A Brief History
of the Blues
Joseph Machlis says that the blues
is a native American musical and verse form, with no direct European and
African antecedents of which we know. (p. 578) In other words, it is a
blending of both traditions. Something special and entirely different from
either of its parent traditions. (Although Alan Lomax cites some examples
of very similar songs having been found in Northwest Africa, particularly
among the Wolof and Watusi. p. 233)
The word 'blue' has been associated
with the idea of melancholia or depression since the Elizabethan era. The
American writer, Washington Irving is credited with coining the term 'the
blues,' as it is now defined, in 1807. (Tanner 40) The earlier (almost
entirely Negro) history of the blues musical tradition is traced through
oral tradition as far back as the 1860s. (Kennedy 79)
When African and European music first
began to merge to create what eventually became the blues, the slaves sang
songs filled with words telling of their extreme suffering and privation.

(Tanner 36) One of the many responses to their oppressive environment resulted
in the field holler. The field holler gave rise to the spiritual, and the
blues, "notable among all human works of art for their profound despair
. . . They gave voice to the mood of alienation and anomie that prevailed
in the construction camps of the South," for it was in the Mississippi
Delta that blacks were often forcibly conscripted to work on the levee
and land-clearing crews, where they were often abused and then tossed aside
or worked to death. (Lomax 233)
Alan Lomax states that the blues
tradition was considered to be a masculine discipline (although some of
the first blues songs heard by whites were sung by 'lady' blues singers
like Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith) and not many black women were to be
found singing the blues in the juke-joints. The Southern prisons also contributed
considerably to the blues tradition through work songs and the songs of
death row and murder, prostitutes, the warden, the hot sun, and a hundred
other privations. (Lomax) The prison road crews and work gangs where were
many bluesmen found their songs, and where many other blacks simply became
familiar with the same songs.

We will write a custom essay sample on

A Brief History of the Blues specifically for you

for only $13.90/page

Order Now


Following the Civil War (according
to Rolling Stone), the blues arose as "a distillate of the African music
brought over by slaves. Field hollers, ballads, church music and rhythmic
dance tunes called jump-ups evolved into a music for a singer who would
engage in call-and-response with his guitar. He would sing a line, and
the guitar would answer it." (RSR&RE 53) The guitar did not enjoy
widespread popularity with blues musicians until about the turn of the
century. Until then, the banjo was the primary blues instrument.) By the
1890s the blues were sung in many of the rural areas of the South. (Kamien
518) And by 1910, the word 'blues' as applied to the musical tradition
was in fairly common use. (Tanner 40)
Some 'bluesologists' claim (rather
dubiously), that the first blues song that was ever written down was 'Dallas
Blues,' published in 1912 by Hart Wand, a white violinist from Oklahoma
City. (Tanner 40) The blues form was first popularized about 1911-14 by
the black composer W.C. Handy (1873-1958). However, the poetic and musical
form of the blues first crystallized around 1910 and gained popularity
through the publication of Handy's "Memphis Blues" (1912) and "St. Louis
Blues" (1914). (Kamien 518) Instrumental blues had been recorded as early
as 1913. Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, 'Crazy Blues'
in 1920. (Priestly 9) Priestly claims that while the widespread popularity
of the blues had a vital influence on subsequent jazz, it was the "initial
popularity of jazz which had made possible the recording of blues in the
first place, and thus made possible the absorption of blues into both jazz
as well as the mainstream of pop music." (Priestly 10)
American troops brought the blues
home with them following the First World War. They did not, of course,
learn them from Europeans, but from Southern whites who had been exposed
to the blues. At this time, the U.S. Army was still segregated. During
the twenties, the blues became a national craze. Records by leading blues
singers like Bessie Smith and later, in the thirties, Billie Holiday, sold
in the millions. The twenties also saw the blues become a musical form
more widely used by jazz instrumentalists as well as blues singers. (Kamien
518)
During the decades of the thirties
and forties, the blues spread northward with the migration of many blacks
from the South and entered into the repertoire of big-band jazz. The blues
also became electrified with the introduction of the amplified guitar.


In some Northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, during the later forties
and early fifties, 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 scoring national hits with blues songs. 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.

(RSR&RE 53)
In the early nineteen-sixties, the
urban bluesmen were "discovered" by young white American and European musicians.


