What Are the Blues?

BluesHoller The history of the blues is more than a musical chronology. The blues was born the day the West African shoreline fell from the horizon. It was raised amid the institutionalized savagery of the Deep South and flourished in the dark heart of America's largest cities. We owe the blues to those who bore the pain of enslavement behind the frightful shadows of our collective soul.

We all know that our bluesmakers of all folks cannot possibly be ranked like football teams or mutual funds. In fact, we'll shall never know who the truest bluesmakers were or where they came from. Consider the West African griots or that itinerant bluesman that W.C. Handy found and lost at the Tutwiler train depot in 1903. Consider all the Henry Sloans we've never heard and the mothers of those we have. And consider the folks whose paths never crossed those of the white historians or those who sang only to themselves and their God.

SlaveFields Blues music began as the primary artistic expression of a minority culture: It was created mainly by black working class men and women on the slave fields. Through its simplicity, sensuality, poetry, humor and irony, it mirrored the qualities and the attitudes of the blackpeople in America for three-quarters of a century.

The definition and most important extra-musical meaning of "blues" refers to a state of mind. But “the blues” did not enter popular American usage until after the Civil War as a description of music that expressed such a mental state among African Americans. It is generally understood that a blues performer sings or plays to rid himself free of "the blues."

Robert Leroy Johnson As the blues was created largely by illiterate musicians, scarcely any of whom could read music, improvisation, both verbal and musical, was an essential part of it, though not to the extent that it was in jazz. To facilitate improvisation, a number of patterns evolved, of which the most familiar is the 12-bar blues, Apparently, this form crystallized in the first decade of the 20th century as a three-line stanza. The simplicity of blues lyrics gave the blues singer freedom to express emotion while improvising. This structure was supported by a fixed harmonic progression, which all blues performers knew and which they played almost automatically.

From the Delta to Chicago

In its early years, the blues was wholly an African-American art form. Influential in its development were the collective unaccompanied work songs of the plantation culture, which followed a responsorial "leader-and-chorus" form with an emphasis on rhythm and meter similar in nature to the marching songs of the military.

Huddy William Ledbetter (Leadbelly) Work songs increasingly took the form of solo calls or "hollers" comparatively free in form but close to blues in feeling. The vocal style of the blues probably derived from the holler. One of the most famous work song leaders was Huddy Ledbetter, better known as "Ledbelly." As blues increased in popularity, Ledbelly moved from leading work songs to singing the blues and was very successful at it.

William Christopher Handy (WC.Handy) Self-proclaimed "Father of the Blues" W.C. Handy first heard the music in 1903 in the Mississippi Delta. By the late 1920s, the blues were being heard throughout the Delta at fish fries and juke joints, performed by such bluesmen as Charley Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Bo Carter and the Mississippi Sheiks and Tommy Johnson. Delta bluesman John Lee Hooker is famous for "Boogie Chillun", first recorded for VeeJay records in 1948.

Scrapper Blackwell (up) and Leroy Carr In the early 1930s the most popular blues singer was Leroy Carr, a pianist who was accompanied with uncanny rapport by the guitarist Scrapper Blackwell. Their approach had a strong southern character, but their lyrics had a considered, reflective quality, colored by disappointment rather than bitterness and reflecting the mood of many of their listeners. Carr was widely copied, and his classic performances, such as "How Long, How Long Blues" and "Midnight Hour Blues" were recorded by numerous singers, even in the 1970s long after his death in 1935.

In the 1940s, the heart of the blues scene shifted to Chicago’s south side. There, greats like Elmore James, Willie Mabon, Jimmy Rogers, Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Songs like "Hoochie Coochie Man", "Mannish Boy", "Sloppy Drunk", and "Don’t Start Me Talkin" are representative of this time.

Who Plays the Blues?

Stevie Ray Vaughan There is an ongoing debate among blues enthusiasts: Can people who are not African American truly enjoy and/or play the blues? Purists insist that white people cannot truly appreciate the blues, while others argue that the feeling within blues music comes from personal hardship a lesson learned by people of all backgrounds.

Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) Many rock ‘n roll bands mention bluesmen as early influences. When the Beatles arrived in the United States, they wanted to meet Muddy Waters and Bo Didley (and were astonished that mainstream America was not aware of these artists). The Rolling Stones took their name from the song by Muddy Waters and Keith Richards said that early on, their aim was to turn people on to Muddy Waters. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Alvin Lee, Steve Miller and Jimi Hendrix also paid homage to the great bluesmen through their music.

"The blues is like a planet. It's an enormous topic. You can't ignore the impact that it has had and continues to have on the whole musical culture. It's a tree that everyone is swinging from. Without it, I don't know where I would be. It's indelible and indispensable."

Tom Waits.

For a more complete overview of the blues, -check out the following excellent books:

All Music Guide to The Blues - 3rd Edition The Definitive Guide To The Blues- Edited by: Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, Stephen Thomas Erlewine and Cub Koda.

The History Of The Blues: The Roots, The Music, The People - Edited by: Francis Davis.

Blues For Dummies Edited by: Lonnie Brooks, Cub Koda and Wayne Baker Brooks.

White Boy Singin' the Blues -The Black Roots of White Rock - Edited by: Michael Bane.

Deep Blues - from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago's South Side to the World - Edited by: Robert Palmer.

Blues Who's Who - A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers - Edited by: Sheldon Harris.

On the Internet:

Allmusic Guide
Wikipedia Blues
You Tube A History Of Blues
International Blues Music Day
The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Recording Trip

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