The Blues

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The Blues

A type of African-American musical art that was first developed in the Mississippi Delta region at the end of the nineteenth century, the blues, like many musical expressions, is difficult to define. Some people think of the blues as an emotion; others regard it primarily as a musical genre characterized by a special blues scale containing twelve bars and three chords in a particular order. Besides embodying a particular feeling (the "blues") and form, the blues also involves voice and movement: poetry set to dance music. It is vocal not only in the obvious sense that most blues songs have lyrics, but in that even in purely instrumental blues, the lead instrument models its expressivity on the singing voice; and it involves dance because it quite literally moves listenerseven when they are siting down. Its influence on jazz, gospel music, theater music, rock, soul, hip-hop, and almost every form of popular music since the 1920s has been enormous. The historical importance of the blues was underscored recently when Congress declared 2003 the "Year of the Blues." To commemorate the occasion, the film director Martin Scorsese produced seven documentary films on blues, which were shown on public television, while a thirteen-part interpretive radio series on blues was broadcast on National Public Radio. Today, blues is usually positioned as one of the most important genres of American roots music.

Early blues singers composed their own songs, inventing verses and borrowing from other singers, and they were among the first Americans to express feelings of anomie characteristic of modern lifeand to rise above it through art. By singing about frustration, mistreatment, and misfortune, and often overcoming it with irony, blues singers helped themselves and their listeners to deal with the problems of life, whether frustrated and angered by cheating lovers, ignorant bosses, hypocritical churchgoers, crooked shopkeepers, an unjust legal system, racism and prejudice, police brutality, inadequate pay, unemployment, or the meaninglessness of menial labor. Blues singers fought adversity by asserting human creativity, by turning life into art through ironic signification, by linking themselves through their traditional art to others in the community, and by holding out a future hope for freedom and better times down the road. The blues as music and poetry can convey a tremendous range of emotions succinctly and powerfully. Blues lyrics represent an oral poetry of considerable merit, one of the finest genres of vernacular poetry in the English language.

The blues is a distinct musical type. It is an instrumentally accompanied song-type, with identifying features in its verse, melodic, and harmonic structures, composition, and accompaniment. Most blues lyrics are set in three-line or quatrain-refrain verses. In the three-line verse shown below, the second line repeats the first, sometimes with slight variation, while the third completes the thought with a rhyme.

I'm gonna dig me a hole this morning, dig it deep down in the ground;
I'm gonna dig me a hole this morning, dig it deep down in the ground;
So if it should happen to drop a bomb around somewhere, I can't hear the
echo when it sound.
("Lightnin' " Hopkins, "War News Blues")

In the quatrain-refrain verse shown below, a rhymed quatrain is followed by a two-line refrain. Each verse form occupies twelve measures or bars of music; in the quatrain-refrain form the quatrain occupies the first four of the twelve.

I got a job in a steel mill,
a-trucking steel like a slave.
For five long years every Friday
I went straight home with all my pay.
If you've ever been mistreated, you know just what I'm talking about:
I worked five long years for one woman; she had the nerve to throw me out.
(Eddie Boyd, "Five Long Years").

The tonal material in the blues scale (illustrated herewith) includes both major and minor thirds and sevenths and perfect and diminished fifths. Blues shares this tonal material with other African-American music, such as work songs, lined hymnody, gospel music, and jazz. A sharp rise to the highest pitch followed by a gradual descent characterizes the melodic contour of most vocal lines in each verse. Blues shares this contour with the field holler, a type of work song.

Blues has a distinctive harmonic structure. The first line of the verse (or the quatrain in the quatrain-refrain form) is supported by the tonic chord (and sometimes the subdominant, resolving to the tonic at the end of the line), the second line by the subdominant (resolving to the tonic), and the third line by the dominant seventh and then the subdominant before resolving to the tonic. Urban blues and jazz musicians modify this harmonic structure with altered chords and chord substitutions. The blues also has characteristic contents and performance styles. Most blues lyrics are dramatic monologues sung in the first person; most protest mistreatment by lovers and express a desire for freedom. Early blues singers improvised songs by yoking together lines and verses from a storehouse in their memories, while most of today's singers memorize entire songs.

