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Blues: An Original American Music

Updated on December 29, 2013
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Music School Owner, Recording Artist, Guitarist, Composer, Performer & Educator. My goal is to make good music, make and keep good friends.

History of the Blues

Blues - An American Music

Blues is a relatively new musical form unique to the United States, and more specifically to the African American. Born on the plantation fields of the South, the seeds of what became first known as the country blues were not directly from Africa, but from the children of the slaves in the latter part of the 19th century. It is has been thought to have come to fruition in the early 1900's.

Both spirituals and field hollers are thought to be direct precursors to the blues. Forced to adopt Christianity, the slaves created spirituals-songs of redemption emancipation and hope in their worship, thus giving voice to an enslaved race's pain.

A West African tradition, field hollers (consisting of call and response), helped keep the slave laborer's minds off their incredibly backbreaking labor and was also a means of communication. Although many influences can be traced up to the final amalgamation of what became "the blues"(as we more or less know it today), it is still, however, a musical entity unto itself.

Until composers such as Hart Wand, Baby Seals and W.C. Handy published their blues songs in 1912, musically the blues were a continuously varied, mixed up form. There was so much personal expression that every singer and every local had styles distinctly their own.

Development of Form

One thing that was becoming standard however was the "three cornered blues" based on "Joe Turner." This folk song, thought by some to be the prototype of all blues, was known and sung all over the South in the late 1800's-sometimes with different names and words, but 12 bars long and with the typical 3-line scheme now associated with the blues:

1st line-makes statement "Dey tell me Joe Turners's come and gone," = 4 bars 2nd line-(repeat of 1st line) "Dey tell me Joe Turners's come and gone," = 4 bars 3rd line-conclusion "Got my man and gone." = 4 bars

"Three cornered blues" were being sung all the South before one was ever published. The blues were a mold as it were, into which a singer could pour into his or her own personal expression -perhaps framing their words to an existing tune, creating a new variation of a standard melody, or, even coming up with a new tune.

However, it was often the words not the tunes that survived. If the audience accepted the lyrics, they became part of a vast collection of common property verses to be drawn upon, embellished and otherwise used by anyone who wanted to.

Besides the call and response element found in the lyric structure of a typical blues song, there is also the guitarist's tradition of call and response between the vocals and the guitar where he answers each vocal phrase with a guitar fill.

While the vocal inflections (devices such as sliding, falsetto, whining growling, moaning shouting) can be traced back to the traditions found in African vocalizations, the three chord sequence utilizing I, IV, and V with dominant 7th chords as it is generally used in blues was not usual in the traditional European sense and is not found in any previous forms of music:

2 bars of (I7) -vocal statement

2 bars of (I7) -guitar answer

2 bars of (IV7) -vocal statement (repeat of 1st vocal)

2 bars of (I) -guitar answer

2 bars of (V) -vocal statement (contrasting/concluding)

2 bars of (I) -guitar answer

It should be noted that there are and were many variations within in this form; sometimes the order of chords; or, the amount of bars on certain songs would vary. There are also very common 16+ bar blues; this is the "tell-a-story-on-the-I-chord-for-a-while" and then as a chorus the song is finished from what would normally have been the IV chord (5th measure).

There is also the eight bar blues and the one chord blues. All of these (and more) engage in the call and response elements as well as all of the previously mentioned "bluesisms."

Getting Commercial

It should be also noted that although it is easy to analyze, catagorize and put labels and such on things, that the development of a codified form was an ongoing process. For a solo performer to add or subtract measures at whim as their personal expression dictates was not a big deal-there's ample evidence on record of blues that generally sounds 12 barish but, on closer investigation is very asymmetrical.

One can find things such as random 2/4 measures here and there, or maybe 13 bars one time around and then 10 ½ the next-never the same twice! Performers attempting this with a band, unless the band is quick on their feet, usually end up sounding like a huge mess (There are plenty of recorded examples of this.).

