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The blues, a term coined by the writer Washington Irving in 1807, is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as a type of music “marked by recurrent minor intervals”—so-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 Allison—all masters of the keyboard—make 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 (1873–1958) 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) Walker—whose recording debut, “Wichita Falls Blues,” was cut in 1929 for Columbia Records—is 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 Smith’s 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 Chicago’s post-1960s blues generation; Muddy Waters, who has been dubbed the “patriarch of post–World 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 onechord 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.
- 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.
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