The Story of a True American Musical Art Form: The Blues
In the history of music there has probably been no musical style that has influenced “Popular Music” more than the Blues. The blues is also unique in that it is truly an “American” musical art form. As we will discover, the roots of the musical styles of Jazz, Rock, Gospel and musical artists from BB King, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin, all were heavily influenced by Blues.
It is important to note that the term “Popular Music”, as I have used it before, is a bit misleading. Too often we mention Classical Music and Popular Music as completely different musical expressions. I am not inferring that they are not very different from each other. What I’m saying is that the word “Popular” really only refers to the time period in which one lives.
Let me explain. If we lived in Europe in 1786 when Mozart was 30 years old and at the height of his career (he died at 36) his music would have been considered Popular, wouldn’t it? If there had been recording studios, radio stations, MP3s, and iPods in 1786, would it be too naive and simplistic to conclude that one of his symphonies or piano concertos would have been a “Top-Ten Release?” And if so, wouldn’t it be considered “Popular Music”? I think you will admit that this is certainly an unconventional but truthful perspective.
Since Blues has been such a powerful influence, it is important to understand why. Here is a brief history.
The Blues were born in the northern Mississippi delta after the Civil War. Her heartfelt and passionate performances are deeply rooted in slavery and African American culture. The earliest compositions were Field Hollers, Ballads, Church Spirituals, and rhythmic dance tunes called Jump-Ups that featured a singer engaging in a call and response on his guitar. I’d sing a line and the guitar would respond. For many years, due to lack of musical education, many songs were recorded and transmitted only by heart. Due to this fact, it is quite possible that many of the great songs have been “lost in translation”.
The Blues became the essence and hope of the African American worker, whose spirit is attached to these songs, reflecting his inner soul to all who will listen. Rhythm and Blues is the cornerstone of all forms of African American music. The Blues, with their dissonant 12-bar seventh chord progression and doubled-note melodies, were the first hymns of an oppressed race, uniting themselves through their poignant cries of freedom and equality. From its origins at the junction of Highways 61 and 49, and the Clarksdale train station platform, the blues finally began to spread and made its way north to Beale Street in Memphis.
The term “The Blues” refers to the “The Blue Devils”, which means melancholy and sadness. An early use of the term in this sense is found in the charade in an act by George Colman Blue Devils (1798). Although the use of the phrase in African American music may be older, it has been attested since 1912, when Hart Wand’s “Dallas Blues” became the first copyrighted blues composition.
The Blues form was first incorporated around 1911-14 by the black composer WC Handy (1873-1958). However, the poetic and musical form of the blues first crystallized around 1910 and gained popularity with Handy’s publication of “Memphis Blues” (1912) and “St. Louis Blues” (1914). The instrumental blues had been recorded as early as 1913. During the 1920s, the blues became a national madness.
Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, ‘Crazy Blues’ in 1920. The influence of blues on jazz brought it into the mainstream and made possible the records of blues singers like Bessie Smith and later, in the 1930s. , Billie Holiday.
In northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Howlin ‘Wolf, and Elmore James, among others, played what was basically Mississippi Delta blues. , backed by bass, drums, piano, and occasionally harmonica, and began composing national hits with blues songs. Around the same time, T-Bone Walker in Houston and BB King in Memphis pioneered a style of guitar playing that combined jazz technique with blues tonality and repertoire. It is also important to mention that the roots of Jazz began with Blues. So if there were no Blues, there would be no Jazz!
In the early 1960s, urban blues musicians were “discovered” by young white American and European musicians. Many of these blues-based bands such as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Canned Heat and Fleetwood Mac, brought blues to young white audiences, something that artists of the black blues he had been unable to make in America except through stolen white crossover versions of black rhythm and blues songs. Since the 1960s, rock has seen several blues revivals. Some rock guitarists, such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Eddie Van Halen have used the blues as the basis for derivative styles. While creators such as John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, and BB King, and their heirs Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and later Eric Clapton and the late Roy Buchanan, among many others, continued to make fantastic music in the blues tradition. The last generation of blues musicians would be Robert Cray and the late Stevie Ray.
Today there are many different shades of blues. The forms include:
Traditional county blues – General term describing the rural blues of the Mississippi Delta, Piedmont, and other rural places.
Skip blues – A danceable amalgam of swing and blues and a forerunner of R&B. Jump blues pioneered Louis Jordan.
Boogie-woogie – A piano-based blues popularized by Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, and derived from barrelhouse and ragtime.
Chicago blues – Electrified delta blues.
Cool blues – A sophisticated piano-based form that owes much to jazz.
West coast blues – Mainly popularized by musicians from Texas who moved to California. West Coast blues is heavily influenced by the rhythm of the swing. âEUR¨
The public’s affection for the Blues only seems to be growing. In Dana Point California, the city next to mine, Doheny Beach now has an annual Blues Festival that keeps getting bigger and bigger. Others can be found in Portland, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, the list goes on.
As for me personally, Blues has always been a regular part of my life. When I play guitar and sing with other musicians, it is the easiest and most enjoyable form of popular music to play. When I was little and my parents owned a music store and rock club called The Four Muses in San Clemente California from 1965 to 1975, we always had Blues groups performing. Most notable was the famous Blues Duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
My only personal problem with listening to a lot of Blues is that it can get very repetitive and not sound “fresh” due to constant use of the standard 12 bar Blues chord progression. With that said, I highly recommend that everyone try to listen to live Blues this summer. The music and the crowd that it usually draws ensure a pleasant experience.
Thank you for reading!
Jonathan Morgan Jenkins