Most early down-home blues singers accompanied themselves on piano or guitar, on the latter supplying a bass part with the right-hand thumb and a treble part independently with the right-hand fingers. Early vaudeville or classic blues singers were accompanied by pianists and small jazz combos. In the 1930s or after, blues "shouters" were accompanied by jazz and rhythm-and-blues bands, and this led in the 1940s to urban blues singers who played electric guitar and led their own bands. After World War II, most down-home blues singers played electric guitar, sometimes with a small combination of bass, drums, second guitar, harmonica, or piano.

The beginning of blues cannot be traced to a specific composer or date. The earliest appearance of music recognizable as the blues was the publication of W. C. Handy's "The Memphis Blues" (1912) and the "St. Louis Blues" (1914), but by his own testimony, Handy first heard the blues along the lower Mississippi River in the 1890s, and many historians agree with Handy that this was the likeliest environment for the origin of the blues. However, just when and where one locates the origin of blues depends upon what is considered sufficient to the genre. Some cultural historians locate the essence of the blues in resignation or in protest against mistreatment, and they believe that since slaves sung about their condition, these songs must have been blues, even though there is no evidence that they were called blues or that the verse or musical forms resembled later blues. Folklorists and musicologists, on the other hand, have constructed a narrower definition, essentializing structural aspects of the blues as well as their subject and relying for evidence on a combination of oral history, autobiography, and the first blues music recorded by the oldest generation of African Americans.

W. C. Handy (18731958) and Jelly Roll Morton (18901941), well-known and accomplished African-American musicians who were very much involved in music before the turn of the twentieth century, recalled in their autobiographies that blues began along the Mississippi in the 1890s as a secular dance music, accompanied by guitars and other portable instruments or piano, with more or less improvised verses, among the river roustabouts in the juke joints and barrelhouses and at picnic and other roadside entertainments. About 1900, folklorists first collected this music, but they did not realize they were witnessing the formation of a new genre. Verse patterns varied, with the only standard feature being the repetition of the first linesometimes once, sometimes twice, sometimes three times. The verses were aphoristic, and their subjects concerned lovers, traveling, and daily aspects of life. Harmonic support often was confined to the tonic. The collectors did not call those songs blues, and one may suppose that the singers did not, either.

The first recordings of African Americans singing blues were not made until the 1920s, but it is clear that between 1890 and 1920 the blues developed into a named and recognizable musical genre. In this period the blues developed and diffused wherever there were African Americans in the United States, in the rural areas as well as the towns and cities and among the traveling stage shows. Ma Rainey (18861939), the "Mother of the Blues," claimed to have begun singing blues from the stage in 1902, while Jelly Roll Morton identified a blues ballad, "Betty and Dupree," as popular fare in New Orleans during the last years of the nineteenth century. Handy's "Memphis Blues" was used in the 1912 mayoralty campaign, while "St. Louis Blues" was a show tune designed to elevate blues to a higher class. Rural songs at country dance parties gradually consolidated toward three-line verse forms with twelve-measure stanzas and the typical harmonic pattern indicated above, while many of the stage songs featured two sectionsan introduction followed by a section in recognizable blues form. The stage songs later became known as "classic" or "vaudeville" blues.

