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The History of a True American Musical Art Form – The Blues
In the history of music, there has probably not been one style of music that has influenced “Popular Music” more than the Blues. Blues is also unique in that it is truly an “American” musical art form. As we will discover, the roots of the musical styles of Jazz, Rock, Gospel and musical artists from BB King, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin were all heavily influenced by the Blues.
It is important to note that the term “Popular Music” as I have used it above is somewhat misleading. All too often we mention Classical Music and Popular Music as completely different musical expressions. I do not infer that they are not very different from each other. What I’m saying is that the word “popular” really only relates to the time period one lives in.
Let me explain. If we were living in Europe in 1786, when Mozart was 30 years old and at the height of his career (he died at the age of 36), his music would have been considered popular, wouldn’t it? If there had been recording studios, radio stations, MP3s and iPods in 1786, it would be too naive and simplistic to conclude that one of his symphonies or piano concertos would have been a “Top-ten release?” And if so, wouldn’t that be considered “popular music?” I think you will agree that this is certainly an unconventional but truthful perspective.
Since the Blues have been such a strong influence, it’s important to understand why. The following is a brief history.
The Blues were born in the North Mississippi Delta after the Civil War. Its heartfelt and passionate performances are deeply rooted in slavery and African-American culture. Early compositions were Field Hollers, Ballads, Church Spirituals, and Rhythmic Dance tunes called Jump-Ups that featured a singer who would engage in a call-and-response with his guitar. He would sing a line and the guitar would respond. For many years, due to the lack of musical education, volumes of songs were recorded and passed down only by memory. Because of this fact, it is very possible that many a great song was lost in translation.
The blues became the essence and hope of the African-American worker whose spirit is married to these songs, reflecting his inner soul to all who will listen. Rhythm and Blues is the cornerstone of all forms of African American music. The Blues, with its 12-bar, dissonant 7th chord progression and its bent melodies, were the early anthems of an oppressed race that binds together through their soulful cries for freedom and equality. From its origins at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, and the platform of the Clarksdale Railway Station, the blues eventually began to expand, heading north to Beale Street in Memphis.
The term “The Blues” refers to “The Blue Devils”, meaning melancholy and sadness. An early use of the term in this sense is found in George Colman’s one-act farce Blue Devils (1798). Although the use of the term in African-American music may be older, it has been attested since 1912, when Hart Wand’s “Dallas Blues” became the first copyrighted blues composition.
The blues form was first mainstreamed around 1911-14 by black composer WC Handy (1873-1958). However, the poetic and musical form of the blues only crystallized around 1910 and gained popularity through the publication of Handy’s “Memphis Blues” (1912) and “St. Louis Blues” (1914). Instrumental blues had already been recorded in 1913. During the twenties the blues became a national craze.
Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, ‘Crazy Blues’ in 1920. Blues’ influence on jazz brought it into the mainstream and enabled records by blues singers such as Bessie Smith and later, in the 30s, Billie Holiday.
In northern cities such as Chicago and Detroit, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James, among others, played in the late 40s and early 50s what was basically Mississippi Delta blues, backed by bass, drums, piano and the occasional harmonica, and began scoring national hits with blues songs. Around the same time, T-Bone Walker in Houston and BB King in Memphis pioneered a style of guitar playing that combined jazz technique with blues tonality and repertoire. It is also important to mention that the roots of jazz began with the Blues. So if there were no blues, there would be no jazz!
In the early 1960s, the urban bluesmen were “discovered” by young white American and European musicians. Many of these blues-based bands, such as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Canned Heat and Fleetwood Mac, brought the blues to young white audiences, something that the black blues artists had been unable to do to do so 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 basis for offshoot styles. While originators such as John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins and BB King – and their heirs Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and later Eric Clapton and the late Roy Buchanan, among many others, continued to make great music in the blues tradition. The most recent generation of blues players would be Robert Cray and the late Stevie Ray.
Today there are many different shades of blues. Forms include:
Traditional county blues – A general term describing the rural blues of the Mississippi Delta, Piedmont, and other rural areas.
Jump blues – A danceable mix of swing and blues and a precursor to R&B. Jump blues was pioneered by Louis Jordan.
Boogie Woogie – A piano-based blues popularized by Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, and derived from barrelhouse and ragtime.
Chicago blues – Delta blues electrified.
Cool blues – A sophisticated piano-based form that owes a lot to jazz.
West Coast Blues – Popularized mainly by Texas musicians who moved to California. West Coast blues is heavily influenced by the swing beat. â€œEUR¨
The public’s devotion to the Blues only seems to be increasing. In Dana Point California, the town next to mine, Doheny Beach now has an annual blues festival that keeps getting bigger and bigger. Others can be found in Portland, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and the list goes on.
As for me personally, the Blues have always been a permanent part of my life. When I play guitar and sing with other musicians, it is the easiest and most fun form of popular music to “jam” with. When I was growing up and my parents owned a music store and rock club called The Four Muses in San Clemente, California from 1965 to 1975, we always had Blues groups performing. Most notable was the famous Blues Duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
My only personal problem with listening to a lot of blues is that it can become very repetitive and not “fresh” sounding due to the consistent use of the standard 12 bar Blues Chord Progression. That said, I highly recommend that everyone make an effort to listen to some live Blues this summer. The music and the crowd it attracts usually guarantees an enjoyable experience.
Thanks for reading!
Jonathan Morgan Jenkins
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