views updated May 17 2018



The blues, a term coined by the writer Washington Irving in 1807, is defined by Websters Dictionary as a type of music marked by recurrent minor intervalsso-called blue notes and by melancholy lyrics. These lyrics reflect the oppression experienced by people of African descent in the United States: slavery, prison, chain gangs, and the indignities of the Jim Crow era.

Blues is a typically American music with its earliest roots in African forms. It originated with the slaves that were brought over from West Africa. The contemporary Malian musician Ali Farka Touré considers blues to be the type of music most similar to his own; specifically, Touré hears echoes of Tamascheq music in the music of blues artists such as John Lee Hooker. Because slaves were forbidden to use drums, they turned to traditional African ring shouts and created rhythms with their hands and feet. Through ring shouts slaves worshipping in praise houses connected the newly imposed Christianity to their African roots. Field hollers, produced by slaves as a means of communication, were another early vocal style that influenced the blues. Work songs sung by prison road gangs also highly influenced the blues in its early days. The art of storytelling is another important element of the blues. Lyrically, the blues ranges from forms based on short rhyming verses to songs using only one or two repeated phrases.

Over time, the blues evolved from a parochial folk form to a worldwide language. The influence of the blues can be found in most forms of popular music, including jazz, country, and rock and roll. The lines between blues and jazz are often blurred. Kansas City jazz, for example, is known for its bluesy sound. Certain artists, such as Charles Brown, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, and Mose Allisonall masters of the keyboardmake music that is hard to categorize as either purely jazz or purely blues. Likewise, gospel is closely related to the blues. The music of the father of gospel, Thomas A. Dorsey, was a blend of blues and spirituals.

Ashenafi Kebede (1982) assigns the blues to four categories: country blues, city blues, urban blues, and racial blues. Country blues was traditionally performed by street musicians without any formal training. City blues is a standardized version of country blues. During the 1940s, as a result of the impact of communication media, city blues evolved into the more commercialized and formalized urban blues, a style characterized by big band accompaniment, modern amplification devices, and new instruments like the saxophone and electric guitar. Racial blues are songs based on racial distinctions between blacks and whites.

The great composer and musician W. C. Handy (18731958) was one of the first to bring blues into the popular culture, around 1911. Instrumental blues was first recorded in 1913. Aaron Thibeaux (T-Bone) Walkerwhose recording debut, Wichita Falls Blues, was cut in 1929 for Columbia Recordsis believed to be the first bluesman to use an amplified acoustic guitar.

The first vocal blues was recorded by an African American woman, Mamie Smith, in 1920. Angela Davis (1998) argues that in the early 1920s African American females were given priority over African American males as recording artists due to their initial success (p. xii). Bessie Smith is said to be the greatest and the most influential blues singer of the 1920s. Bessie Smiths catalogue of blues recordings still stands as the yardstick by which all other female blues singers are evaluated. Gertrude Ma Rainey is also regarded as one of the best of the classic 1920s blues singers. She was most likely the first woman to incorporate blues into ministerial and vaudeville stage shows, perhaps as early as 1902 (Santelli 2001, pp. 386-387). Alberta Hunter is identified as helping to bridge the gap between classic blues and cabaret-flavored pop music in the 1920s (Santelli 2001, p. 226).

Artists such as Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam moved the blues guitar into the modern era. Other prominent figures of the second half of the twentieth century include Son Seals, one of the leading guitar stylists of Chicagos post-1960s blues generation; Muddy Waters, who has been dubbed the patriarch of postWorld War II (1939-1945) Chicago blues; and Howlin Wolf, who was a singer, a songwriter, a guitarist, and a harmonica player. Sonny Boy Williamson was responsible for the transformation of the harmonica (or blues harp) from a simple down-home instrument into one of the essential parts of the Chicago blues sound. Little Walter is noted for his revolutionary harmonica technique, and was also a guitarist. Blues guitarist Luther Allison, from the late 1960s, was influenced by Freddie King, who was considered to be one of the linchpins of modern blues guitar. Albert King, who played left-handed and holding his guitar upside down, was one of the premier modern electric guitar artists. Jimmy Reed sold more records in the 1950s and early 1960s than any other blues artist except B. B. King, who is the most successful blues concert artist ever. Bobby Blue Bland is considered one of the creators of the modern soul blues sound. Blues giant John Lee Hooker is known as the father of the boogie an incessant one-chord exercise in blues intensity and powerful rhythm.

