Significance of the 20th Century Blues


The blues are typically regarded as melancholy feelings that a person may be undergoing. As it was known in the late 1800s, blues music came from Depression from various hardships such as slavery and African Americans’ adversity. This form of music was brought about in the 19th century as a way for African Americans to express how they felt verbally. The early style of blues was known as country blues and was usually a solo singer accompanied on guitar or piano sometimes with added harmonica or drums. The majority of blues musicians had descendants from Africa who were transported to America in the slave trade.

W.C. Handy

The origins of Blues music can not be drawn back to a specific person. The lonely, sad, and weary songs sprung up everywhere, particularly in the Southern states. According to Eileen Southern, in her book,W. C. Handy was the first to  popularize the genre in 1903 (Southern 1997, 332). Even still, her account points to Handy having heard a man singing a song in a Mississippi train station.W.C. Handy was a composer and a leader in popularizing blues music in the early 20th century, with hits like “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues.” Handy played with several bands and traveled throughout the Midwest and the South, learning about the African American folk music that would become known as the blues. Handy later composed his own songs — including “St. Louis Blues,” “Memphis Blues” and “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” — which would help popularize the form and come to be major commercial hits. 

"Classic Blues

Rudi Blesh, published in 1949, the term “Classic Blues” was elementary but widely adopted. His classification system also consisted of “Archaic,” or “Preclassic Blues,” including Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson; the “Classic Blues” of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Jelly Roll Morton; and the “Post Classic Blues.” In addition, the latter embraced the “Contemporary” of Lonnie Johnson, the “Decadent” of Jazz Gillum, the “Sophisticated” of Lil Green, and the “Eclectic” Blues, represented by Billie Holiday. While many of his representative samples would later be questioned or considered inappropriate, Blesh’s identification of the Classic Blues has continued to be a worthwhile category.

The Connection Between the Great Depression and Blues

Several significant events during the Depression affected the quantity and type of blues music performed and recorded, with notable effects on the genre’s evolution. Many believe that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed African Americans. However, the truth is that many African Americans in the South were trapped in a system of debt servitude known as peonage, which was just as bad if not worse than slavery. After the Civil War, the cash-strapped South needed to restore its economy and resorted to the system of sharecropping to compensate freedmen for their work. This system of social control required African Americans to provide cheap labor and kept them in a subordinate place within society. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression significantly reduced the activities of the record industry.
Great Depression: workers at a canning plant Workers, many of them migrants, grading beans at a canning plant in Florida in 1937. The economic hardships of the Great Depression hit African American workers especially hard.

Pioneers of the Blues

Singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey are believed to be the pioneers and inspirations to other black singers, not just women but also men; they were also an inspiration in a state where they managed to get a better life. They converted blues into pop culture, which then granted an opportunity for black culture to emerge and be acknowledged. These ladies brought blues into a stage of professionalism, which later allowed the men blues to participate and appear in the music business. Blues was no longer merely a personal expression but also a way of earning a living. Blues music now offered a job beyond the plantation and glamorous life that was impossible before.

Characteristics of Blues Music

The main features of blues include: specific chord progressions, a walking bass, call and response, dissonant harmonies, syncopation, melisma and flattened ‘blue’ notes. Blues is known for being microtonal, using pitches between the semitones defined by a piano keyboard.


Blues music imitated the real-life experiences of the secular culture of African Americans. As with much of the musical indication of the oppressed, the objective was not to document the struggle as much as it was a way to survive the battle. The blues served as an outlet for Africans to deal with a complex reality.

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