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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Comprised of many ancient influences to include African tonalities, rhythms, and performance styles, and combined with English lyrics and song forms, the blues expresses the tension rising from the sorrows and the triumphs of a singer's social condition. The blues in Oklahoma emerged out of the same hot, harsh conditions that existed throughout the nineteenth-century Deep South. Slaves of African descent accompanied their American Indian owners from the southeastern United States when the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, and Chickasaw were expelled from their homelands in the early nineteenth century and forcibly removed to Indian Territory. In this environment the same work songs, field hollers, spirituals, and riverboat music evolved as they did in the rest of the Southern states and along the Mississippi River network, which included Indian Territory via the Arkansas River. After the Civil War tribes either set slaves free with a severance package of land and/or money, or incorporated the slaves into tribes as "Freedmen" and provided for them with land and monetary payments.

As a result, in the second half of the nineteenth century in Indian Territory a landed, moneyed class of African Americans evolved with access to schools, music lessons, instruments, and musical influences from the African American church. In addition, the performance opportunities for relatively affluent African American audiences in Indian Territory, and ultimately Oklahoma, attracted traveling musicians, thereby providing multiple influences and mentors for Oklahoma's young musicians. Access to music lessons, instruments, and mentors help explain why more African American musicians from Oklahoma developed the advanced musical skills necessary to evolve into jazz artists, rather than remaining with the fixed form of the blues, in the first third of the twentieth century. As social and economic conditions changed for the state's African Americans by the 1920s and 1930s, more musicians born during that time period evolved into traditional, guitar-based practitioners of the blues.

The evolution of blues in Oklahoma literally starts with the beginning of the form in the national popular consciousness and follows with some of the genre's biggest names. Ragtime originator Scott Joplin is known to have perfected his craft in the sporting houses and saloons of Indian Territory during the late nineteenth century before settling in neighboring Missouri. Oklahoma City musician and bandleader Hart Wand published the first blues on sheet music with "Dallas Blues" in March 1912; legendary territory band the Oklahoma City Blue Devils stormed through Muskogee, Tulsa, and Oklahoma City with Jimmy Rushing shouting the blues through a megaphone over the Blue Devils' blazing horns; and seminal Delta blues man Robert Johnson is known to have played in the All-Black town of Taft. Jay McShann also grew up in the musical hotbed of Muskogee and learned his first blues from records his father would bring home. McShann learned to "complement" the blues in the Manual Training High School band, and this education provided him the knowledge to lead one of the great blues-based big bands of the 1930s and 1940s out of Kansas City. Critics also acknowledge the blues foundation of McShann's group that provided a young Charlie Parker the solidity he needed to begin experimenting and evolving into one of the creators of the jazz subgenre, bebop. McShann's band not only provided Parker his first recording opportunities and his first trip to New York City, the earthy Kansas City orchestra also provided a "blues school" for the young saxophonist. McShann's "Confessin' the Blues" was one of the biggest selling records for a black artist in 1941 to 1942, eventually selling five hundred thousand.

Although many Oklahoma jazz artists had tremendous success as a result of their blues foundation in the state, the second half of the century belonged more to the guitar-based form of the music. Oklahoma blues historian Kerry Kudlacek asserts that the guitar tradition that Americans recognize as popular blues, as played by B. B. King, directly descended from Blind Lemon Jefferson's regional "Hot Box" guitar style that was prominent in Texas and Oklahoma in the 1920s. Jefferson may be the earliest recorded player to use the guitar for single-string solos in blues, and he ultimately inspired other guitarists, including jazz innovator Charlie Christian, whose primary musical experiences came in Oklahoma City. Kudlacek's father remembered Jefferson playing in Oklahoma in the 1920s. Robert Jeffrey (born January 12, 1915, Tulsa, Okla., died July 20, 1976, San Diego, Calif.), a pianist and guitarist who played with T-Bone Walker in Kingfisher in 1936, illustrates the link to Jefferson, whose records were widely available in the 1930s. Also enjoying national success were bandleader, drummer, and songwriter Roy Milton (born July 31, 1907, Wynnewood, Okla., died September 18, 1983, Los Angeles, Calif.), whose jump blues served as a precursor to rock and roll, and Joe "The Honeydripper" Liggins (born July 9, 1915, in Guthrie, Okla., died August 1, 1987, in Lynwood, Calif.), who charted a number of singles during the late 1940s and early 1950s with his streamlined rhythm and blues (R&B). Liggins had huge hits with "The Honeydripper" in 1945 and "Pink Champagne" in 1950 with many other big sellers alongside. Joe's brother, Jimmy Liggins (born October 14, 1922, in Newby, Okla., died July 18, 1983, in Durham, North Carolina), led a souped-up R&B group in the late 1940s and early 1950s that also presaged rock and roll with hits like "Cadillac Boogie," "Saturday Night Boogie Man," and "Drunk." Liggins also penned the now-classic blues song "I Ain't Drunk" before retiring.

