Blues Music

Blues is a genre of music that originated in African American communities. Black slavery and the nature of the work they endured contributed to the style of the blues genre, particularly the shouting across the fields and the work songs. The slaves adhered to the vocal traditions of Africa while maintaining Christian belief, leading to a mixture of African rhythms with Gospel narratives. Most blues are sung in a call-and-response form. The blues evolved over time, employing various instruments, responding to social developments and taking on more formality and structure.

African American slaves would often turn to music to relieve their hardship and create a feeling of camaraderie. The three-line structure of the field shout and the spirituals of church were the first components of the blues. Some of the work songs incorporated the grunts and movements of the labor; the structure of the work manifested itself into the rhythmic structure of the music. The musical form changed as black speech patterns became more sophisticated. After the Civil War and emancipation, blacks began traveling all over the country and inevitably began sharing their music. Where the slaves had once sung for freedom in songs devoted to the image of crossing the Jordan river, freed blacks began to sing about the challenge of finding work and money. Blues music took on a personal quality, telling stories of everyday individuals that was unprecedented in original African music. This music became an essential form of self-expression for men and women not treated as individuals in their own right. As blacks were introduced to more leisure time, they were able to formalize their music and add instruments like the guitar, banjo and harmonica. The harmonica was a particularly popular instrument due to its small size and portability.

Though African Americans moved all over America, the blues were strongly based in the rural south -- the Mississippi Delta. Though the blues may have involved some religious themes, the genre was known as secular music and at times "the devil's music." In the early 20th century, ragtime music grew in popularity. William C. Handy, a musician and songwriter, was known as the "Father of the Blues." He wrote: "Southern Negroes sang about everything. ... They accompany themselves on anything from which they can extract a musical sound or rhythmical effect. ... In this way, and from these materials, they set the mood for what we now call blues." Handy was instrumental in popularizing the blues and composed some famous melodies, such as: "St. Louis Blues," "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "Ole Miss Rag." The classic blues represented a transition from an informal, personal setting to a formal, theatrical and more universal one.

Jazz is an instrumental form of the blues involving brass instruments. New Orleans was a popular center for jazz, especially in the 1920s. Record companies began to record African American music. Over the 1920s and 1930s, country blues, Delta blues and Memphis blues originated out of their respective areas, employing various instruments and differing sounds. Popular musicians of that time included Bo Carter, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tampa Red, Blind Blake, Sylvester Weaver, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller, Frank Stokes, Robert Wilkins and Casey Bill Weldon. Instruments included: the slide guitar, washboard, fiddle and mandolin. In 1920, Mamie Smith was the first African American to record blues music. As more blacks were moving to urban areas like Chicago, the urban blues genre was born. During Prohibition, musicians played the urban blues in "honky tonks," bars that illegally served alcohol. Urban blues had a more aggressive sound than classic blues. The bottleneck guitar, which involves a double slide technique, was a prominent instrument on the blues scene. Guitarists such as Sylvester Weaver, Son House, Robert Johnson and Casey Bill Weldon of the Memphis Jug Band were known for their mastery of the bottleneck guitar.

In the 1930s and 1940s, boogie-woogie music, which relied on a piano, became popular but was later taken over by big-band blues and jump blues. As more and more African Americans migrated across the country and instruments were amplified, a more mainstream form of blues was heard all over America. The term "rhythm and blues" came to define an era of contemporary blues in the 1950s. R&B has become a major genre of American music and is recognized for preceding rock and roll. The electric guitar became a staple instrument for performers like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, J. T. Brown and John Lee Hooker. B.B. King was known as "King of the Blues." Rock and roll, bluegrass music and electric blues are considered derivatives of blues music.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Blues: The Basics
Dick Weissman.
Routledge, 2005
Blues Fell This Morning: The Meaning of the Blues
Paul Oliver.
Horizon Press, 1961
Africa and the Blues
Gerhard Kubik.
University Press of Mississippi, 1999
Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues
William Ferris.
University of North Carolina Press, 2009
Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound
Alan Govenar.
Texas A&M University Press, 2008
Sounds So Good to Me: The Bluesman's Story
Barry Lee Pearson.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984
Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations
Brian Ward.
UCL Press, 1998
The Cambridge Companion to Blues and Gospel Music
Allan Moore.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
The Poetry of the Blues
Samuel Charters.
Oak Publications, 1963
Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music
Peter Van der Merwe.
Clarendon Press, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Part Three "The Blues"
Rhythm and Resistance: Explorations in the Political Uses of Popular Music
Ray Pratt.
Praeger, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "The Blues: America's National Song Form"
Blues Boy: The Life and Music of B.B. King
Sebastian Danchin.
University Press of Mississippi, 1998
The World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards
David Honeyboy Edwards; Janis Martinson; Michael Robert Frank.
Chicago Review Press, 1997
Virginia Piedmont Blues: The Lives and Art of Two Virginia Bluesmen
Barry Lee Pearson.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990
Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues
Steve Cheseborough.
University Press of Mississippi, 2004 (2nd edition)
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