The secular art of the blues originated in the Mississippi Delta as a sister to sacred spirituals. For this reason, early forms of blues music were noted as the Delta Blues. The genre blossomed throughout the black communities in the Southern United States. Blues debuted as a successor to the harmonic structure of folk blues, the field holler of work songs and the music from black churches. This new art of music is credited with beginning in the 1890s. Nonetheless, there are accounts of blues being made earlier because the musical style had not yet been named.
Characteristics of Blues Music
Blues music constitutes various formats of black musical styles. Many African elements are present in the instrumentation and the form of the blues. The earliest forms of instruments used in blues music were anything that the artists could find to emulate intended sound. These instruments included beer bottle tops, washboards and jugs, which served as reinterpretations of classic instruments found in Africa. Blues artists also found themselves incorporating griot-like arrangements into their songs. Similar to how griots were poised with the responsibility of maintaining cultural history, blues artists rooted their storytelling in the personal here and now. They told of the current struggles faced by African-Americans, which portrayed the blues as a sad musical genre. Blues also adopted the call and response format. This succession was popularized in the United States by black churches but has its origins in patterns from the African continent. The second voice of the “conversation” became an instrumental voice in the blues genre.
In telling of daily trials and tribulations, blues artists delved into deep expression of emotions and the actions accompanied by these feelings. The highly personal lyrics were amplified by the newly-evolved chord progression known as the 12 bar blues. The twelve bar blues is the musical structure in which the blues melody is played. The I represents the main chord of the scale. The IV represents the chord using the fourth note in the scale, and the V represents the fifth note in the scale. The twelve bars are represented by the specific repetition of the chords in twelve measures.
Early blues contained ragtime elements, but the sound of the blues most notably represented the Southern country sound. Blues used an innovation of notation and instruments coupled with a guitar. The incorporation of the blue note gave the sound a slurring or wavering pitch in addition to the common riff pattern. A knife was the primary mode of playing the blues guitar in its earliest form. Eventually, artists upgraded the technique to using a slide for expressive vibratos and bending for altering the pitch.
Social Implications and Commodification
Early blues music was mating dance music to get men to meet women. However, the same thing that made blues music unique simultaneously outcasted the blues in the black community. The creative innovation brought on by the blues was met with enforcement of Jim Crow laws. The talking of trials and tribulations did not resonate with many black people because black people did not want to focus on current struggles. Blues was not popular at first because black people were in an age of rising up. As a result, the secular style of the blues was often regarded as the “devil’s music.”
Even after blues music gained credibility within the black community, it did not become “popular” until white people deemed it so in the 1960s. After the 1960s, white people started performing the blues. A revival erupted as white people began inviting black artists to perform. Despite the the revival, racism and stereotyping were able to historically transcend into the blues era. Minstrel shows still appeared with white performers dressed in black face. The shows portrayed crude caricatures of black music. Black people were again forced to perform the latest blues hits in these shows across the countryside.
The Black Theater Circuit represented blues artists performing in black entertainment spots. However, the blues money was in publishing, not recording and performing as is evident with “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith and Perry Bradford.New York made the blues a driving force in popular music through race records. Much of the black blues music was published and disseminated by white people. Records and LPs were marketed to African-Americans as race music. W.C. Handy, who was self-dubbed as the “Father of the Blues,” had his music commercially published with one of the first copyrights of the blues title.
Important Performers of the Blues Era
The first successful blues singers were women. Black men were viewed as threats. As a result, black men were often forced to be clowns on stage and be the dressed up stage jokester.
Bessie Smith (1894-1937) was the most popular female blues artist of her time, regarded as the Empress of the Blues. She is notable for her enticing sexual reputation in addition to her talking of domestic violence and fighting back.
Mamie Smith (c. 1883-1946) was the first black blues artist to make vocal recordings.
B.B. King (1925-2015) was the most popular blues guitar player. He, along with Lucille, was considered the King of the Blues.
W.C. Handy (1873-1958 is known for first hearing the blues. He gave himself the title “Father of the Blues.”
Muddy Waters (1913-1983) was known as the “Father of Modern Chicago Blues.”
Influence on Future Genres
Blues music has an integral role in the formulation of most popular America genres. Even country music contains elements of the blues form. Many jazz songs contain the notable blue notes and improvisation that originated from blues music. The blues also gave birth to rock and roll. Billboard made up the terms of “pop” and “rock” as both genres contained elements from the blues and R&B genres. Rock and roll artists were inspired by the blues so much so that a blues resurgence was seen during the rock and roll era. Blues music also greatly influenced classical artists, such as George Gershwin, and rap, which is seen through the sampling of riffs in rap music.
Blues became the bedrock of American music. Blues music served as yet another way for African-Americans to express themselves through the art of music, despite racial injustices and systemic oppression. For this reason, the blues should be considered a testament to the resilience of black people. Its legacy cannot be ignored as it is present in almost all forms of contemporary black and American music.