While the blues was historically an African American form, in the early 1960s the urban bluesmen were discovered by young white American and European musicians. Prior to this discovery, black blues artists had been unable to reach a white audience. Among the best-known English blues artists are Eric Clapton and John Mayall; celebrated white American bluesmen include Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Johnny Winter, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. All were heavily influenced by the great African American blues artists.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the blues is still going strong, as evidenced by the numerous national and international blues societies, publications, and festivals.

SEE ALSO Bluegrass; Jazz; Music; Music, Psychology of; Popular Music; Rock n Roll; World Music


Belafonte, Harry. 2001. The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music. Rochester, NY: Riverside Group. Book accompanying 5-CD set released by BGM/Buddha Records.

Davis, Angela Y. 1998. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Random House.

Garon, Paul. 1975. Blues and the Poetic Spirit. San Francisco: City Lights.

Kebede, Ashenafi. 1982. Roots of Black Music: The Vocal, Instrumental, and Dance Heritage of Africa and Black America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Pareles, Jon, and Patricia Romanowski, eds. 1983. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll. New York: Rolling Stone Press.

Santelli, Robert. 2001. The Big Book of Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books.

Dorothy Hawkins

Shakuntala Das


views updated May 17 2018


Blues music emerged in the early twentieth century in the United States as one of the most distinctive and original of American musical forms. It is an African American creation and, like its distant relative jazz, blues music is one of the great contributions to American popular culture. Blues music encompasses a wide variety of styles, including unique regional and stylistic variations, and it lends itself well to both individual and group performance. As a cultural expression, blues music is often thought of as being sad music, a form to express the hardships endured by African Americans. And, while it certainly can be that, the blues is also a way to deal with that hardship and celebrate good times as well as bad. Thus, in its long history throughout the twentieth century, blues music has found resonance with a wide variety of people. Although it is still largely an African American art form, the style has had a good number of white performers as well. The audience for blues has also been wide, indicating the essential truths that often lie at the heart of this musical form.

The origins of blues music are not easily traced due to its largely aural tradition, which often lacks written sources, and because there are no blues recordings prior to about 1920. Thus, tracing its evolution out of the distant past is difficult. Still, some of the influences that make up blues music are known. Blues music originated within the African American community in the deep South. Elements of the blues singing style, and the use of primitive stringed instruments, can be traced to the griot singers of West Africa. Griot singers acted as storytellers for their communities, expressing the hopes and feelings of its members through song. African musical traditions undoubtedly came with the large numbers of African slaves brought to the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The mixture of African peoples who made up the slave population in the South allowed for a mixture of African song and musical styles as well. Those styles would eventually evolve into the blues as the hardships endured by the freed slaves and their descendants continued well into the twentieth century.

The style of music now known as the blues emerged in its mature form after the turn of the twentieth century. No one knows who the first singers or musicians were that put this style together into its now familiar form, as the music evolved before the invention of recording technology. As a musical style, the blues is centered around a 12-bar form with three lines of four bars each. And, while it does use standard chords and instrumentation, it is an innovative music known for the off-pitch "blue notes" which give the music its deeper feeling. These blue notes are produced by bending tones, and the need to produce these tones made certain instruments key to playing blues music: the guitar, the harmonica, and the human voice. It is a rather informal music, with plenty of room for singers and musicians to express themselves in unique ways. Thus, the music has given the world a wide variety of unique blues artists whose styles are not easily replicated.

Among the earliest blues recordings were those by black female singers in the 1920s. In fact, the entire decade of the 1920s, the first in which blues music was recorded for a commercial market, was dominated by women. Among the most significant were Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Lucille Bogan, Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter, Victoria Spivey, and Mamie Smith. Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," recorded in 1920, is largely acknowledged as the first blues recording. These singers incorporated a more urban, jazz style into their singing, and they were often backed by some of the great early jazz musicians, including trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The greatest of these early female blues singers were Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Smith's version of W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" and Ma Rainey's version of "See See Rider" are among the classics of blues music. Their styles were earthier than many of their contemporaries, and they sang songs about love, loss, and heartbreak, as well as strong statements about female sexuality and power the likes of which have not been seen since in the blues field. The era of the great female blues singers ended with the coming of the Depression in 1929, as record companies made fewer recordings, preferring to focus their attention on white popular singers. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were both dead by 1940, and most of the other popular female singers of the decade drifted off into obscurity, although some had brief revivals in the 1960s.