African Americans recorded vaudeville blues beginning with Mamie Smith (18831946) in 1920. Women with stage-show backgrounds, accompanied by pianists and small combos, sang blues songs composed by professional tunesmiths. The best of the vaudeville blues singers, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (1894?1937), appealed across racial and class boundaries, and their singing styles revolutionized American popular music. In some of their blues, Rainey and Smith sang about strong, independent women who put an end to mistreatment. Rainey, who sang about such subjects as prostitution, lesbianism, and sadomasochistic relationships, may particularly be viewed as a spokesperson for women's rights. Other vaudeville blues singers, such as Mamie Smith, Sippie Wallace, Ida Cox, and Alberta Hunter, were also very popular in the 1920s, but the era of vaudeville or "classic" blues came to an end during the Great Depression. The down-home, or country-flavored, blues was recorded beginning in 1926, when record companies took portable recording equipment to southern cities and recorded the local men who sang the blues and accompanied themselves on guitars and pianos in the juke joints and at the country dance parties. Some of the older singers, such as Charley Patton (18911934) and Henry Thomas (1874c. 1959) sang a variety of traditional songs, not all blues; others, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson (18971929), specialized in blues; while still others, such as Blind Blake (c.1893c. 1933), achieved instrumental virtuosity that has never been surpassed. The variety of traditional music recorded by the older generation reveals the proto-blues as well as the blues and helps to show how the form evolved.

Geographic regions featured their own particular instrumental guitar styles before World War II. The down-home blues of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas tended toward rapidly finger-picked accompaniments: "ragtime" styles in which the right-hand thumb imitated the stride pianist's left hand, while the right-hand fingers played the melody. Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller (c. 19091941), and Blind Gary Davis (18961972) were among the first exponents of this East Coast style. In Mississippi, on the other hand, chord changes were not as pronounced, and accompaniments featured repeated figures, or riffs, rather than the melody of the verse. Charley Patton, "Son" House

(19021988), Robert Johnson (c. 19111938), and Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield; 19151983) were outstanding guitarists in the Mississippi Delta style. Piano styles equally reflected regional differences. All embodied genuine innovations, such as bottleneck or slide guitar or imitating the expressiveness of the voice, and an inventiveness and technical accomplishment unparalleled in vernacular American music.

Down-home blues became so popular in the late 1920s that talent scouts arranged for singers to travel north to make recordings in the companies' home studios. Blues music was available on what were called "race records," 78-rpm records for African Americans, and they were advertised heavily in black newspapers like the Chicago Defender.

While early recordings offer the best evidence of the sound of blues music in its formative years, they can only begin to capture the feel of an actual performance. Because down-home blues usually was performed in barrelhouses, juke joints, and at parties and picnicswhere the bootleg whiskey flowed, gambling took place, fighting was not uncommon, and sexual liaisons were formedthe music became associated with those who frequented these places. Churchgoers shunned blues because it was associated with sin, while middle-class blacks kept blues at a distance. Most communities, whether rural or urban, had their local blues musicians and entertainments, however. In the 1920s, blues was the most popular African-American music.

The Depression cut heavily into record sales and touring stage shows, and most of the classic blues singers' careers ended. The increasing popularity of jazz music, however, provided an opportunity for their successors to tour and record with jazz bands. The down-home blues continued unabated in the rural South and in the cities. A small number of outstanding down-home singers, including Tommy McClennan (19081960), Memphis Minnie (Douglas; 18971973), and Robert Johnson, made commercial recordings, but the big-band blues of Count Basie and other jazz bands, featuring blues "shouters" like Walter Brown, Jimmy Rushing, and "Hot Lips" Page, rode radio broadcasts and records to national popularity later in the 1930s. The blues form became a common ground for jazz improvisers, and jazz artists of the highest staturefrom Louis Armstrong through Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Wynton Marsalis, composed and improvised a great many blues. For Charles Mingus (19221979), one of the most important jazz innovators of the 1950s and 1960s, blues and church music were the twin African-American cornerstones of jazz, and much of his music successfully integrated these roots into contemporary "soul" music. Indeed, since the 1940s, periodic reinvigorations of jazz have taken blues for their basis, and it appears that they will continue to do so: bop, hard bop, funk, and other jazz movements all looked for inspiration in blues roots.

