Ah, the Blues. We say we have the Blues when feeling down. But the “Blues” is also a genre of music, one that is difficult to define but is most characteristically defined as something with a specific chord progression – one that includes the twelve-bar and the ‘blue note’, one that is flattened or bent in relation to the pitch of the major scale.
Nobody knows for sure how the Blues got its name or how it originated but many theorize that it started with unaccompanied vocal music of poor black laborers between 1870 and 1900. Prior to this, many of Blues characteristics is said to be traced back to the music of Africa, most particularly in the way it uses a wavy, nasal intonation.
The progression of Blues from this early time then rolls into early spirituals or religious songs at camp meetings. Like Blues, spirituals were passionate songs that conveyed to listeners the same feeling of rootlessness and misery as the Blues. Spirituals, however, were less specifically concerning the performer and rather instead about the general loneliness of mankind. Despite these differences, the two forms are similar enough that they could not be easily separated — many spirituals would probably have been called Blues had that word been in wide use at the time.
Country music was not country in its time as it too was considered the ‘blues’. Both types of music during the nineteenth century were also labeled ‘race music’ or ‘hillbilly music’.
As the recording industry grew, country Blues performers like Bo Carter, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red and Blind Blake grew more popular. The first Blues recordings from the 1920s are now categorized as a traditional, rural country blues. Country blues performers often improvised, either without accompaniment or with only a banjo or guitar. Regional styles of country blues varied widely in the early 20th century. The (Mississippi) Delta blues was considered a rootsy sparse style of blues with passionate vocals accompanied by slide guitar. Robert Johnson was one artist who combined elements of urban and rural blues.
Boogie-Woogie was another important style of blues in the1930s and early 1940s. While the style is often associated with a solo piano, boogie-woogie was also used to accompany singers and, as a solo part, in bands and small combos.
In the 1950s, the Blues had a huge influence on mainstream American popular music. Music from Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry were catching people’s attention. John Lee Hooker made Blues more personal and with his rough voice and single electric guitar, his music was newly characterized as Guitar Boogie. His song Boogie Chillen reached number one on the R&B charts in 1949.
In northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, during the later forties and early fifties, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James among others, played what was basically Mississippi Delta blues, backed by bass, drums, piano and occasionally harmonica. At about the same time, T-Bone Walker in Houston and B.B. King in Memphis were pioneering a style of guitar playing that combined jazz technique with the blues tonality and repertoire.
White audiences’ became more interested in the blues during the 1960s with the Chicago-based Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the British Blues movement. Before long, Blues and rock began fusing and America was seeing Blues Rock performers such as Jimi Hendrix.
During the 1980s, the Blues also continued in both traditional and new forms. Today, there are more than 160 Blues societies throughout the United States, Canada and Europe whom are constantly keeping the perpetual Blues flame alive with their distribution of newsletters to keep their members of which there are more than 100,000 informed of all the latest information about blues artists and concerts.
While the Blues may have had its beginnings with one culture, it is now appreciated and enjoyed by many cultures, worldwide.