Other blues styles rose to prominence during the 1930s. The dominant form was Mississippi delta blues, a rural form that originated in the delta of northwest Mississippi. The style was dominated by male singers who accompanied themselves on acoustic guitars that could be carried easily from place to place, allowing these musicians to play for the many poor black farming communities in the area. A number of important bluesmen made their living, at least in part, following an itinerant lifestyle playing blues throughout the delta region. Among the most important innovators in the delta blues style were Tommy Johnson, Bukka White, Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson. All of these musicians made important recordings during the 1930s that have proven highly influential. Some, such as Robert Johnson, achieved almost mythic status. Johnson recorded only several dozen songs before his death in 1938. His apocryphal story of selling his soul to the devil in order to be the best blues musician (related in his song "Cross Road Blues") drew from an image with a long history in African American culture. Although details about Johnson's life are sketchy, stories of his being a poor guitar player, then disappearing for several months and reappearing as one of the best guitarists around, gave credence to the story of his deal with the devil; his murder in 1938 only added to his legend. The delta blues style practiced by Johnson and others became one of the most important blues forms, and one that proved highly adaptable to electric instruments and to blues-rock forms in later years.

While delta blues may have been a dominant style, it was by no means the only blues style around. In the 1930s and early 1940s, a number of important regional styles also evolved out of the early blues forms. Among these were Piedmont style blues and Texas blues. The Piedmont style was also an acoustic guitar-based form practiced on the east coast, from Richmond, Virginia to Atlanta, Georgia. It featured more syncopated finger-picking with the bass strings providing rhythmic accompaniment to the melody which was played on the upper strings. It was often a more up-tempo style, particularly in the hands of such Atlanta-based musicians as Blind Willie McTell and Barbecue Bob. Both incorporated ragtime elements into their playing, making music that was much more lighthearted than the delta blues style. The Texas blues style, played by musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie Leadbetter ("Leadbelly"), and Alger "Texas" Alexander in the 1920s and 1930s, was closely connected with the delta style. In the 1940s, the music took on a more up-tempo, often swinging style in the hands of musicians such as T-Bone Walker. In addition to these two styles, other areas such as Memphis, Tennessee, and the west coast, gave rise to their own distinct regional variations on the classic blues format.

With the migration of a large number of African Americans to northern cities during and after World War II, blues music evolved into new forms that reflected the quicker pace of life in these new environments. The formation of new communities in the north led to new innovations in blues music. Two distinct styles emerged, urban blues and electric, or Chicago blues. Urban blues was a more upscale blues style that featured smooth-voiced singers and horn sections that had more in common with jazz and the emerging rhythm and blues style than it did with rural Mississippi delta blues. The urban blues was epitomized by such artists as Dinah Washington, Eddie Vinson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Charles Brown, and even early recordings by Ray Charles.

More influential was the electric, or Chicago blues style, a more direct descendant of the Mississippi delta blues. Although many musicians contributed to its development, none was more important than McKinley Morganfield, known as Muddy Waters. Waters came of age in the Mississippi delta itself, and learned to play in the local acoustic delta blues style. Moving to Chicago in the mid-1940s, Waters played in local clubs at first, but he had a hard time being heard over the din of tavern conversation. To overcome that obstacle, he switched to an electric guitar and amplifier to play his delta blues. His earliest recordings, on Chess Records in 1948, were "I Can't Be Satisfied" and "I Feel Like Going Home," both of which featured Waters on solo electric guitar playing in the delta blues style. Soon, however, Waters began to add more instruments to his sound, including piano, harmonica, drums, bass, and occasionally a second guitar. This arrangement was to become the classic Chicago blues sound. Instead of the plaintive singing of the delta, Muddy Waters and his band transformed the blues into a hard-edged, driving sound, with a strong beat punctuated by boogie-woogie piano stylings, electric lead guitar solos, and over-amplified harmonicas, all of which created a literally electrifying sound. Throughout the 1950s, Muddy Waters recorded a string of great blues songs that have remained among the finest expressions of the blues, including "Hoochie Coochie Man," "I Just Want to Make Love to You," "Mannish Boy," "I'm Ready," and many, many, others. Waters's innovations were highly influential, spawning hundreds of imitators, and were so influential in fact that the Chicago blues style he helped pioneer still dominates the blues sound.