Besides the jazz bands, blues in the 1940s and 1950s was featured in the urban and rhythm-and-blues bands led by such guitarists-singers as (Aaron) "T-Bone" Walker (19101975) and (Riley) B. B. King (b. 1925), whose spectacular instrumental innovations virtually defined urban blues and influenced countless blues and rock guitarists. Electronic amplification of the guitar allowed it to be heard above the piano and brass and reed instruments; Walker, with his pioneering efforts, invented the modern blues band, the core of which is an electric guitar accompanied by a rhythm section. King's live performances combined instrumental virtuosity in the service of great feeling with a powerful, expressive voice that transformed daily experience into meaningful art, and he spoke to and for an entire generation. His album B. B. King Live at the Regal (1965) is often cited as the finest blues recording ever made.

Down-home blues was well served in the years just after World War II by a host of new recording companies. Among the outstanding singer-guitarists were Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins (19121982) from Houston and John Lee Hooker (19172001) from Mississippi (and later Detroit) who, along with harmonica-player Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller; 18991965; known to blues aficionados as "the second sonny boy," to distinguish him from the first recorded Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Williamson [1914-1948], although Rice Miller claimed to have been the original Sonny Boy) contributed a magnificent body of original blues lyric poetry. The Mississippi Delta connection led to such singers as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf (Chester Burnett; 19101976), who led small combos in Chicago after 1945 that helped create the Chicago blues style, basically a version of the Delta blues played on electrified and amplified instruments. Muddy Waters' band of the early 1950s, featuring Little Walter (Jacobs; 19301968) on amplified harmonica, defined a classic Chicago blues sound that many think was the high point of the genre. With his horn-influenced, amplified harmonica solos, Little Walter invented a completely new sound, and his work stands as another influential example in a music with a history of astonishing technological innovation in the service of greater expressivity. A cluster of postWorld War II artists, including Waters, Wolf, Jimmy Reed (19251976), John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and others, greatly influenced rock and roll in the 1960s, while a number of similar artists, relying heavily on blues, such as Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, helped to define rock and roll in the 1950s.

In the 1960s, the African-American audience for blues declined, while the white audience increased and the first "blues revival" occurred. Young white musicians and researchers rediscovered older down-home blues singers such as Son House (19021988) and Mississippi John Hurt (18931966), and blues singers and bands became featured acts in coffeehouses, clubs, and festivals that catered to a college-age white audience. Many blues singers' musical careers were extended by this attention. Young white musicians began to play and sing the music, and, along with traditional blues musicians, found a new audience. Earlier recordings were reissued for collectors, research magazines devoted to blues appeared, and cultural historians and scholars began writing about the music. Although black musicians continue to perform blues in traditional, and now tourist, venues (bars, juke joints, etc.), particularly in Chicago and in the Mississippi Delta, since the 1960s newer styles such as Motown, soul music, disco, funk, rap, and hip-hop eclipsed blues as popular music among African Americans.

In the early 1990s, fueled by the success of the Blues Brothers film, and the release on CD of the complete recordings of Robert Johnson, another blues revival began to take place. As a resurgence of interest in blues continues, older blues recordings are being reissued on CD, while younger singers and musicians, black and white, increasingly choose to perform and record blues. Blues radio shows have increased the music's visibility and popularity. Blues now appears as background music for ads on radio and television; nightclubs for tourists featuring blues can now be found in many American cities; and older artists such as Buddy Guy have revived their careers, while younger artists such as Keb' Mo (Kevin Moore) and Bobby Rush have come to prominence. Some cities and states, such as Memphis, Chicago, and Mississippi, promote blues as cultural tourism, and there are blues museums and monuments as well. While blues was a music in decline in the 1960s, known outside African-American culture only to a small number of aficionados, today the blues is historicized, an official part of American and African-American culture. And while literary critics and cultural historians once saw little use for the blues, viewing it as a music of slave-consciousness and resignation, today a respected generation of African-American writers, such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker, see blues as a source of black pride and a root tradition. As such, blues has had a profound effect upon African-American life, and upon popular culture throughout the world wherever it and its musical offspring have spread.

See also Blues in African-American Culture; Blueswomen of the 1920s and 1930s; Jazz; Music in the United States; Rhythm and Blues


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jeff todd titon (1996)
Updated by author 2005