From deep southern, African American roots at the end of the 19th century, a musical genre that would become world-renowned was born: Blues. The Blues, invited by slaves, ex-slaves, and descendants of slaves, developed from work songs, chants, field hollers, slave fiddles, and rural life. The Blues is “music with humble beginnings” (Barack Obama). This genre was initially folk music, but with the rise of instruments it became more unique in its own right. The Blues was originally a form of expression of one’s hardship through music, but gradually became a genre for pleasure and profit. Similarly to most black music, it was influenced by Ragtime and Church music.
Blues songs are about feeling blue, overcoming hard luck, grief, frustration, and emotional release. The nature of these songs are visceral, cathartic, starkly emotional, and melancholy. Blues is unique because it is rooted in the present, the “here and now.” Most blues songs do not speak of hope, like a Negro Spiritual would; they are centered on a current state of sorrow. Blues songs are usually slow and groovy; which promotes a sexy atmosphere for dancing. Before the genre became more sophisticated, Blues artists, oftentimes the poorest people in America, played their music with whatever was around them: pots and pans, wash and bowls, etc. Sometimes Blues artists performed in a call-and-response fashion, which allows for audience engagement and traces back to African American field roots. Call-and-response also allowed for heavy improvisation of raw feeling and emotion. There are two musical styles that are specifically characteristic of Blues music. The first is the Blues Seven; a harmonic seventh interval that adds to the chord. The second style is the Twelve Bar Blues.
Similarly to other genres of music birthed by African Americans, there is some form of commodification. An example of commodification within the black Blues community is W.C. Handy. W.C. Handy is a renowned Blues musician but he did not create the genre, yet he is known for calling himself the “Father of Blues.” How could one be the “father” or originator of a genre they did not, themselves, create? Handy went on to make a large deal of money from his published Blues compositions.
In addition to W.C. Handy, many more world-renowned musicians blossomed during the Blues era: Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and the Hall Johnson Choir, to name a few. Bessie Smith is such a celebrated Blues vocalist because she lived it. Smith was a victim of domestic violence, which was the topic of many of her songs. The struggles she sang about made her relatable amongst other African American women.
St. Louis Blues by W.C. Handy
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out by Bessie Smith
The Hall Johnson Choir was a group of incredibly talented black vocalists that performed a variety of genres but they are famous for singing behind many Blues artists and several motion pictures like In Old Missouri, Way down South, and My Old Kentucky Home.
St. Louis Blues by Hall Johnson Choir
Blues artists are directly responsible for influencing Rock N’ Roll. Caucasians heard the Blues, sped it up, put a new name on it and claimed it as their own. Blues also directly influenced R&B, which is an African American dominated genre that speaks about love, relationships, etc. It is interesting to see the influence Blues had on two races of people and the creations that came from it.
The Blues is an extraordinarily unique genre that was birthed from some of the ugliest and most horrific times this country has ever seen. The fact that African Americans have been able to take their hardships and struggles and transform them into a beautiful form of self-expression is a form of genius that cannot be overlooked.
Thank you for reading,
I hope you enjoyed!