Muddy Waters was not alone, however, in creating the great Chicago blues style. A number of great artists coalesced under the direction of Leonard and Phil Chess, two Polish immigrant brothers who started Chess Records in the late 1940s. Operating a nightclub on Chicago's south side, in the heart of the African American community, the Chess brothers saw the popularity of the emerging electric blues sound. They moved into record production shortly thereafter to take advantage of this new market and new sound. Their roster of blues artists reads like a who's who of blues greats. In addition to Muddy Waters, Chess recorded Howlin' Wolf, Lowell Fulson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Sunnyland Slim, Memphis Minnie, and Koko Taylor, as well as a host of lesser names. While each of these performers brought their unique approach to the blues to Chess Records, the label managed to produce a rather coherent sound. The Chess brothers hired blues songwriter and bassist Willie Dixon as their in-house producer, and Dixon supplied many of the songs and supervised the supporting musicians behind each of the Chess blues artists, creating a unique blues sound.

In the 1960s, blues music experienced a wider popularity than ever before. This was due to a number of factors. First, Chicago continued to be an important center for blues music, and the city was host to important performers such as harmonica player Junior Wells, guitarist Buddy Guy, singer Hound Dog Taylor, and Magic Sam. These performers were often seen at blues and folk festivals across the country, bringing the music to new listeners. Secondly, other blues artists rose to national prominence during the decade, spreading the blues sound even further. Most important was Memphis bluesman B.B. King, whose rich voice and stinging guitar sound proved immensely important and influential. Third, the folk revival that occurred among white college students during the early 1960s throughout the North and West revived an interest in all forms of blues, and many of the acoustic bluesmen who first recorded in the 1920s and 1930s were rediscovered and brought back to perform for these new audiences. Notable among these were such performers as Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Bukka White. This revival was a conscious attempt on the part of this younger generation to recover authentic folk music as an antidote to the increasing commercialism of American life in the 1950s and 1960s. All of these factors both revived blues music's popularity and influence and greatly extended its audience.

While many of the great blues performers such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf continued to perform throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the blues and folk revival of the early 1960s spawned a new crop of white blues performers in both the United States and Great Britain. Some performers, such as Paul Butterfield and John Mayall, played in a straightforward blues style taken from the great Chicago blues masters. But the blues also infected its close cousin, rock 'n' roll. English musicians such as the Rolling Stones covered blues classics on their early albums, influencing the development of rock music during the 1960s. In the later years of the decade new bands incorporated the blues into their overall sound, with British bands such as Cream (with guitarist Eric Clapton) and Led Zeppelin foremost among them. Many of these groups not only played Chicago blues classics, but they reached even further back to rework Robert Johnson's delta blues style in such songs as "Stop Breaking Down" (The Rolling Stones), "Crossroads" (Cream), and "Travelling Riverside Blues" (Led Zeppelin). These developments, both in playing in the blues style and in extending its range into rock music, were important innovations in the history of blues music, and popular music more generally, in the 1960s and early 1970s.

After the blues revival of the 1960s, blues music seemed to settle into a holding pattern. While many of the great bluesmen continued to record and perform in the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond, and while there were new performers such as Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughn who found great success in the blues field during the 1980s, many people bemoan the fact that blues has not seen any major developments that have extended the music in new directions. Instead, the Chicago blues sound continues to dominate the blues scene, attracting new performers to the genre, but they seemed to many people to be more like classical musicians, acting as artisans keeping an older form of music alive rather than making new innovations themselves. Despite, or because of, that fact, blues music in the 1990s continued to draw a devoted group of listeners; most major cities have nightclubs devoted to blues music. Buddy Guy, for example, has had great success with his Legends club in Chicago, not far from the old Chess studios. More corporate enterprises like the chain of blues clubs called "The House of Blues" have also entered the scene to great success. Blues music at the end of the twentieth century may be a largely static musical form, more devoted to the past than the future, but it remains an immensely important cultural form, with its own rich tradition and an influential legacy that has reached well beyond its original core audience.

—Timothy Berg

Further Reading:

Charters, Samuel. The Country Blues. New York, Da Capo Press, 1988.

