Blues is a vocal and instrumental musical form which evolved from African American spirituals, shouts, work songs and chants and has its earliest stylistic roots in West Africa. Blues has been a major influence on later American and Western popular music, finding expression in ragtime, jazz, big bands, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and country music, as well as conventional pop songs and even modern classical music.
Characteristics and early history
Early forms of the blues evolved in and around the Mississippi Delta in the Southern United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, using simple instruments such as acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica, also known as the "blues harp". Songs had many different forms of structure, although the twelve-, eight-bar, or four-bar structure based on tonic, subdominant and dominant chords became predominant. Melodically, blues music is marked by the use of the lowered third and dominant seventh (so-called blue notes) of the associated major scale. The use of blue notes, as well as the prominence of call-and-response patterns in the music and lyrics, are indicative of the blues' West African pedigree.
The blues scale frequently is found in non-blues musical forms, such as popular songs like Harold Arlen's Blues in the Night, blues ballads like "Since I Fell for You" and Please Send Me Someone to Love, and even orchestral works like George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F. Indeed, the blues scale is ubiquitous in modern popular music and informs many modal frames, especially the ladder of thirds as in A Hard Day's Night.
What is now recognizable as the standard 12-bar blues form with A A1 B form is documented from oral history and sheet music as appearing in African-American communities throughout the region along the lower Mississippi River during the decade of 1900s (and performed by white bands in New Orleans at least since 1908). One of these early sites of blues evolution was along Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. One legendary blues man is Robert Johnson, The King of the Mississippi Delta Blues. He is generally held responsible for the standardization of the 12-bar blues.
Lyrically, verses of early blues songs consist usually of a single line of four-bars repeated twice, with a third rhyming line, such as:
- Woke up this morning with the blues all in my bed
- Yes, I woke up this morning with the blues all in my bed
- Fixed my breakfast, the blues was all in my bread
In addition to the conventional 12-bar blues, there are many blues in 8-bar form, such as How Long Blues, ten-bar blues, like Big Bill Broonzey's Key to the Highway, and even 16-bars, as in Ray Charles's instrumental, Sweet 16 Bars.
Early blues frequently took the form of a loose narrative, often with the singer reciting his or her many misfortunes. Many of the oldest blues records contain gritty, realistic lyrics, in contrast to much of the music being recorded at the time. One of the more extreme examples, Down In The Alley by Memphis Minnie, is about a prostitute having sex with men in an alley. Music such as this was called "gut-bucket" blues. The term refers to chitterlings, a soul food dish prepared from pig intestines, then associated with slavery, deprivation and hard times. Gut-bucket blues and the rowdy juke-joint venues where it often was played, earned early blues an unsavory reputation. Proper, church-going people shunned it, and preachers railed against it as sinful. And because it often treated the hardships and injustices of life, the blues gained an association in some quarters with misery and oppression, however it was some of America's first socially aware music. But the blues was about more than hard times; it could be humorous and raunchy as well.
- Rebecca, Rebecca, get your big legs off of me,
- Rebecca, Rebecca, get your big legs off of me,
- It may be sending you baby, but it's worrying the hell out of me.
In the early twentieth century, W.C. Handy took blues across the tracks and made it respectable, even "high-toned." The formally trained musician, composer and arranger was a key popularizer of blues. Self-named as Father of the Blues, Handy was one of the first to transcribe and then orchestrate blues in an almost symphonic style, with bands and singers. Extremely prolific over his long life, Handy's signature work was the St. Louis Blues.
Jazz bands often recorded blues tunes from 1917 on. In the 1920s, the blues became a major element of American popular music. With the rise of the recording industry, there was increased popularity of country blues singers and guitarists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake, who recorded for Paramount Records, and Lonnie Johnson who recorded for OKeh Records. Son House, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt are a handful of musicians who greatly influenced the blues and many later rock artists. These recordings came to be known as "race" records, since they were targeted almost exclusively to an African-American audience. In addition, women blues singers were extremely popular in the 1920s, among them Mamie Smith, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Victoria Spivey .
History of modern blues
In the 1940s and 1950s, increased urbanization and the use of amplification led to electric blues music, popular in cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City and best exemplified by such artists as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter and John Lee Hooker. Electric blues eventually gave rise to rock and roll.
The appeal of blues remained strong in later decades. The music of the Civil Rights, Black Pride and Free Speech movements in the U.S. prompted a resurgence of interest in American roots music in general and in early African-American music, specifically. Artists such as Eric Clapton, Canned Heat, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, influenced by both early and electric blues musicians, brought the blues to a new, younger audience. Through these artists and others both earlier and later, blues music has been strongly influential in the development of rock and roll.
As well, blues masters like John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters continued to perform to enthusiastic audiences, inspiring new artists steeped in traditional blues, such as New York-born Taj Mahal. Mahal's music was featured prominently in "Sounder", a 1972 Hollywood Oscar-nominated movie set in rural Louisiana in the 1930s, starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. "Sounder" did much to revive interest in old-school, acoustic blues. Eight years later, the film The Blues Brothers helped increase awareness of mid-20th century-style urban blues among a younger audience.
Since 1980, blues has continued to thrive in both traditional and new forms through the continuing work of Taj Mahal and the music of Robert Cray, Albert Collins, Bonnie Raitt, Keb' Mo' and others. Around this time blues publications such as Living Blues and Blues Review began appearing at newstands, major cities began forming blues societies and outdoor blues festivals became more common. More nightclubs and venues such as Manny's Car Wash , the Slippery Noodle and the Zoo Bar emerged. In the 1990s and today blues performers are found touching elements from almost every musical genre. Young performers such as Alvin Hart, Jonny Lang, Anson Funderburgh, Susan Tedeschi, Corey Harris and Anthony Gomes keep blues alive, fresh and innovative. Please see List of blues musicians for more information.
And blues forms turn up in some surprising places. The theme to the televised Batman was blues, as was teen idol Fabian's first hit, "Turn Me Loose". Likewise, many jazz classics, such as Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time", also use the blues form without lyrics. The first great country music star Jimmie Rodgers was a blues performer.
Blues is also the name for an informal type of swing dancing with no fixed patterns and a heavy focus on connection, sensuality and improvisation, often with body contact. Although usually done to blues music, it can be done to any slow tempoed 4/4 music, including rock ballads and "club" music.
Don'tYouGrieve.ogg - “Don’t You Grieve” blues mourning song from the Library of Congress' John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip; performed by Aunt Mollie McDonald on May 27, 1939, at her family home near Livingston, Alabama
WhereDidYouSleepLastNight.ogg Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night"
Crossroads.ogg Robert Johnson's "Crossroads Blues"
ClemensRag.ogg - "Clemens Rag" instrumental blues guitar song from the Library of Congress' John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip; performed by Ace Johnson and L.W. Gooden on AApril 15, 1939, at Clemens State Farm near Brazoria, Texas
Train.ogg - "Train" instrumental blues harmonica song from the Library of Congress' John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip; performed by Ace Johnson on April 16, 1939, at Clemens State Farm near Brazoria, Texas
Hesitationblues.ogg “Hesitation Blues” blues song from the Library of Congress' Gordon Collection; performed by Bascam Lamar Lunsford in the Asheville, North Carolina area on October 19, 1925
Po'Gal.ogg - "Po’ Gal" East Coast blues from the Library of Congress' Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections; performed by Zora Neale Hurston on June 18, 1939, in Jacksonville, Florida