A Brief History of the Blues

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A Brief History

of the Blues

Joseph Machlis says that the blues

is a native American musical and verse form, with no direct European and

African antecedents of which we know. (p. 578) In other words, it is a

blending of both traditions. Something special and entirely different from

either of its parent traditions. (Although Alan Lomax cites some examples

of very similar songs having been found in Northwest Africa, particularly

among the Wolof and Watusi. p. 233)

The word ‘blue’ has been associated

with the idea of melancholia or depression since the Elizabethan era. The

American writer, Washington Irving is credited with coining the term ‘the

blues,’ as it is now defined, in 1807. (Tanner 40) The earlier (almost

entirely Negro) history of the blues musical tradition is traced through

oral tradition as far back as the 1860s. (Kennedy 79)

When African and European music first

began to merge to create what eventually became the blues, the slaves sang

songs filled with words telling of their extreme suffering and privation.

(Tanner 36) One of the many responses to their oppressive environment resulted

in the field holler. The field holler gave rise to the spiritual, and the

blues, “notable among all human works of art for their profound despair

. . . They gave voice to the mood of alienation and anomie that prevailed

in the construction camps of the South,” for it was in the Mississippi

Delta that blacks were often forcibly conscripted to work on the levee

and land-clearing crews, where they were often abused and then tossed aside

or worked to death. (Lomax 233)

Alan Lomax states that the blues

tradition was considered to be a masculine discipline (although some of

the first blues songs heard by whites were sung by ‘lady’ blues singers

like Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith) and not many black women were to be

found singing the blues in the juke-joints. The Southern prisons also contributed

considerably to the blues tradition through work songs and the songs of

death row and murder, prostitutes, the warden, the hot sun, and a hundred

other privations. (Lomax) The prison road crews and work gangs where were

many bluesmen found their songs, and where many other blacks simply became

familiar with the same songs.

Following the Civil War (according

to Rolling Stone), the blues arose as “a distillate of the African music

brought over by slaves. Field hollers, ballads, church music and rhythmic

dance tunes called jump-ups evolved into a music for a singer who would

engage in call-and-response with his guitar. He would sing a line, and

the guitar would answer it.” (RSR&RE 53) The guitar did not enjoy

widespread popularity with blues musicians until about the turn of the

century. Until then, the banjo was the primary blues instrument.) By the

1890s the blues were sung in many of the rural areas of the South. (Kamien

518) And by 1910, the word ‘blues’ as applied to the musical tradition

was in fairly common use. (Tanner 40)

Some ‘bluesologists’ claim (rather

dubiously), that the first blues song that was ever written down was ‘Dallas

Blues,’ published in 1912 by Hart Wand, a white violinist from Oklahoma

City. (Tanner 40) The blues form was first popularized about 1911-14 by

the black composer W.C. Handy (1873-1958). However, the poetic and musical

form of the blues first crystallized around 1910 and gained popularity

through the publication of Handy’s “Memphis Blues” (1912) and “St. Louis

Blues” (1914). (Kamien 518) Instrumental blues had been recorded as early

as 1913. Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, ‘Crazy Blues’

in 1920. (Priestly 9) Priestly claims that while the widespread popularity

of the blues had a vital influence on subsequent jazz, it was the “initial

popularity of jazz which had made possible the recording of blues in the

first place, and thus made possible the absorption of blues into both jazz

as well as the mainstream of pop music.” (Priestly 10)

American troops brought the blues

home with them following the First World War. They did not, of course,

learn them from Europeans, but from Southern whites who had been exposed

to the blues. At this time, the U.S. Army was still segregated. During

the twenties, the blues became a national craze. Records by leading blues

singers like Bessie Smith and later, in the thirties, Billie Holiday, sold

in the millions. The twenties also saw the blues become a musical form

more widely used by jazz instrumentalists as well as blues singers. (Kamien


During the decades of the thirties

and forties, the blues spread northward with the migration of many blacks

from the South and entered into the repertoire of big-band jazz. The blues

also became electrified with the introduction of the amplified guitar.

In some Northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, during the later forties

and early fifties, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’

Wolf, and Elmore James among others, played what was basically Mississippi

Delta blues, backed by bass, drums, piano and occasionally harmonica, and

began scoring national hits with blues songs. At about the same time, T-Bone

Walker in Houston and B.B. King in Memphis were pioneering a style of guitar

playing that combined jazz technique with the blues tonality and repertoire.

(RSR&RE 53)

In the early nineteen-sixties, the

urban bluesmen were “discovered” by young white American and European musicians.

Many of these blues-based bands like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the

Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Canned

Heat, and Fleetwood Mac, brought the blues to young white audiences, something

the black blues artists had been unable to do in America except through

the purloined white cross-over covers of black rhythm and blues songs.

Since the sixties, rock has undergone several blues revivals. Some rock

guitarists, such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Eddie Van

Halen have used the blues as a foundation for offshoot styles. While the

originators like John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins and B.B. King–and their

heirs Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and later Eric Clapton and the late Roy Buchanan,

among many others, continued to make fantastic music in the blues tradition.

(RSR&RE 53) The latest generation of blues players like Robert Cray

and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others, as well as gracing the blues

tradition with their incredible technicality, have drawn a new generation

listeners to the blues.

There are a number of different

ideas as to what the blues really are: a scale structure, a note out of

tune or out of key, a chord structure; a philosophy? The blues is a form

of Afro-American origin in which a modal melody has been harmonized with

Western tonal chords. (Salzman 18) In other words, we had to fit it into

our musical system somehow. But, the problem was that the blues weren’t

sung according to the European ideas of even tempered pitch, but with a

much freer use of bent pitches and otherwise emotionally inflected vocal

sounds. (Machlis 578) These ‘bent’pitches are known as ‘blue notes’.

The ‘blue notes’ or blue tonalities

are one of the defining characteristics of the blues. Tanner’s opinion

is that these tonalities resulted from the West Africans’ search for comparative

tones not included in their pentatonic scale. He claims that the West African

scale has neither the third or seventh tone nor the flat third or flat

seventh. “Because of this, in the attempt to imitate either of these tones

the pitch was sounded approximately midway between [the minor AND major

third, fifth, or seventh], causing what is called a blue tonality.” (Tanner

37) When the copyists attempted to write down the music, they came up with

the so-called “blues scale,” in which the third, the seventh, and sometimes

the fifth scale-degrees were lowered a half step, producing a scale resembling

the minor scale. (Machlis 578) There are many nuances of melody and rhythm

in the blues that are difficult, if not impossible to write in conventional

notation. (Salzman 18) But the blue notes are not really minor notes in

a major context. In practice they may come almost anywhere. (Machlis 578)

Before the field cry, with its bending

of notes, it had not occurred to musicians to explore the area of the blue

tonalities on their instruments. (Tanner 38) The early blues singers would

sing these “bent” notes, microtonal shadings, or “blue” notes, and the

early instrumentalists attempted to duplicate them. (Kamien 520) By the

mid-twenties, instrumental blues were common, and “playing the blues” for

the instrumentalist could mean extemporizing a melody within a blues chord

sequence. Brass, reed, and string instrumentalists, in particular, were

able to produce many of the vocal sounds of the blues singers. (Machlis


Blues lyrics contain some of the

most fantastically penetrating autobiographical and revealing statements

in the Western musical tradition. For instance, the complexity of ideas

implicit in Robert Johnson’s ‘Come In My Kitchen,’ such as a barely concealed

desire, loneliness, and tenderness, and much more:

You better come in my kitchen, It’s

gonna be rainin’ outdoors.

Blues lyrics are often intensely

personal, frequently contain sexual references and often deal with the

pain of betrayal, desertion, and unrequited love (Kamien 519) or with unhappy

situations such as being jobless, hungry, broke, away from home, lonely,

or downhearted because of an unfaithful lover. (Tanner 39)

The early blues were very irregular

rhythmically and usually followed speech patterns, as can be heard in the

recordings made in the twenties and thirties by the legendary bluesmen

Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins

among others. (RSR&RE 53) The meter of the blues is usually written

in iambic pentameter. The first line is generally repeated and third line

is different from the first two. (Tanner 38) The repetition of the first

line serves a purpose as it gives the singer some time to come up with

a third line. Often the lyrics of a blues song do not seem to fit the music,

but a good blues singer will accent certain syllables and eliminate others

so that everything falls nicely into place. (Tanner 38)

The structure of blues lyrics usually

consists of several three-line verses. The first line is sung and then

repeated to roughly the same melodic phrase (perhaps the same phrase played

diatonically a perfect fourth away), the third line has a different melodic


I’m going to leave baby, ain’t going

to say goodbye. I’m going to leave baby, ain’t going to say goodbye. But

I’ll write you and tell you the reason why. (Kamien 519)

Most blues researchers claim that

the very early blues were patterned after English ballads and often had

eight, ten, or sixteen bars. (Tanner 36) The blues now consists of a definite

progression of harmonies usually consisting of eight, twelve or sixteen

measures, though the twelve bar blues are, by far, the most common.

The 12 bar blues harmonic progression

(the one-four-five) is most often agreed to be the following: four bars

of tonic, two of subdominant, two of tonic, two of dominant, and two of

tonic. Or, alternatively, I,I,I,I,IV,IV,I,I,V,V,I,I. Each roman numeral

indicates a chord built on a specific tone in the major scale. Due to the

influence of rock and roll, the tenth chord has been changed to IV. This

alteration is now considered standard. (Tanner 37) In practice, various

intermediate chords, and even some substitute chord patterns, have been

used in blues progressions, at least since the nineteen-twenties. (Machlis

578) Some purists feel that any variations or embellishments of the basic

blues pattern changes its quality or validity as a blues song. For instance,

if the basic blues chord progression is not used, then the music being

played is not the blues. Therefore, these purists maintain that many melodies

with the word “blues” in the title, and which are often spoken of as being

the blues, are not the blues because their melodies lack this particular

basic blues harmonic construction. (Tanner 37) I believe this viewpoint

to be a bit wide of the mark, because it places a greater emphasis on blues

harmony than melody.

The principal blues melodies are,

in fact, holler cadences, set to a steady beat and thus turned into dance

music and confined to a three-verse rhymed stanza of twelve to sixteen

bars. (Lomax 275) The singer can either repeat the same basic melody for

each stanza or improvise a new melody to reflect the changing mood of the

lyrics. (Kamien 519) Blues rhythm is also very flexible. Performers often

sing “around” the beat, accenting notes either a little before or behind

the beat. (Kamien)

Jazz instrumentalists frequently

use the chord progression of the twelve-bar blues as a basis for extended

improvisations. The twelve or sixteen bar pattern is repeated while new

melodies are improvised over it by the soloists. As with the Baroque bassocontinuo,

the repeated chord progression provides a foundation for the free flow

of such improvised melodic lines. (Kamien 520)

One of the problems regarding defining

what the blues are is the variety of authoritative opinions. The blues

is neither an era in the chronological development of jazz, nor is it actually

a particular style of playing or singing jazz. (Tanner 35) Some maintain

(mostly musicologists) that the blues are defined by the use of blue notes

(and on this point they also differ – some say that they are simply flatted

thirds, fifths, and sevenths applied to a major scale [forming a pentatonic

scale]; some maintain that they are microtones; and some believe that they

are the third, or fifth, or seventh tones sounded simultaneously with the

flatted third, or fifth, or seventh tones respectively [minor second intervals]).

Others feel that the song form (twelve bars, one-four-five) is the defining

feature of the blues. Some feel that the blues is a way to approach music,

a philosophy, in a manner of speaking. And still others hold a much wider

sociological view that the blues are an entire musical tradition rooted

in the black experience of the post-war South. Whatever one may think of

the social implications of the blues, whether expressing the American or

black experience in microcosm, it was their “strong autobiographical nature,

their intense personal passion, chaos and loneliness, executed so vibrantly

that it captured the imagination of modern musicians” and the general public

as well. (Shapiro 13)

Kamien, Michael. _Music: An Appreciation_.

3d Ed. N.Y.: McGraw Hill, 1984.; Kennedy, Michael. _The Concise Oxford

Dictionary of Music_. N.Y.: 1980.; Lomax, Alan. _The Land Where the Blues

Began_. N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 1993.; Pareles, Jon and Patricia Romanowski,

eds. _The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll_.N.Y.: Rolling Stone

Press, 1983.; Priestly, Brian. _Jazz On Record: A History_. N.Y.: Billboard

Books, 1991.; Salzman, Eric and Michael Sahl. _Making Changes_. N.Y.: G.

Schirmer, 1977.; Shapiro, Harry. _Eric Clapton: Lost in the Blues_. N.Y.:

Da Capo Press, 1992.; Tanner, Paul and Maurice Gerow. _A Study of Jazz_.

Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown Publishers, 1984.

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