Cohn, Lawrence. Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians. New York, Abbeville Press, 1993.

Guralnick, Peter. Searching for Robert Johnson. New York, E.P.Dutton, 1989.

Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Jones, Leroy. Blues People. New York, Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1963.

Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York, Viking Press, 1995.

Rowe, Mike. Chicago Blues: The City and the Music. New York, DaCapo Press, 1988.

Various Artists. Chess Blues. MCA Records, 1992.


views updated Jun 11 2018


Blues is a genre of American popular music that attained national prominence in the 1910s and 1920s. Coinciding with the advent of the recording industry, blues helped foster a distinct cultural sphere in the mass media for African Americans. Often mistakenly interpreted as an unmediated expression of individual sorrow, blues is a highly stylized and constantly evolving art form that affirms the lives and communal values of its audiences. Although it commonly is perceived as "folk" music, in its first few decades blues was synonymous with a variety of types of black popular music and thus cannot be characterized by style alone.


The blues is an African-American invention that was a reworking of European-derived conceptions of song form, melody, harmony, and meter along African cultural lines. Musical techniques born of that negotiation include bent or "blue" notes, syncopation, and the twelve-bar blues form. As a commercial genre, blues emerged in the 1900s from ragtime. Songwriters who were looking for the next big craze began to combine the vernacular music of African Americans with Tin Pan Alley song forms. Foremost among those musical entrepreneurs was W. C. Handy, the self-proclaimed "Father of the Blues," who set off a publishing explosion in 1912 with "Memphis Blues."

Black vaudeville theaters and the traveling tent shows that visited remote areas of the South were the main institutions that supported early blues. As blues gained notice through sheet music sales, popular singers, both black and white, fashioned themselves as purveyors of authentic "Negro" blues. Popular dance bands in northern cities such as James Reese Europe's New York-based orchestra began arranging blues numbers for a mainly white middle-class audience.


In 1920 the success of Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" proved the existence of an African-American audience for recorded blues, and record companies rushed to develop "race record" catalogues, targeting the musical preferences of the black working class. The biggest stars of that period were women, the majority of whom had honed their talent on tent show and black vaudeville stages, environments that demanded they cultivate powerful voices and commanding stage presences. Backed by the most sophisticated jazz bands of the day, singers such as Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ida Cox used their recordings to create larger-than-life personae, singing as women who were glamorous, sexually independent, and often rowdy. Their bravado was full of entertaining off-color humor, yet the music also provided a way for its predominantly African-American female audience to confront issues of gender and sexuality: Ma Rainey's sarcastic "Prove It on Me Blues" (1928) laid claim to a lesbian identity, and Bessie Smith's "Hard Time Blues" (1926) asserted independence from a no-good man.


For African-American women after the blues queens greater fame and fortune could be found in more mainstream jazz and pop genres. Singers from Billie Holliday to Dinah Washington sang blues numbers throughout their careers but were not associated exclusively with blues. Thus, blues became largely male-dominated, a genre in which competing versions of masculinity vied for popularity. From 1926 until his untimely death in 1929 the best-selling blues artist was the Texas-born guitarist and singer Blind Lemon Jefferson, whose "down home" guitar style and moaning vocals began a boom in recordings by country blues artists. Songs such as "Black Snake Moan" (1927) used thinly veiled metaphors to express sexual yearning ("some pretty mama better come and get this black snake soon"). Not all sexual content in country blues, however, was heterosexual. Although not big hits, recordings such as Charlie Jordan's "Keep It Clean" (1930) and Kokomo Arnold's "Sissy Man Blues" (1934) celebrated homosexual desire.

As African Americans continued to migrate north, blues took on an increasingly urban character. The piano-playing crooner Leroy Carr exploited the potential of microphone recording, crafting smooth, seductive blues that earned him legions of female admirers and dozens of male imitators. In contrast, virtuosic boogie-woogie pianists such as Pine Top Smith were mainstays at late-night Chicago parties, using a steady bouncing beat to encourage women to "shake that thing" on the dance floor. Fusing the rhythmic drive of boogie-woogie with humorous double entendre, as in the song "Let Me Play with Your Poodle" (1942), the guitarist-singer Tampa Red created a smart-talking version of blues known as hokum. A notable exception to the overwhelming male bias was Memphis Minnie, whose guitar technique and strong singing voice earned the respect of her male peers.


