Towards the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the term “blues”started to become associated with a new style emerging from Black communities in the southern United States.What made blues distinctly different from other styles of African American music was that blues was the most self-contained. Throughout their history, most blues songs are performed solo. The singers, especially the males would usually play an instrument to accompany their song. In the style of folk blues, the instruments typically used were guitar, piano, or harmonica. In the blues style, there is great emphasis on individual expression and improvisation.
Elements of Blues
The blues combines elements from the European and African musical traditions. The European elements are typically seen in the areas of form, harmony, and instrumentation. The African American elements in the blues are found in the area of style, specifically in the music’s rhythmic, tonal, and timbral flexibility.
Distinct Blues Characteristics
- blues lyrics are extremely straightforward and usually exclusively concerned with self, although sometimes in relation to others. Rather than telling stories in a chronological order, blues songs express feelings and emotions or describe actions based on them. The lyrics are usually realistic, non-sentimental, and serious.
- instrumentation plays a very integral part in the creation and performance of blues songs. The instrumental part usually serves as a second voice, emphasizing and responding to the vocal lines.
- The majority of blues utilizes the 12-bar AAB form or some variant of that form. In its simplest form, the stanza consists of a line of verse (A), the same line repeated, and a third line (B) that rhymes with the first two.
Popularization of the blues
- By 1910 there were reports of a musical genre called blues being sung and played by vaudeville entertainers.
- By 1912, there were at least 5 songs that were copyrighted with the word blues in their titles, including W.C. Handy’s “The Memphis Blues.” Publishing companies like W.C. Handy’s began turning out many blues records over time.
- Artists such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Butler “String Beans” May, and Bessy Smith became stars out of the vaudeville entertainers. They would sing published blues hits, their own compositions, and adaptations of folk material.