Origin and Characteristics
When you think of the Blues, some of the many words that come to mind might include, soul, expression, and heart. Some of the instruments that may come to mind might include a saxophone, a trumpet, or a piano. Some of the artists that come to mind might include BB King, or Bessie Smith, or even W. C Handy. Think of these components as ingredients, these ingredients creating a sweet, succulent dish that is the Blues. Originating in New Orleans in the 1900s, traveling to Memphis, and making its way all the way to St. Louis, the Blues touched the hearts and souls of many. Blues was originated by enslaved individuals, as well as formerly enslaved, as a means to express their hardship and battles. Known for its more emotional aspects, Blues is sung and played primarily in terms of call and response. Blues songs are typically 12 bars with an I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I structure. Blues included various aspects and techniques that enhanced its musicality, such as ‘Blues Texts’, ‘Blues Notes’, ‘ Bends’, and ‘Bottleneck’ for example. There are myriads of different types of Blues; this musical myriad includes the Jump blues, Boogie-woogie, Chicago blues, Cool Blues, West Blues, and Texas Blues. They each have their own special sound and bring their own flare to the table. For example, Louisiana Blues features a swampy guitar or harmonica sound with lots of echoes, while Kansas City Blues is more jazz oriented.
Blues was rooted in the expression of struggles and limitation that oppression brought about via Jim Crow laws, racial segregation, and woes of being black in America during the set time period. Blues opened the door to allow black people to be seen more as artists, rather than the stereotypical caricature view that media painted of the black community. Blues was the genre of choice all around, featured at places like house parties, intimate gatherings, cafes, corner stops, bus stations, and many other places. The Blues displayed the black experience and humanized the black community. Giving African Americans dominion to tell their own stories, Blues opened a door to the group to a luxury that black people previously were not granted access to, as well as bridging the gap between white people’s lack of understanding for the black struggle.
One of the many goals of the Blues was to bring in money, and that’s just what it did. Many beginning artists were sharecroppers, farmers, and people simply working to make a living, and these same people began to share the story of their daily woes through the Blues and their expression then extended into the entertainment world. By 1910, Blues had established prominence. By 1912, pieces began to become copyrighted with the word blues on them, including W.C. Handy’s “The Memphis Blues”. As time progressed and black people were given more of a stage to share their art with the world, artists like Ma Rainey began performing songs of their own, and by 1920 Mamie Smith was the first black vocalist to commercially record the Blues. As time moved on, W. C. Handy took the entrepreneurial decision to start his business of printing blues music and proceeding to sell the scores. This spread of musical copies was catalytic in the dispersal of the Blues from the south to people all around the country.
Influences on Future Genres
The Blues had a large impact on future genres and are directly responsible for influencing future genres like Rhythm and Blues, and Hip Hop. These genres share the same basis as Blues, as they each tell stories of love, relationships, drug use, crime, and different modes of oppression. Of course, like everything that African Americans created first, whites during the time heard the Blues, and through a couple tempo changes and a name change, they turned the Blues into Rock N’ Roll and claimed it as their own invention.
Blues performers embodied the status of griots as they used their music to convey stories that would largely resonate with the black public. For example, Bessie Smith was prominent during a time where violence against women was prevalent, and as a victim of domestic violence, she used her experiences to serve as the topic of many of her songs. Many more world-renowned musicians blossomed during the Blues era. These game changers included Mamie Smith, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, the Hall Johnson Choir, “Ma” Rainey, Butler “String Beans” May, T-Bone Walkers, W.C. Handy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, and Robert Johnson and so many others.
Some well known Blues pieces are listed below.
The Blues is an extraordinarily unique genre that was birthed from the pain and agony of the African American community. Understanding that African Americans have historically taken their hardships and struggles to transform them into beautiful, hardcore forms expression simply astounds me each time. Black people’s ability turn oppression into a beautiful piece of art repetitiously and establish the groundwork for a new genre has given the world so much music, and Blues only continued to eradicate any previous relations back to the times when performing for the master, or oppressor’s entertainment, was the only performance or expression black people were alotted. From Negro Spirituals to the Blue, the genre turned into an unapologetic display of the stories of Black people. For the Blues, I am forever grateful.