The persons who first codified the forms of the blues, were the big city musicians and composers who needed to have it written down so an ensemble could play it together. This city blues became known as the classic blues and was much more elaborate. There were sophisticated arrangements and the use of jazzier harmony and most of the performances were centered around a female vocalist.

W.C. Handy was one of the first persons to publish a blues song. His "Memphis Blues" in 1912 was so popular that soon everyone jumped on the bandwagon. Suddenly, everyone who wanted a hit song was coming out with "this" blues and "that" blues. These blues songs brought the country blues to the masses and there became a huge demand for these kinds of songs among the black audience.

In 1920 Okeh records recorded a young black singer named Mamie Smith and her records sold by the thousands thus ushering in the era of "race records," records catering to the "colored audience." Smith, and others like her were singing a more sophisticated kind of "city blues" that was more harmonically advanced with arrangements and performed with jazz musicians.

Soon it was discovered that there was even more of a market for the rural country blues in the rural areas, but also, in the cities; this partly due to the fact of a large migration of blacks to the cities in the North. This music was typically performed by men who sang and accompanied themselves on the guitar.

The music tended toward more of the city style, following the now more or less standardized I, IV, V patterns, while the rhythms and the style of singing were of the fields and work gangs. Soon the big record labels were jumping into the foray, trying to capitalize on this untapped goldmine of blues music. Some of the artists that came out of this era were: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Charlie Paxton, Tampa Red and Lonnie Johnson.

Companies such Victor sent out "field recorders," into the South to try and discover the next blues talent. They would set up their makeshift recording studios anywhere they could (hotel rooms, barns, skating rinks etc.) and record anyone with a guitar who claimed to be a singer.

The artists would be paid a small one-time fee, and, if the record sold would usually receive little compensation, if any. Victor's race label, Bluebird records, was incredibly successful at marketing the country blues. By the 1930's, the company had commercialized its music to such a degree that most of the intensity, personality and expression of the individual artist was gone.

Party songs, which were suggestive, sexual, double entendre-laced compositions were the most popular, while the pains and cries of the slave in the fields was something that was swept behind the door, at least in the majority of commercial blues. Also, Bluebird started using the same backup musicians for all their singers, thus creating a uniform, homogenized sound that became the stereotypical "Bluebird sound."

By the 1940's, the entire blues record business had emulated the "Bluebird beat. It should be noted that blues still permeated popular music, and white composers such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern had been utilizing the blues tonalities in many of their compositions all along. As well, blues was (and is) still one of the most recorded musical forms in the jazz idiom.

After WWII, in the late 40's through the 50's, many African-American veterans became resentful of the blues, and the social conditions which caused them in the first place. Many felt that to associate with this older style of music would be taking a giant step backward for their race. The younger generation especially, lashed out at their elders for listening to music that reminded them of slavery, especially considering that the social conditions for blacks in the South at that time were still abysmal.

After the war most of the popular artists of the 1920's-40's record's were selling poorly while a new breed of blues musician emerged. Their music, represented by the likes of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley was loud, raw and aggressive, with the electric guitar becoming the primary instrument.

This influenced the early rock style, with Elvis Presley being at the forefront of the coming musical revolution. His early material was almost based entirely on the blues structure and style of singing, and his first records was purchased mainly by the black audience. Soon he was selling millions of records and influencing the blues-derivative trend in mainstream music for years to come. (It should be noted that the "first" rock & roll song, "Rock Around The Clock" recorded by Bill Haley and The Comets a couple of years prior to Elvis's "That's All Right Mama" was a in 12-bar blues structure.)

In away this "blues" music (much to the horror of certain bigoted Americans) narrowed the gap between black and white audiences as a whole generation of white teenage America embraced this "new" music with an expected fervor that sent the older generation running for cover. Suddenly black "crossover"artists such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Bo Diddley were becoming popular; mother's were in fear for their daughters and sons as their teenagers gyrated and twisted to this new "primitive jungle music" as one reviewer put it.

