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Out of the matrix of these Negro work songs, field hollers and spirituals of the 19th century sprang the first crude country blues. It was spread by bardic singers with guitars or harmonicas—beggars, itinerant farm laborers, members of jug bands and medicine or minstrel shows. Then, with the Negro migrations to Northern cities in the early decades of the 20th century, the blues gathered a more elaborate accompaniment around itself (sometimes a jazz group) and moved into theaters, dance halls and recording studios. This was the era of Bessie Smith's classic records. By the 1930s, a new style was forged around tenements, speakeasies and rent parties—a harsher, more nervous brand of blues that reflected the stress and tempo of urban living. This style mingled with the blaring jazz and blues that swept out of the Southwest during the swing era (Andy Kirk, Count Basic), and so the stage was set for the emergence, after World War II, of rhythm & blues.
Proxy Performances. Even more slashing and frenetic than urban blues, R & B introduced amplified guitars, honking saxophones and gyrating singers in lamé costumes. Popularized and commercialized as it was, it still retained the fundamental quality of the blues. Such was the force of R & B, in fact, that white singers of the 1950s quickly saw the potential for lifting it out of the limited Negro market and filtering it into the far more lucrative pop field. Much, if not most of what the white public knew as rock 'n' roll during this period consisted of proxy performances of Negro R & B music by people like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. The success of the white performers produced a caustic resentment among the Negro musicians, many of whom still bridle at the irony of it all —they produced the music, but the white men cashed in on it. In those days, the only way for Negroes to really make it in the white world was to do precisely and painfully what the Nat King Coles and Lena Homes did: forsake their own music and sing white pop.
All this began to change with such English rock 'n' roll groups as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Animals, who made a point of crediting their sources—not only R & B figures such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, but also country and urban bluesmen such as John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and B. B. King. "Until the Beatles exposed the origins," says Waters, "the white kids didn't know anything about the music. But now they've learned that it was in their backyard all the time."
Jubilation Shouts. Meanwhile, the rhythm-&-blues strain was picking up new momentum, while post-Beatle rock charged off on its own creative path. The man who gave R & B its fresh thrust was a blind, Georgia-born bard named Ray Charles, one of the most hauntingly effective and versatile Negro singers in the history of pop music.