Once described as a Mediterranean port transplanted into the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans has always been, and felt, different to the rest of America’s South.

New Orleans’ French Quarter

As far back as the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when Louisiana was under French and Spanish rule, slaves were allowed to congregate freely in Congo Square, in New Orleans’ Treme district, on Sunday afternoons. Here, they would dance, sing and perform traditional West African music while intrigued white residents watched on for their amusement. No such leeway was granted for slaves in the old South.


Congo Square in the 1700s from an 1876 engraving

After Napoleon sold Louisiana to the USA in 1803 to fund his failed European takeover, Congo Square gradually lost its impetus. All traces of African song and dance had vanished by the time of the American Civil War in 1861. While some experts claim the blues started in Congo Square in New Orleans, I’m convinced the blues emerged mainly from African-American song influenced by white American music in the USA rather than African-American song formed during Louisiana’s French and Spanish eras. I explain  why in America’s Gift. That said, W.C. Handy did say his famous ‘St. Louis Blues’, published in 1914, had a touch of the tango – or Spanish Tinge as they called it then – about it. But those influences were from Cuba rather than New Orleans.

Louisiana once stretched from New Orleans upwards to Canada
A city of European Catholicism surrounded by hardcore Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, New Orleans was a place that had long driven conservative America to despair. Louisiana plantation owners brazenly slept with their black slaves rather than ravish them in secret like everywhere else in the USA. Prostitution was long rife and often legal, with at least 2,000 jelly rolls, as female genitalia was known in the black slang of the 1890s, available for rent on any one day.

In the brothels of 1890s New Orleans, teenage pianists like Jelly Roll Morton entertained customers with an unnamed blend of ragtime, barrelhouse and honky tonk that later became known as blues and jazz. Any ragtime in the New Orleans air originated in Kentucky or St. Louis; barrelhouse and boogie woogie piano in Texas; and honky tonk in San Francisco. But the addition of brass to string bands – the dance orchestras of their day – was pure New Orleans.

From the mists of time. That’s Buddy Bolden, top, second left

The legendary Buddy Bolden is thought to be the first bandleader to blend ragtime with the rural folk music he’d heard on the plantations, and the first musician to improvise his horn-playing to sound like what we now call blues. This was around 1895 but, unfortunately, whatever recordings there were remain unknown. Driven on by acoustic rhythm guitarists like Charlie Galloway or Jefferson Mumford, bands like Bolden’s instigated the blues that became New Orleans jazz.

They played in dance venues thick with the stench of booze and sweat. So much so, the most famous of these was nicknamed Funky Butt Hall which, incidentally, was one of the first

Louis Armstrong

known mentions of that now common musical term, ‘funk’. Buddy Bolden was the
first in a long line of New Orleans horn greats, immediately followed by Joe
‘King’ Oliver, Bunk Johnson and Louis Armstrong, originally pronounced ‘Lewis’,
according to his mother, “because we weren’t French”.

Oliver, Armstrong, and Louisiana trombonist, Edward ‘Kid’ Ory, would take their New Orleans style of blues to Chicago. Between 1917 and 1923, racial prejudice caused an exodus of New Orleans musicians to New York, Kansas and, mainly, Chicago. In the North, they toned down their wild, primitive New Orleans sound, becoming smoother and more sophisticated, catering for the white audiences who flocked to see them. Eventually, their music lost much of its ‘bluesy’ sound as music headed into the 30s and the swing era. Even earlier than Buddy Bolden in New Orleans was the white drummer, Papa Jack Laine, whose Reliance Brass Band, a marching band, was the first

Jack Laine

to fuse European, Latin and African music. Laing was leading mixed-race bands as early as 1888, despite the Jim Crow racial segregation laws that soured music in New Orleans. Most of America’s early known blues and jazz players got their start with Jack Laine’s band in New Orleans, including Buddy Bolden and the members of the influential New Orleans white ensemble, the Original Dixieland Jass (later Jazz) Band. Louis Armstrong once said most of his early records were by the Original Dixieland Jass/Jazz Band, who almost singly-handedly popularised the word ‘jazz’.