By contrast, by the 1960's the next generation of African-Americans seemed to have even less interest whatsoever in a music that associated them in any way to the culture that the blues arose from. It was also considered their "parents" music and therefore unhip (sounds familiar). By then most of the blues artists had pretty much faded into obscurity save for a few big names, BB king being a prime example.

The African-American audience turned to its own brand of mainstream; r&b, soul and funk music, which was becoming as equally popular with a mass white audience. But, the blues influence was still felt strongly in all quarters-as an example, black entertainer "The Godfather of Soul"James Brown (who is a huge influence on both white and black artists) had many hit songs based on the 12-bar blues structure.

A positive result of the great social upheaval in the 60's, was the desegregation of music, and many feel that the blues has (both directly and indirectly) been largely responsible for this. Regardless, it was the first time that white and black music held equal ground on the "top hits" charts. In the early 60's blues enjoyed a rebirth of sorts when young white rock musicians notably guitarists Michael Bloomfield from USA and Eric Clapton from England became popular with their blues guitar styles; but it was mainly among a white audience.

Besides Clapton and Bloomfield, many other artists started covering old standard blues songs as well as writing their own in this style. A prime example is that most of Robert Johnson's songs have been covered by rock and blues musicians alike. Ironically, although these songs have garnered millions of dollars, Johnson himself only made a few hundred dollars on his 28 or so recordings and died penniless.

Huge mainstream artists like the Beatle's, The Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, Led Zepplin and Jimi Hendrix (to name a very few) found a wealth of material that could be developed from the blues idiom. Hendrix, a black guitarist from Seattle was originally a blues guitarist, but expanded upon it to such a degree, that his influence is felt to this day in all styles of rock and blues guitar.

Still his popularity then and now was mainly among the white male audience as it is with most of the established black blues artists. BB King was once quoted as saying that now most of his audience is white. But still, the blues influence continues; even today, although in the last ten years most of the younger guitar bands seem to have been avoiding any reference to it (parents liked it therefore = unhip), at least knowingly.

However, some older established artists still play the blues. Eric Clapton's album "From The Cradle," a collection of blues standards, won a Grammy in 1994. The Black Crowes, a band heavily influenced by the Rolling Stones is current and extremely popular playing their blues-derived music.

A significant difference between the white and black style of blues was the emphasis on instrumental prowess. Compared to the white artists the vocals were always first and foremost. It may surprise some to know, that blues guitar great, BB King was always thought of (among earlier black audiences and even himself) as a blues singer who happened to play guitar.

This hearkens back to the original tradition of the blues singer telling a story, whether it be of pain, love, joy-whatever, but saying something that reaches inside your soul and pulls on it such a way to make you laugh, cry and hurt with them. And you say "Yeah, I know where you're coming from-been there before!," and somehow, hearing about it makes you feel better.

Blues is, as strange as it may seem, a happy uplifting music. A complete antithesis to what the name implies, blues tells of human experience; commonalities we all share. Even though the actual experiences are totally different (Most of us thank God, will probably never know what it's like to be a black slave forced to work long, hard, backbreaking hours in a cotton fields.), the idea is still the same.

Blues is a catharsis, blues makes you feel better talking about it, blues is everyday life-"we all get them at one time or another-even that little baby in that crib over there-he's got the blues," sang Albert King.

"Gwine to de river, take a rockin' chair,

Gwine to de river, take a rockin' chair,

If de blues o'ertake me, gwine rock 'way from dere."



Charters, Samuel B. The Country Blues.

New York: Plenum Publishing Corp., 1959.

Grossman, Stephan. Delta Blues.

New York: Embassy Music Corp, 1969.

Apel, Willi. Harvard Dictionary of Music.

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Tanner, Lee. Hidebrand, Lee. Images of the Blues.

New York: Michael Friedman Publishing Group Inc, 1998.

Handy, W.C. A Treasury of the Blues.

New York: Charles Boni Publishing, 1926.


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