The most widely recognized Oklahoma blues guitar star, Lowell Fulson, was also influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson's style via 78-rpm records, which Fulson heard while growing up in Ada. After playing in string bands in Oklahoma and touring with artists such as Texas Alexander and Howlin' Wolf, Fulson migrated to northern California. There he became immersed in the West Coast scene and played with a number of jazz and jump players in the 1940s. By adding a horn section in the mode of swing bands to his electric blues lineup, Fulson created what is typically called the "uptown blues" sound, which B. B. King made famous. Fulson's huge 1950 R&B hit, "Everyday I Have the Blues," became King's theme song. Therefore, the regional style from Texas and Oklahoma known as "hotbox guitar" surfaced again in the popular culture's ear on its way to becoming the commercial blues style most prominent through the end of the twentieth century.

Jimmy Nolen (born April 3, 1934, Oklahoma City, Okla., died December 18, 1983, Atlanta, Ga.) developed into another one of Oklahoma's important blues guitarists. Thought of as inventor of the "chicken scratch" guitar style, Nolen became credited with being the father of funk guitar. Nolen's recordings as primary guitarist on James Brown's major hits "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "Sex Machine," and "Get on the Good Foot" testify to this significant player's work and influence. Gospel and soul-blues singer Ted Taylor (born February 16, 1934, Okmulgee, Okla., died October 2, 1987, Lake Charles, La.) experienced success with his high range and falsetto-driven voice in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and guitarist Wayne Bennett (born December 13, 1933, Sulphur, Okla., died November 28, 1992, New Orleans, La.) worked with Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Otis Spann, and Otis Rush, and recorded many times with Bobby "Blue" Bland.

Two other African American blues artists who made significant impacts on the growth of blues in Oklahoma are Verbie Gene "Flash" Terry (born June 17, 1934, Inola, Okla.) and DC Minner (born January 28, 1935, Rentiesville, Okla., died May 6, 2008). Terry began playing guitar with many local and regional artists at age seventeen before recording a national hit, "Her Name is Lou," on the Indigo/Lavendar label. Subsequently, Terry toured with Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, Bobby "Blue" Band, Floyd Dixon, and many others before recording an album for Leon Russell's Shelter label in 1974. Minner's story is rooted in the history of Oklahoma's foundation in Indian Territory and in the subsequent evolution of Oklahoma's All-Black town movement, which included his birthplace of Rentiesville, founded in 1904. Minner was raised in an Oklahoma juke joint called Cozy Corner operated by his grandmother in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. There he was first exposed to the blues by Al Freeman, who played slide guitar with a pocketknife. After a stint in the service during which he learned to play flamenco guitar, Minner traveled as a sideman with Lowell Fulson, Chuck Berry, Freddy King, Bo Diddley and Eddie Floyd before starting his own group with his wife and bassist, Selby. In 1988 the Minners moved from northern California back to Rentiesville and reopened the Down Home Blues Club in his grandmother's old juke joint. In 1990 Minner started the Dusk 'til Dawn Blues Festival as a showcase for local and regional blues artists, and the event became one of the premier blues festivals in the United States.

Anglo-American blues men who emerged primarily from the Tulsa scene in the 1960s include pianist Leon Russell and guitarists J. J. Cale and Elvin Bishop. Bishop moved to Tulsa when he was ten. One blues artist who tends to get lost in the mix of Oklahoma blues histories is guitarist Jesse Ed Davis (born on September 21, 1944, in Carnegie, Okla., died on June 22, 1988, in Venice, Calif.). Davis, an American Indian with Comanche, Kiowa, and Muscogee heritage, began his career touring with Conway Twitty in the early 1960s before moving to California and joining blues man Taj Majal. Davis exhibited extremely diverse skills by playing slide, rhythm, lead, country, and even jazz guitar on Majal's first three albums. This reputation led to sessions for Leon Russell, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Captain Beefheart as well as four of Davis's own solo albums. Davis also foreshadowed a late-twentieth-century trend of successful American Indian blues groups from Oklahoma such as Blues Nation and the Blackhawk Blues Band.

Hugh W. Foley, Jr.

Learn More

George Carney and Hugh Foley, "DC & Selby Minner: Oklahoma Down Home Blues," Living Blues 139 (1998).

Samuel Born Charters, The Country Blues (New York: Da Capo Press, 1975).

Hugh W. Foley, Jr., "Jazz from Muskogee, Oklahoma: Eastern Oklahoma as a Hearth of Musical Culture" (Ph.D. diss., Oklahoma State University, 2000).

Sheldon Harris, Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (New York: Da Capo Press, 1979).

Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994).

Kerry Kudlacek, "The Oklahoma Blues Tradition," Dusk 'til Dawn Blues Festival 1993 Program (Rentiesville, Okla.: Down Home Blues Club, 1993).

Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues (New York: Da Capo Press, 1976).

Austin Sonnier, A Guide to the Blues (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Hugh W. Foley, Jr., “Blues,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=BL016.

Published January 15, 2010

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