As far as modern blues is concerned, perhaps the most influential of all the early musicians who came out of New Orleans was guitarist Lonnie Johnson. Born in 1899, by the end of World War One, Lonnie was in Europe entertaining Allied troops. He returned to New Orleans in 1919 to find his parents and ten siblings had died in theSpanish Flu epidemic that had swept the world. Generally credited with inventing guitar soloing (in reality this was Kentucky’s Sylvester Weaver, recorded in 1923) Johnson, nevertheless, I believe, is the most influential blues guitar player of all time. He was the first black guitarist to record with a

Lonnie Johnson in his later years

white guitarist, Eddie Lang, often described as the father of jazz guitar. On records released in the USA, Lang was billed as Blind Willie Dunn to disguise his Caucasian race although in Europe he was credited under his own name.

Lonnie Johnson is also famous for his rapid-fire single-string riffs and licks in a duet with Louis Armstrong on the 1927 Hot Five recording of ‘Hotter Than That’, said to be one of the essential recordings of the jazz age.
Lonnie Johnson became the model for most contemporary bluesmen, wrote James Sallis in his 1982 book, The Guitar Players. “Even after the Depression drove him from music for a time in the mid-thirties, Lonnie’s influence continued not only in the cities but also (and perhaps particularly) in the South, where the next generation of bluesmen avidly studied his distinctive guitar style, restrained vocals and the subtle interplay of the two.


The Original Guitar Wizard, a 2004 Lonnie Johnson album

“That guitar style clearly paved the way for the first electric guitarists, Eddie Durham and Charlie Christian, and closely prefigured the post war evolution of blues guitar. Lowell Fulson credits Johnson as a prominent influence in the development of his own style; T-Bone Walker stated that Lonnie and Scrapper Blackwell were far and away his favourite guitarists. And B. B. King said, “There’s only been a few guys that if I could play just like them I would. T-Bone Walker was one, Lonnie Johnson was another”.
In this respect, the title given the Australian album, ‘Lonnie Johnson: The Originator of Modern Guitar Blues’ (Blues
Boy 300) is not at all hyperbolic”, Sallis wrote.

Guitarist and Piedmont blues legend, Brownie McGhee, once said he began to listen to Lonnie Johnson’s records in the late 1920s. “His musical works may, and should be, the first
book of the blues bible,” McGhee said. Memphis Minnie’s single-string lead guitar was taken from Lonnie Johnson, as were Blind Blake’s instrumental choruses and Blind Willie McTell’s vocal inflections and guitar accompaniment
Champion Jack playing in England where he lived for a while.
Another big fan was Robert Johnson. “He often talked about Lonnie Johnson,” bluesman Johnny Shines remembered. “He admired his music so much that he would tell people that … he was related to Lonnie Johnson.”
One almost totally forgotten blues singer to originate in New Orleans was The Boy From Dixie, Al Bernard, born there in 1888. Such was Bernard’s popularity, he recorded nine versions of St. Louis Blues alone. Bernard’s Victor version, cut in 1917, was described by its composer, W.C. Handy, as “sensational”.
Other prominent blues and/or jazz musicians to come out of old New Orleans were the composer, clarinettist and saxophonist, Sidney Bechet; piano player Champion Jack Dupree, who attended the same coloured waifs’ home as Louis Armstrong; and the singer, trumpeter, songwriter and actor, Louis Prima. More recently  New Orleans has given us the singer/pianist Professor Longhair, R&B pianist/songwriter and rock & roll pioneer, Fats Domino, band leader Dave Bartholomew who wrote ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ with Fats; and vocalist/guitarist Blind Snooks Eaglin.
Watch out for more great blues cities coming up and don’t forget to get your free preview of How Blues Evolved on the following links. Even better, why not invest in a copy to read on your phone or tablet. They’re going for a song.
 In the USA, get your free previews on this link:


New Orleans Central Business District today

Check out my new blues book America’s Gift at and YouTube historic blues and rock film clips at