Blues musicians rejected the puritanical attitude toward matters of sexuality and bodily pleasure that marked early American culture. Whether one hears the ubiquity of sexual topics in blues as the legacy of an African world-view or understands it as a matter of class and race (working-class blacks were not expected to adhere to normative moral standards and were thus "freer" to refer to sexuality in music), blues made many people uncomfortable enough to charge that it was Devil's music.

Certainly some of those charges were the result of well-meaning guardians warning young girls (or boys) to stay away from the sexually charged atmosphere of blues clubs. Some scholars argue, however, that direct references to the Devil in blues demonstrate the survival of African and circum-Caribbean religious beliefs. They maintain that blues betray a familiarity with African-American "cult religions" such as hoodoo in which African deities such as Eshu-Elegbara were reinterpreted as the Devil. Other scholars disagree, charging that white fans, eager to hear blues as "dangerous" and "primitive," blew the Devil myth out of proportion. According to this camp, most references to the Devil were meant as humorous gestures, not serious religious incantations.


Some of the artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance (c. 1920–1930) took an interest in blues. For example, the poet Langston Hughes and the writer Zora Neale Hurston considered blues an authentic expression of "Negro" subjectivity. They defended the music against middle-class highbrow critics in the hope that they and other black artists would be able to use blues as a foundation for their own works. Blues also have figured prominently in the work of more recent African-American writers and critics. Alice Walker's award-winning novel The Color Purple (1982) contains a character modeled on an early blues queen, and the scholar Houston A. Baker, Jr., has made blues a focal point for creating an African-American school of literary criticism.


Since the 1960s white enthusiasts largely have shaped the history of the blues. Their preference for Mississippi-style country blues performers such as Robert Johnson and for electrified Chicago-based musicians such as Muddy Waters resulted in a skewed historiography that gave short shrift to significant and commercially successful figures such as the blues queens and Leroy Carr. At the same time blues has been displaced by newer genres of popular music. However, despite their greater appeal to younger generations, genres such as rock 'n' roll and soul drew heavily on blues. Rock 'N' Roll pioneers such as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley all used blues forms. "The Godfather of Soul," James Brown, who always maintained that he hated blues, based hits such as "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (1965) on twelve-bar blues patterns. More recently hip-hop artists have modeled a style of ostentatious display, braggadocio, and irreverence that harks back to the days of the blues queens. The impact of blues on American popular music has been far-reaching and undeniable.


Abbott, Lynn, and Doug Seroff. 1996. "'They Cert'ly Sound Good to Me': Sheet Music, Southern Vaudeville, and the Commercial Ascendancy of the Blues." American Music 14(4): 402-454.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. 1984. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Baraka, Imamu Amiri. 1963. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: W. Morrow,.

Carby, Hazel V. 1999. "'It Jus' Be's Dat Way Sometime': The Sexual Politics of Women's Blues." In Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History, ed. Robert Walser. New York: Oxford University Press.

Murray, Albert. 1976. Stomping the Blues. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Palmer, Robert. 1981. Deep Blues. New York: Viking Press.

Wald, Elijah. 2004. Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. New York: Amistad.

                                               Robert Walser

                                             Loren Kajikawa


views updated May 29 2018


Blues music emerged in the early twentieth century in the United States as one of the most distinctive and original of American musical forms. It is an African American creation and one of the great contributions to American popular culture. Blues music is often thought of as being sad music, expressing the hardships endured by many African Americans. Although it can certainly be sad, the blues is also a way to deal with hardship and celebrate good times, too. Blues music comes in a wide variety of styles, from acoustic rural blues to urban electric blues. Because of this variety, and because it is about basic human emotions (love and heartbreak, happy times and sad), blues music speaks to people of all races and backgrounds. It has also been a very influential musical form. Without blues, there would be no rock and roll (see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3). Much of contemporary music in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries owes a great debt to blues music.

