The Mother of Music as we Know it: Blues

With a new century came a new style of music which emerged from the deep south: the blues. The blues evolved in the late 1890s from earlier styles of African American music including negro spirituals, work songs, and field hollers, and originated in the Mississippi Delta area of the deep south. The style is said to be a reminder of hard times, slavery, and blackness.

The blues are primarily sung in the first person, and express feelings and emotions based on things that the singer has experienced, or that the writer has experienced.  The lyrics may be exaggerated, but the blues generally deal with a wide range of emotions and deal with everyday things such as work, poverty, the law, alcohol, and more. In blues music, instruments play an imperative role, serving as a ‘second voice’ to the singer, and often ‘responding’ or accompanying the singer.

Performance is an extremely important implication of the blues. It was further commercialized by traveling circuses, tent shows, minstrel shows, and minstrel shows, and later being recorded by (mostly female) artists such as vaudeville singer Mamie Smith. Mamie Smith was the first black singer to record the blues commercially, and went on to have several hits, along with other vocalists such as Ethel Waters, and Trixie Smith.  In the 1930s, many male blues singers were recorded, accompanied by guitar and piano, including Blind Blake, Tommy Johnson, Charlie Spand, and Henry Brown. Blues groups began to form as well, producing groups such as the Memphis Jug Band, who were often accompanied by such instruments as the kazoo, jug, washboard, washtub bass, and spoons.

When the blues arrived in northern cities such as Chicago and Detroit, the electric guitar was introduced, further popularizing an already thriving genre. Artists who took to this new instrumental addition to the blues genre include Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Jimmy Reed, and arguably the most popular: BB King.

In the 1970s, blues music began to appeal more to white audiences, both in the United States, and abroad. Whites began performing the blues and using the the genre as a way to express opposition to political events and social restraints. These artists include Eric Clapton, and Johnny Winter. This movement gave credit to earlier blues artists such as Son House and Skip James. During this period of commodification, the blues took shape and gained respect as a distinct genre of music.

The blues played a major role in the development of other genres, including jazz, rap, gospel, funk, r&b, and rock &roll, as well as provided for a turning point in American music. The blues, though harboring African American roots, became a genre that reached people of all races and nations. One could argue that the blues gave birth to music as we know it today, and is the most influential genre of music to date.



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