Blues – A Journey of Self Reflection and Proclamation

The spilling display of emotion poured out of the deep south and fell gracefully into the sound that we now call blues. By the end of the 1st decade of the 20th century, “blues” became a name that flowed from New Orleans to Memphis, all the way to St.Louis. This wave of innovation brought about by the same inspirations for ragtime, barbershop vocal harmonies, and gospel, ushered in a new layer of black musical pluralism. This innovation was further solidified by the constraints of the oppression brought about by Jim Crow law, racial segregation, and day to day sorrows. It is through these experiences that the inspiration for blues was built. The blues emphasized the individual experiences and stories of black people and allowed them to delineate from the caricature view of black people displayed in media.


The genre brought about a soul riveting reflex to the trying times of the era and brought true and raw emotion to the forefront of music. The strophic form, harmonies, and instrumentation added to the genre giving it a unique amount of dimension. Homemade instruments mirrored the origins of blues core inspiration- Africa. Zithers, washboards, and jugs, appeared on the blues scene as derivatives if an African past. An extension of the African past was the incorporation of storytelling.  The use of griotism as a way to transmit experience into music that is seen throughout the genre defines it as being one of the most influential and provocative forms of music until that point and time. The structural form of the blues stems from the folk ballad and the incorporation of I, IV, and V chords. Additionally, The incorporation of the ballad in a slowed form to form a “slow drag” laid the groundwork for some of the most influential blues works.


In terms of commodification, blues began with the goal of making money. Many beginning artists were sharecroppers, farmers, and people simply working to make a living. This simple way of expression expanded into a world of popular entertainment. By 1910 blues had a notifiable name. Artists such as W.C.Handy who chartered “The Memphis Blues” and Clarence Williams began creating songs published under the genre of blues exclusively. The influx of this new sound allowed for a new way to explain the experiences of black people. Because of this artist such as “Ma” Rainey, Butler “String Beans” May, and Bessie Smith, told stories that resonated with the black public. This brought about a personal approach to music that was not focused on a performance as much as it was focused on self-understanding, reflection, and expression. Mamie Smith rose to fame through this expression becoming the first black vocalist to record blues commercially. After this came Ida Cox, Clara Smith, and Viola McCoy. This brought in the use of jazz instruments and barrelhouses which increased the exposure of the blues for recreational purposes and continued to expand with the electric guitar. This commercialization of the Blues brought about the inspiration for numerous white artists who perverted the original and organic sound of the deep black south and in doing this erased its intricacies.


Image result for ida cox Ida Cox

Blues spoke to the nuances of the black experience and examined the lives of those participating in it on an intimate level that had not been seen before. Blues rose to the forefront of popularity by traveling on a slow path of house parties, close gatherings, cafes, and saloons – corner stops, and bus stations. What first began as a genre which accompanied other genres work merged after the first 2 decades of the 20th century into an independent genre. The incorporation of blue notes, particular affinity for realism, and a focus on previously shunned topic such as sex, gambling, and alcoholism, brought a fresh and high impact feeling to the genre. In this lies the incredible impact of blues.

To expand on the Blues and its social impact further, it is crucial we understand the impact of such a provocative genre, displaying the black experience as one that is fully individual and fully human. This genre empowered and humanized black people as it allowed them to control their own narrative, a luxury previously denied to black people. This brought about a new age of self-reflection and self-proclamatory sense of being.


The influence of blues on future genres resulted in a rich future of RnB and Hip Hop and laid the foundation for narrative music which told stories of interpersonal feeling. Additionally, blues allowed for a provocative feel of to permeate the scene of music by discussing unexplored topics within the arts. This translates further into future genres as topics such as sex, drug use, and crime became regular. The normalcy of these topics can be seen later in genres such as rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and even funk and hip-hop


In conclusion, I feel the blues can be seen as a genre which expands upon the true and authentic narrative of Black life. Blues music is important due to the fact that it proposes an unfiltered version of the identities of Black people. The previous emphasis on emulating the master for their oppressor’s entertainment,  religious music, and non-controversial standpoints turned into an unapologetic display of the stories of Black people. As American society worked to snuff out the “socially unacceptable” qualities of black people. The blues is revolutionary in this right in that it highlighted the qualities of the lives of black people in an unfiltered way. This worked against the respectability politics that were inforced in the era and allowed Black people to the display themselves as they pleased.

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