The origins of blues music go back at least to the 1800s and the time of slavery, but as a popular form the blues developed in the 1920s. Among the earliest blues recordings were those by black female singers in the 1920s. Among the most significant were Bessie Smith (1894?–1937), Ma Rainey (1886–1939), and Mamie Smith (1883–1946). Their styles were earthier than many of their contemporaries, and they sang songs about love, loss, and heartbreak. Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," recorded in 1920, is thought to be the first blues recording. The greatest of these early female blues singers were Rainey and Bessie Smith. Bessie Smith's version of "St. Louis Blues" (written by W. C. Handy, 1873–1958) and Rainey's version of "See See Rider" are among the classics of blues music.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, rural acoustic blues became the dominant sound. Rural acoustic blues was often called "delta" blues because of its origin in the Mississippi delta region. The music was dominated by male singers who accompanied themselves on acoustic guitars that could be carried easily from place to place, allowing them to play for the many poor African American farming communities in the area. Among the most important innovators in the delta blues style were Tommy Johnson (1896–1956), Bukka White (1909–1977), Charley Patton (1891–1934), Son House (1902–1988), and Robert Johnson (1911–1938; see entry under 1930s—Music in volume 2). All these musicians made important recordings during the 1930s that have proved highly influential.

With the migration of large numbers of African Americans to northern cities during and after World War II (1939–45), blues music evolved into new forms that reflected the quicker pace of life in these new environments. Two distinct styles emerged, urban blues and electric, or Chicago, blues. Urban blues was a more upscale blues style that featured smooth-voiced singers and horn sections that had more in common with jazz (see entry under 1900s—Music in volume 1) than it did with rural Mississippi delta blues. Urban blues was represented by the music of artists such as Dinah Washington (1924–1963), Eddie Vinson (1917–1988), Jimmy Witherspoon (1923–1997), and Charles Brown (1922–1999).

More influential was the electric, or Chicago, blues style, a more direct descendant of the Mississippi delta blues. Most important in its development was McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters (1915–1983). Waters began in the rural acoustic style, but when he moved to Chicago in the 1940s, he found that his acoustic guitar could not be heard over the loud crowd noise in the local bars where he played. To overcome that problem, he switched to an electric guitar and amplifier to play his delta blues. Waters soon added more instruments to his sound, including piano, harmonica, drums, bass, and occasionally a second guitar. This arrangement became the classic Chicago blues sound. With these electric instruments, Muddy Waters and his band transformed the blues into a hard-edged, driving sound. A strong beat, a pounding piano, electric lead guitar solos, and overamplified harmonicas characterized his music. Among Waters' greatest songs are "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Mannish Boy," and "I'm Ready." Waters' innovations were highly influential, spawning hundreds of imitators. His innovations were so influential in fact that the Chicago blues style he helped pioneer still dominates the blues sound. Other great Chicago blues artists include Howlin' Wolf (1910–1976), Sonny Boy Williamson (1914–1948), John Lee Hooker (1920–2001), Willie Dixon (1915–1992), and Koko Taylor (1935–).

In the 1960s, blues music experienced a wider popularity than ever before. Innovators like Waters continued to perform and record, but they were now joined by younger artists such as Buddy Guy (1936–), Junior Wells (1934–), B. B. King (1925–; see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3), and Magic Sam (1937–1969). White musicians were also attracted to blues music. Blues music had helped give rise to rock and roll in the 1950s. In the 1960s, rock musicians such as the Rolling Stones (see entry under 1960s—Music in volume 4) and Eric Clapton (1945–) brought blues songs and styles more directly into their music. Blues music also influenced the development of hard rock in the 1970s, heard in such bands as Led Zeppelin (see entry under 1970s—Music in volume 4).

The sound of blues music has remained largely the same since the 1960s, and it continues to be popular. In the 1980s, white blues musician Stevie Ray Vaughn (1954–1990) helped introduce a new generation of young people to the blues. In the twenty-first century, blues music remains an immensely important cultural form. Blues music has its own rich tradition and an influential legacy that has reached well beyond its original core audience.

—Timothy Berg

For More Information

Awmiller, Craig. This House on Fire: The Story of the Blues. New York: Franklin Watts, 1996.

Cohn, Lawrence. Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.

Elmer, Howard. Blues: Its Birth and Growth. New York: Rosen, 1999.

Jones, LeRoi. Blues People. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1963.

Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York: Viking Press, 1995.

Russell, Tony. The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997.

Thomas, Roger. Jazz and Blues. Des Plaines, IL: Heinemann Library, 1988.