Many of these blues-based bands like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the
Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream, Canned
Heat, and Fleetwood Mac, brought the blues to young white audiences, something
the black blues artists had been unable to do in America except through
the purloined white cross-over covers of black rhythm and blues songs.


Since the sixties, rock has undergone several blues revivals. Some rock
guitarists, such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Eddie Van
Halen have used the blues as a foundation for offshoot styles. While the
originators like John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins and B.B. 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.

(RSR&RE 53) The latest generation of blues players like Robert Cray
and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others, as well as gracing the blues
tradition with their incredible technicality, have drawn a new generation
listeners to the blues.


There are a number of different
ideas as to what the blues really are: a scale structure, a note out of
tune or out of key, a chord structure; a philosophy? The blues is a form
of Afro-American origin in which a modal melody has been harmonized with
Western tonal chords. (Salzman 18) In other words, we had to fit it into
our musical system somehow. But, the problem was that the blues weren't
sung according to the European ideas of even tempered pitch, but with a
much freer use of bent pitches and otherwise emotionally inflected vocal
sounds. (Machlis 578) These 'bent'pitches are known as 'blue notes'.


The 'blue notes' or blue tonalities
are one of the defining characteristics of the blues. Tanner's opinion
is that these tonalities resulted from the West Africans' search for comparative
tones not included in their pentatonic scale. He claims that the West African
scale has neither the third or seventh tone nor the flat third or flat
seventh. "Because of this, in the attempt to imitate either of these tones
the pitch was sounded approximately midway between [the minor AND major
third, fifth, or seventh], causing what is called a blue tonality." (Tanner
37) When the copyists attempted to write down the music, they came up with
the so-called "blues scale," in which the third, the seventh, and sometimes
the fifth scale-degrees were lowered a half step, producing a scale resembling
the minor scale. (Machlis 578) There are many nuances of melody and rhythm
in the blues that are difficult, if not impossible to write in conventional
notation. (Salzman 18) But the blue notes are not really minor notes in
a major context. In practice they may come almost anywhere. (Machlis 578)
Before the field cry, with its bending
of notes, it had not occurred to musicians to explore the area of the blue
tonalities on their instruments. (Tanner 38) The early blues singers would
sing these "bent" notes, microtonal shadings, or "blue" notes, and the
early instrumentalists attempted to duplicate them. (Kamien 520) By the
mid-twenties, instrumental blues were common, and "playing the blues" for
the instrumentalist could mean extemporizing a melody within a blues chord
sequence. Brass, reed, and string instrumentalists, in particular, were
able to produce many of the vocal sounds of the blues singers. (Machlis
578-9)
Blues lyrics contain some of the
most fantastically penetrating autobiographical and revealing statements
in the Western musical tradition. For instance, the complexity of ideas
implicit in Robert Johnson's 'Come In My Kitchen,' such as a barely concealed
desire, loneliness, and tenderness, and much more:
You better come in my kitchen, It's
gonna be rainin' outdoors.


Blues lyrics are often intensely
personal, frequently contain sexual references and often deal with the
pain of betrayal, desertion, and unrequited love (Kamien 519) or with unhappy
situations such as being jobless, hungry, broke, away from home, lonely,
or downhearted because of an unfaithful lover. (Tanner 39)
The early blues were very irregular
rhythmically and usually followed speech patterns, as can be heard in the
recordings made in the twenties and thirties by the legendary bluesmen
Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson and Lightnin' Hopkins
among others. (RSR&RE 53) The meter of the blues is usually written
in iambic pentameter. The first line is generally repeated and third line
is different from the first two. (Tanner 38) The repetition of the first
line serves a purpose as it gives the singer some time to come up with
a third line. Often the lyrics of a blues song do not seem to fit the music,
but a good blues singer will accent certain syllables and eliminate others
so that everything falls nicely into place. (Tanner 38)
The structure of blues lyrics usually
consists of several three-line verses. The first line is sung and then
repeated to roughly the same melodic phrase (perhaps the same phrase played
diatonically a perfect fourth away), the third line has a different melodic
phrase:
I'm going to leave baby, ain't going
to say goodbye. I'm going to leave baby, ain't going to say goodbye. But
I'll write you and tell you the reason why. (Kamien 519)
Most blues researchers claim that
the very early blues were patterned after English ballads and often had
eight, ten, or sixteen bars. (Tanner 36) The blues now consists of a definite
progression of harmonies usually consisting of eight, twelve or sixteen
measures, though the twelve bar blues are, by far, the most common.


