History of the Blues
Robert Johnson, Delta Blues Artist
The blues, for many years, was recorded only in memories and heard only live and in person. No one is certain exactly when they evolved, only that they began in the North Mississippi Delta following the Civil War. Influenced by African roots, ballads, religious and rhythmic dance tunes called jump ups it became music for vocalists who could sing a line and have their guitar respond with an answer.
The blues have influenced virtually all music forms since its birth including jazz, country and rock and roll. It continues to do so today. It’s an American musical form originating from numerous older musical traditions…a product of America's cultural melting pot that would eventually spread around the world.
This unique musical genre came into its own during the early 20th century when the recording industry was still in its infancy. The soulful tunes, sung and played by mostly black musicians, resonated from isolated rural communities of the Mississippi River Delta. These talented musicians skillfully intertwined African rhythms with American folk themes and elements of gospel music. Their recordings became some of the earliest popular records sold in the United States.
Following the end of the Great Depression many southerners left agricultural jobs to work industrial jobs in places like Memphis, Kansas City, and Chicago, taking their music with them. Delta Blues retained their distinguishable musical elegance, but newer forms began to evolve as the electric guitar and other instruments enabled a younger generation of musicians to express their own different styles.
However, the basic elements remained the same, bad luck, misfortune, sorrow and woeful troubles. The term "blues" was first introduced in the 1910s and usually referred to the sadness of these songs. Death, failed relationships, and poverty are common themes during that era. There were many early performers whom never recorded their music and are thus lost to history.
As blues music gained acceptance worldwide many of the original aging performers were tracked down and asked to record their music for posterity. Many scholars credit the Atlantic slave trade for bringing many of the music’s elements together. African string instruments and the vocalist's exaggerated singing style, became the basis of the blues. To this elements of Christian gospel music were added. Racism and the legacy of slavery also figured prominently.
The Blues are actually a blending of African and European music. The instruments most associated with it are the guitar, piano and harmonica. Essentially it’s a form of folk music although today it sounds very little like the folk music of old. The biggest difference between folk and blues that began developing in the late 1800s is blues lyrics became more of an expression of feelings, rather than the ballads and tales epitomized in folk music of the south.
The form possesses other specific characteristics such as lyrics, bass lines and instruments and can be subdivided into several subgenres from country to urban blues popular during different periods of the 20th century. Best known styles are the Delta, Piedmont, Jump and Chicago Blues. Although the blues were mainly associated with misery and oppression, the lyrics could also be humorous and crude as well.
Following World War II the transition from acoustic to electric blues opened up a wider audience of listeners, especially in the white community. In the 1960s and 1970s, another form called blues rock also became popular. As the Reconstruction era came to a close, Jim Crow laws began taking effect. African Americans were faced with rejuvenated racism and poverty. Many musicians took to traveling, often by train, in an attempt to escape these restrictive laws. It’s no surprise then to understand why trains were figured prominently in their music.
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