Various Artists. Chess Blues. MCA Records, 1992. Compact Disc.


views updated May 09 2018


BLUES as a musical term can describe an oral tradition of African American poetry set to music using blues form (typically three-line stanzas with the first two lines being similar, set to a twelve-bar harmonic framework called a blues progression); the form of the poetry and/or the music; and an aesthetic that remains an ideal for Jazz performance in general.

Blues originated as an expression of the individual and interactive social tradition of a displaced African American population. It began with the African American agrarian working class of the Mississippi Delta and combined African American and European American traditions, particularly hollers (field work songs) and British ballads. It was established by the late 1800s as primarily a vocal and improvisatory genre, often with instrumental accompaniment. Later it became a purely instrumental genre as well, and other blues regions developed—each with its own localized style. Until about 1930 there was a distinction between the earthier style of country blues and the smoother urban blues. Only after blues was well established did it broaden to include the white middle class and function as a form of entertainment.

Often using slang, blues texts address life's troubles, freedom, and gender roles and relationships, and are often explicit about sex. The recognizable style of the blues may include call and response, a constant rhythmic pulse, blue notes (lowered third and seventh scale degrees), and gritty timbres.

Publications (from about 1912) and recordings (from about 1920) came after blues had long been an established oral practice. The leading performers to popularize classic blues with early recordings were Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, and B. B. King exemplify styles after 1930.

Many small and large jazz ensembles still play blues titles, use blues form, and borrow its manner of expression. Blues has influenced many substyles of jazz and instigated numerous pop genres, including Rock and Roll. The participation of different races and nationalities in the production and consumption of blues today make it a global phenomenon.


Erlewine, Michael, et al., eds. All Music Guide to the Blues: The Experts' Guide to the Best Blues Recordings. 2d ed. San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 1999.

Murray, Albert. Stomping the Blues. New York: Da Capo, 1989. The original edition was published in 1976.

Oliver, Paul. Yonder Come the Blues: The Evolution of a Genre. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Christina Linsenmeyer–vanSchalkwyk

See alsoMusic: African American .


views updated Jun 11 2018

blues Form of African-American music, originating in the late 19th-century folk traditions of the American South. It evolved from gospel and work songs. The standard verse pattern is the 12-bar blues: three sets of four bars, the second set being a repetition of the first. The first published blues piece was “The Memphis Blues” by W. C. Handy (1912). ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton incorporated a jazzier style in “Jelly Roll Blues”. Great vocalists such as Bessie Smith (‘Empress of the Blues’), Robert Johnson, Huddie Ledbetter and ‘Ma’ Rainey, helped popularize the blues. The northerly migration of African-Americans in the 1930s saw the emergence of a brasher, urban blues tradition based around Chicago. After World War II, instruments were amplified, and the electric guitar became the dominant voice, with artists such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. In the 1950s, new forms such as rhythm and blues, and rock and roll drew on the blues. During the 1960s, rock and pop bands, such as the Rolling Stones, were also directly influenced by the tradition.


views updated May 23 2018

blues. Slow jazz song of lamentation, generally for an unhappy love affair. Usually in groups of 12 bars, instead of 8 or 16, each stanza being 3 lines covering 4 bars of music. Tonality predominantly major, but with the flattened 3rd and 7th of the key (the ‘blue notes’). Harmony tended towards the plagal or subdominant. The earlier (almost entirely Negro) history of the blues is traced by oral tradition as far back as the 1860s, but the form was popularized about 1911–14 by the Negro composer W. C. Handy (St Louis Blues, Basin Street Blues). Composers such as Gershwin, Ravel, Copland, and Tippett have used the term to indicate a blues-type mood rather than a strict adherence to the form. Among notable blues singers were Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday (though Holiday's main repertoire was pop music).


views updated May 14 2018

blues / bloōz/ • pl. n. 1. [treated as sing. or pl.] (often the blues) melancholic music of black American folk origin, typically in a twelve-bar sequence.2. (the blues) inf. feelings of melancholy, sadness, or depression: she's got the blues.DERIVATIVES: blues·y adj. (in sense 1).


views updated May 29 2018

blues The blues are feelings of melancholy, sadness, or depression. The term is recorded from the mid 18th century, and comes elliptically from blue devils ‘depression or delirium tremens’.

Blues is also used for melancholic music of black American folk origin, typically in a 12-bar sequence. It developed in the rural southern US towards the end of the 19th century, finding a wider audience in the 1940s, as blacks migrated to the cities. This urban blues gave rise to rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.