Black and Blues

By: Whitney Holmes

How Did Blues Music Begin?

During the turn of the twentieth century, several new forms of music by the black community began to develop. Simultaneously, many new racial tensions were increasing during this time. Along with jazz, ragtime, and gospel music, the birth of blues was beginning. It combines elements from other genres such as folk music and jazz.  Blues music emerged from the deep south and was very common in cities such as New Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louis. It is considered to be the singing story of the African American in America. Because during the post-Emancipation period was during the time of the turn of the twentieth century, blues music initially was about leaving troubles behind and moving forward for African Americans. It served as an outlet for African Americans to express their struggles. Eventually the topics discussed in blues songs were sex, sadness, and feeling blue.

Elements of Blues

Several elements of blues make the genre very distinctive from other genres of music during the early 20thcentury. Similar to many other African American music, blues has some elements from European style music and some elements from African music. One of the most distinctive elements of blues music is the topics discussed in blues lyrics. The provocative topics such as sex and alcohol were not common topics discussed in music before the blues era. The use of instruments is another important characteristic of blues music. The instruments are considered to have a “dialogue” with the vocals of the singers which typically was not the case until blues. Blues is such a distinctive genre of music because it introduced many musical techniques that were not common in American music before.

Social Implications

Initially, the blues was about leaving behind troubles and moving forward for African Americans. Many African Americans had high hopes that the end of slavery was the beginning of a new chapter for blacks in America. Unfortunately, slavery was just the beginning of the struggles black Americans would have to go through. At the turn of the century, Jim Crow Laws, racial segregation, lynching, voting hate crimes, and other negative targets were very active during this time. Blues music was a way for African Americans to express their emotions dealing with these triumphs in America. Before blues, provocative topics such as sex, alcoholism, gambling, poverty, and unemployment were not used as context for music. These topics were commonly discussed in blues making it a very emotional and serious genre of music.

Notable Artists

At the beginning of the blues era, many blues artists saw blues as a way to make a little money outside of their own jobs. Most early blues musicians had jobs such as farming, sharecropping, and other low-income jobs and used blues as a quick way to make more money. Often times these musicians would perform on the weekends in bars, clubs, and other music joints. Some of the most famous blues artists are:

  • Bessie Smith
  • B.B. King
  • Paul Butterfield
  • C. Handy
  • Gertrude “Ma” Rainey
  • Mamie Smith
  • Muddy Waters
  • Robert Johnson
  • Billie Holiday

“Blues is a tonic for whatever ails you. I could play the blues and then not be blue anymore” – B.B. King

“It’s a long old road, but I know I’m gonna  find the end. ” -Bessie Smith 

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