National Heritage Fellowship from the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts.