The origins of blues is not unlike the origins of life. For many years it was recorded only by memory, and relayed only live, and in person. The Blues was born in the North Mississippi Delta following the Civil War. Influnced by African roots, 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.
This passionate and uniquely American art form known as the blues was born in the steamy fields, dusty street corners and ramshackle juke joints of the Deep South in the late 1800s. An evolution of West African music brought to the United States by slaves, the blues emerged as southern blacks expressed the hardships, heartbreak, religion, passion and politics of their experiences through a blend of work songs, field hollers and spirituals.
Many early blues songs were never written down, much less recorded, but were passed from one musician to another and played on whatever instruments were available including clapped percussions, a variety of stringed instruments, harmonicas, horns and more. By the time the blues were first recorded in the early 1920s, guitars and pianos were the most frequent instruments of choice by blues artists, but the basic 12-bar style and three-chord progressions have remained essentially the same and continue to define the blues to this day.
As the blues migrated from the south, through the United States and around the world, countless varieties of styles evolved, including: the raw and passionate Delta (of Mississippi river) blues of Robert Johnson and Son House, the brassy New Orleans blues, the relaxed and upbeat Texas blues, the classic blues –a comercially popular, polished style in the1920s which was performed by women like blues greats Besssie Smith and Mamie Smith-, the jug-band and vaudeville-influenced Memphis blues, the amplified and urban Chicago blues of Muddy Waters and Hollin’ Wolf, the rock-heavy 1960s British Blues of John Mayall, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones, and many more.
By the 1950s and ‘60s, the blues had crossed the Atlantic and young audiences and musicians in Great Britain launched a blues revival with their reverent admiration of American blues music. The blues blended into rock, and as rock and roll took center stage on the global popular music scene, the blues faded into the background for decades for many listeners and record buyers.
But in the early 1990s, a renewed interest in American roots music spurred a resurgence of the blues and the art form that once inspired Willie Dixon’s remark “The blues is the roots; everything else is the fruits”.
From the crossroads on Highways 61 and 49, and the platform of the Clarksdale Railway Station, the blues ended headed north to Beale Street in Memphis. The blues have strongly influenced almost all popular music including jazz, country, and rock and roll and continues to help music worldwide.
The blues is 12-bar, bent-note melody is the anthem of a race, bonding itself together with cries of shared self victimization. Bad luck and trouble are always present in the Blues, and always the result of others, pressing upon unfortunate and down trodden poor souls, yearning to be free from life’s’ troubles. Relentless rhythms repeat the chants of sorrow, and the pity of a lost soul many times over. This is the Blues.
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). Instrumental blues had been recorded as early as 1913. During the twenties, the blues became a national craze. Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, ‘Crazy Blues’ in 1920. The Blues influence on jazz brought it into the mainstream and made possible the records of blues singers like Bessie Smith and later, in the thirties, Billie Holiday.
The blues are the essence of the African American laborer, whose spirit is wed to these songs, reflecting his inner soul to all who will listen. Rhythm ans Blues, is the cornerstone of all forms of African American music.
Many of Memphis’ best Blues artists left the city at the time, when Mayor “Boss” Crump shut sown Beale Street to stop the prostitution, gambling, and cocaine trades, effectively eliminating the musicians, and entertainers’ jobs, as these businesses closed their doors. The Blues migrated to Chicago, where it became electrified, and Detroit.
In 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, T-Bone Walker in Houston and B.B. King in Memphis were pioneering a style of guitar playing that combined jazz tecnique with the blues tonality and repertoire.
Meanwhile, back in Memphis, B.B. King invented the concept of lead guitar, now standard in today’s Rock bands. Bukka White (cousin to B.B. King), Leadbelly, and Son House, left Country Blues to create the sounds most of us think of today as traditional unamplified Blues.
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 guitarrists, such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Eddie van Halen have used the blues as a foundation fir 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. 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.
This music, which was used to ask favors to gods and to express their misfortunes ‘cause of the loss of their freedom, spread quite fast and became to an urban sound: the Blues. The shout (heartbreaking scream uttered by black singers) entails the questions and answers about the whole black people life locked in the american continent. Its first manifestation lies on evangelic chants (gospel, that means God spell). It’s the living heritage of those who lived in poverty, prosecution and hard work, experimenting as of then love and traition, santity and sin, the pleasure and pain of sex, tragedy, prison, laughter, drunkenness, desperation and plain joy.
There are many different styles of blues: Country, Classic, City or Urban and Rhythm &Blues. These different styles present problems of duplication and confussion, but they’re quite useful helping to understand the basic differences of style. Despite of this, blues isn’t only a structured phrase, but a feeling and interpretation. That feeling is created by vocalist’s inflections and tecniques developed additionally, like cords transposition on guitars (bending), vibrato (sound undulation with the purpose of giving more expression to the music through a slight and continuous variation of the height), tremolo (moving quickly up and down over the cord), trills and falsettos on the voice. Many of these tecniques are used by other styles singers, like pop or jazz. Black spirituals also use them and we can find these connotations in black preachers’ sermon.
When we talk about the Blues, many people imagine virtuous guitarrists like Eric Clapton (God or Blues White Spot to fans) playing improvised solos over a sad and repetitive musical base. That’s why they get surprise when they know about the folkloric origin of this fascinating musical style, far away from the distortionated electric guitars, sometimes sad sounds, sometimes happy sounds.
Rural blues started to be recorded by 1923 and black musicians were the masters who drew this language, which later on, rock musicians would take once and once again seeking inspiration.