For the first half of the 20th century, music in America was heavily divided along racial lines. At several key points in history however, music crossed the divide and subsequently influenced American music in its entirety. No more prominent meeting point exists, than when African American Blues music became accepted by white listeners in the mid 1950’s. An interesting point in this blending of cultures was the appearance of white musicians imitating this African American blues music. For something that originated during slavery and was one of the few forms of vocal dissent for an oppressed culture, this was somewhat sacred for the black community. Yet the ability to accept this sharing of one another’s culture represents a very tangible form of tolerance and mutual respect.
Blues music had originated from the work songs of slaves in the 19th century. It developed over the next 50 years into a structured genre and a unifying force, for a then subjugated, black culture. At its core, the blues represented the underlying injustices in the black community of poverty and loss. As the legendary bluesman Howlin Wolf described it “When you ain’t got no money, you got the blues. When u aint got no money to pay your house rent, you still got the blues… If you getting everything you possess and don’t need nothing then you don’t know right to worry about nuthin.”
Enter Paul Butterfield, a white, well-to-do, Jewish singer and harmonica player from Chicago. Butterfield would prove challenge this notion of the blues, forming a new style stemming from internal emotions instead of the classical external issues of poverty and race.
Butterfield had anything but the usual upbringing of a blues artist, the son of a lawyer and a painter he even went to university to study classical flute. But Butterfield soon fell in love with the sounds of his city, the great bluesmen of Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon. Butterfield was soon playing in blues clubs across the city, something that must have intrigued and confused the black audiences of the time.
Elektra Records producer Paul Rothchild heard about the 23 year-old Butterfield and was instantly taken with him. Rothchild had also learned about another young Jewish blues player, a guitarist named Mike Bloomfield. Like Butterfield, Bloomfield came from a wealthy family but had been captivated by Chicago’s blues scene. Rothschild set about creating a blues group that would mix the roots of Chicago blues with this new sound, affectionately named “Jew-Blues” that Butterfield and Bloomfield were leading.
Rothchild brought in Jerome Arnold, Bass, and Sam Lay, Drums, from Howlin’ Wolf’s band which provided a strong Chicago blues rhythm section to support Butterfield and Bloomfield. Mark Naftalin was added on organ. Naftalin was a formidable session man, playing on recordings with John Lee Hooker, Otis Rush, Van Morrison and many others.
Butterfield and Bloomfield had already gained fame for their live performances but Rothchild brought them into the studio in late 1965 to record the groups’ debut album.
In keeping with the lineage of the Chicago Blues, with 8 of the album’s 11 songs were covers of songs by the likes of Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. The results were steeped in the tradition of Chicago blues yet able to expand on the rising form of eclectic blues, which had taken off in Britain with artists like Clapton, Mayall and Korner.
Butterfield’s vocals are honest and endearing, while his harmonica solos pack an emotional punch. On Blues with Feeling, Butterfield is able to cut deep, preforming the Little Walter cover as well as the original, with all the rawness of those great early Chicago players.
Bloomfield is confident and soulful on lead guitar, easily comparable to Clapton and Taylor, who were leading the Blues charge in England. Unlike the electric blues coming from across the Atlantic however, the songs are not built around the guitarist in the same way. Many of Clapton’s blues pieces were guitar solos with the rest of the group just trying to keep up. But in a more traditional fashion, Butterfield and Bloomfield share the limelight, which allows the music to maintain more traditional song structures. The Butterfield-Bloomfield pair is reminiscent of a young Richards and Jagger, two other musicians inspired by music from the Windy City.
The Butterfield Blues Band is an important album both musically and historically. The album is a collection of talented musicians playing an excellent selection of songs first and foremost. Yet it proved to be influential in the wider history of music as well. It opened up blues music further to white audiences. But in doing this, Butterflied didn’t sell out or forget his roots. The album is a great time capsule for the influences of 60’s rock. Chicago Blues was in many ways the precursor to the rock music that has gripped popular music, and this album provides an invaluable link to the Chicago lineage.