The blues is a musical form that came from within the Deep South in the late 1800s after the civil war; especially Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana. Although the origins of the blues genre are as American as you can get, its roots are steeped in tragedy, thus how the style got its name.
Slavery and the Blues
Hundreds of years of slavery brought field hollers, spirituals and work songs with it. African American’s expressed their sufferings and hope through music that became known as the blues. It’s generally known that the blues came from old African forms of music combined with the styles of country dance and revivalist hymns. Unfortunately, most of the earliest forms of it went to the graves with the first slaves and sharecroppers. Back in those days, it was not possible to record it for all of posterity.
The earliest recorded forms of the blues that we have are from the 1920s. If you’re interested in hearing some, look for artists like:
- Charlie Patton
- Son House
- Blind Lemon Jefferson
The Blues Goes Mainstream
A man named W.C. Handy helped raise public awareness of the blues genre in 1912. He transcribed and published sheet music for the song, “Memphis Blues.” Handy first experienced the genre at a Mississippi train station in 1903. He witnessed a street guitarist singing and playing his guitar using a knife blade to produce a slide sound.
Eight years after Handy’s publication, Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, “Crazy Blues.” It sold over a million copies and opened the eyes of record labels to the potential of the genre. Singers Bessie Smith and Mia Rainey followed suit.
When African American’s began moving north to escape Jim Crow laws in the south, the music evolved with their ever-changing circumstances. To them, traditional blues was a reminder of times they wanted to forget.
Then along came the musician Muddy Waters. He rode the rails to Chicago from a Mississippi plantation in 1943. Trading electric guitars for acoustic, and adding drums, bass and harmonica to fill in the background, Muddy created a fresh blues sound. John Lee Hooker was another blues musician that did the same thing.
This new upbeat electrified form of the blues became the first glimpse of rock-n-roll and rhythm and blues. In fact, blues guitarist B.B. King was the inventor of the lead guitarists role, prevalent in today’s rock bands.
Rock-n-roll became popular in the late 1950s, and with it, interest in the blues waned. However, in the early 60s, bands like The Rolling Stones played covers of Muddy Waters, keeping the genre alive.
Get a first-hand experience of the blues by checking out the top five classic blues songs of all time:
- Memphis Blues by W.C. Handy
- Crazy Blues by Mamie Smith
- Pine Top Boogie by Pine Top Smith
- Dust My Broom by Elmore James
- Boogie Chillun by John Lee Hooker
The Blues Today
Today, there are many forms of the blues. A lot of them developed in a particular region with their own unique characteristics. For example:
- Boogie-woogie: A piano-based blues originating from ragtime.
- Chicago Blues: The electric version of the Delta Blues.
- Louisiana Blues: This sub-genre uses harmonica, a strong echo, and swampy guitar sounds.
- British Blues: Pioneered by British artists such as Eric Clapton, the British blues are a rock form of the blues.
If you listen close enough to other genre’s, like rock, R&B, and Jazz, you’ll recognize blues undertones. The blues have been around for a long time and will always be a part of America’s roots.
Who’s your favorite blues player?