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An Introduction To Trance Blues, A Little-Known Music Genre Not Even On Wikipedia

Owen Sweeney
Invision/AP Photo
Legendary guitarist Jeff Beck performs in concert at The Sands Event Center on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Today we’re going to talk about a genre of blues that’s so rare it barely has a name. And if you look up that name in Wikipedia, nothing comes up. We’re talking about “trance blues.”

We define trance blues as blues that has a strong electronic component, like samples, loops and drum machines. And woven into that is some element of traditional blues.

In fact, a lot of trance blues songs are classic blues that have been stripped down and reassembled in a 21st century studio. Listen to this Muddy Waters song “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” from 1950.

Muddy Waters “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”
Recorded in 1950.

Now compare that with Jeff Beck and Imogen Heap’s version of the song.

Jeff Beck and Imogen Heap "Rollin' and Tumblin'"
Featured on the eighth studio album by guitarist Jeff Beck, " You Had It Coming" released in 2000 through Epic Records.

Well, the biggest “trance” ingredient in this is the relentless drumming, and we find that to be true of most trance blues. They’re songs built around a drum loop.

In this next song we’re going to go a little deeper into electronica, it’s a song called “Hard Times” done by Little Axe. His real name is Skip MacDonald, and he worked with rappers like Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang, before changing his name to Little Axe and applying his chops to the blues. And this song “Hard Times” from 2006 is Little Axe’s version of the Skip James blues classic “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.”

Little Axe “Hard Times”
Little Axe’s version of the blues classic “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues by Skip James.

If we had to pick one album that embodies all the aspects of Trance Blues, it would be the 2004 release “Tangle Eye” by the group Tangle Eye. This is Tangle Eye mixing their modern studio sensibilities with an a capella recording they call “Work Song” done in 1948 by C.B. Cook and his work gang.

Tangle Eye “Tangle Eye”
Tangle Eye mixing their modern studio sensibilities with an A cappella recording they call “Work Song” recorded in 1948 by C.B. Cook.

So to really appreciate what Tangle Eye has added to this, let’s go back to 1948 and hear the original field recording of C.B. Cook and  his work gang, a group of prisoners at Parchman Farm in Mississippi. They called the song “Rosie.”

C.B. Cook "Rosie"
An original field recording from 1948 of C.B. Cook and a group of prisoners at Parchman Farm in Mississippi.

So Tangle Eye finds this obscure song recorded over 65 years ago by a prison work gang. They take it into a studio and turn it into a maelstrom of electronic blues.

Suggested Listening

If you want to go deeper into this genre, here are some of the key players and songs:

  • Euphoria’s “Back Against the Wall” (Precious Time)
  • The Soul of John Black’s “The Hole” (The Good Girl Blues)
  • St. Germain’s  “Sure Thing” (Tourist)
  • Chill Factor 5’s “Down the Delta” (Sunflower Jazz)
  • Little Axe’s “Ride On” (The Wolf That House Built)
  • Eddie Turner’s “Blues Fall Down Like Rain” (Miracles and Demons)
John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.
Nick began working at KNKX as a program host in the late 1980’s and, with the exception of a relatively brief hiatus, has been with the station ever since. Along with his work as a Midday Jazz host, Nick worked for several years as KNKX’s Music Director. He is now the station’s Production Manager and also serves as a fill-in host on KNKX’s jazz and blues programs.