The 12 bar blues harmonic progression
(the one-four-five) is most often agreed to be the following: four bars
of tonic, two of subdominant, two of tonic, two of dominant, and two of
tonic. Or, alternatively, I,I,I,I,IV,IV,I,I,V,V,I,I. Each roman numeral
indicates a chord built on a specific tone in the major scale. Due to the
influence of rock and roll, the tenth chord has been changed to IV. This
alteration is now considered standard. (Tanner 37) In practice, various
intermediate chords, and even some substitute chord patterns, have been
used in blues progressions, at least since the nineteen-twenties. (Machlis
578) Some purists feel that any variations or embellishments of the basic
blues pattern changes its quality or validity as a blues song. For instance,
if the basic blues chord progression is not used, then the music being
played is not the blues. Therefore, these purists maintain that many melodies
with the word "blues" in the title, and which are often spoken of as being
the blues, are not the blues because their melodies lack this particular
basic blues harmonic construction. (Tanner 37) I believe this viewpoint
to be a bit wide of the mark, because it places a greater emphasis on blues
harmony than melody.


The principal blues melodies are,
in fact, holler cadences, set to a steady beat and thus turned into dance
music and confined to a three-verse rhymed stanza of twelve to sixteen
bars. (Lomax 275) The singer can either repeat the same basic melody for
each stanza or improvise a new melody to reflect the changing mood of the
lyrics. (Kamien 519) Blues rhythm is also very flexible. Performers often
sing "around" the beat, accenting notes either a little before or behind
the beat. (Kamien)
Jazz instrumentalists frequently
use the chord progression of the twelve-bar blues as a basis for extended
improvisations. The twelve or sixteen bar pattern is repeated while new
melodies are improvised over it by the soloists. As with the Baroque bassocontinuo,
the repeated chord progression provides a foundation for the free flow
of such improvised melodic lines. (Kamien 520)
One of the problems regarding defining
what the blues are is the variety of authoritative opinions. The blues
is neither an era in the chronological development of jazz, nor is it actually
a particular style of playing or singing jazz. (Tanner 35) Some maintain
(mostly musicologists) that the blues are defined by the use of blue notes
(and on this point they also differ - some say that they are simply flatted
thirds, fifths, and sevenths applied to a major scale [forming a pentatonic
scale]; some maintain that they are microtones; and some believe that they
are the third, or fifth, or seventh tones sounded simultaneously with the
flatted third, or fifth, or seventh tones respectively [minor second intervals]).


Others feel that the song form (twelve bars, one-four-five) is the defining
feature of the blues. Some feel that the blues is a way to approach music,
a philosophy, in a manner of speaking. And still others hold a much wider
sociological view that the blues are an entire musical tradition rooted
in the black experience of the post-war South. Whatever one may think of
the social implications of the blues, whether expressing the American or
black experience in microcosm, it was their "strong autobiographical nature,
their intense personal passion, chaos and loneliness, executed so vibrantly
that it captured the imagination of modern musicians" and the general public
as well. (Shapiro 13)
Kamien, Michael. _Music: An Appreciation_.


3d Ed. N.Y.: McGraw Hill, 1984.; Kennedy, Michael. _The Concise Oxford
Dictionary of Music_. N.Y.: 1980.; Lomax, Alan. _The Land Where the Blues
Began_. N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 1993.; Pareles, Jon and Patricia Romanowski,
eds. _The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll_.N.Y.: Rolling Stone
Press, 1983.; Priestly, Brian. _Jazz On Record: A History_. N.Y.: Billboard
Books, 1991.; Salzman, Eric and Michael Sahl. _Making Changes_. N.Y.: G.


Schirmer, 1977.; Shapiro, Harry. _Eric Clapton: Lost in the Blues_. N.Y.:
Da Capo Press, 1992.; Tanner, Paul and Maurice Gerow. _A Study of Jazz_.


Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown Publishers, 1984.