The blues is a vocal and instrumental form of music based on a pentatonic scale and a characteristic twelve-bar chord progression. The form evolved in the United States in the communities of former African slaves from spirituals, praise songs, field hollers, shouts, and chants. The use of blue notes and the prominence of call-and-response patterns in the music and lyrics are indicative of the blues' West African pedigree. The blues has been a major influence on later American and Western popular music, finding expression in ragtime, jazz, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, hip-hop, and country music, as well as conventional pop songs.
The phrase the blues is a synonym for having a fit of the blue devils, meaning low spirits, depression and sadness. An early reference to this can be found in George Colman's farce Blue devils, a farce in one act (1798). Later during the 19th century, the phrase was used as a euphemism for delirium tremens and the police. Though usage of the phrase in African American music may be older, it has been attested to since 1912 in Memphis, Tennessee with W. C. Handy's "Memphis Blues."
In lyrics the phrase is often used to describe a depressed mood.
There are few characteristics common to all blues, because the genre takes its shape from the peculiarities of individual performances. However, some characteristics have been present since before the creation of the modern blues and are common to most styles of African American music. The earliest blues-like music was a "functional expression, rendered in a call-and-response style without accompaniment or harmony and unbounded by the formality of any particular musical structure." This pre-blues music was adapted from slave field shouts and hollers, expanded into "simple solo songs laden with emotional content". The blues, as it is now known, can be seen as a musical style based on both European harmonic structure and the West African call-and-response tradition, transformed into an interplay of voice and guitar.
Many blues elements, such as the call-and-response format and the use of blue notes, can be traced back to the music of Africa. Sylviane Diouf has pointed to several specific traits—such as the use of melisma and a wavy, nasal intonation—that suggest a connection between the music of West and Central Africa and blues Ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik may have been the first to contend that certain elements of the blues have African roots. For instance, Kubik pointed out that the Mississippi technique of playing the guitar using a knife blade, recorded by W.C. Handy in his autobiography, is common to West and Central Africa cultures where the kora, a guitar-like instrument, is often the stringed instrument of choice. This technique consists of pressing a knife against the strings of the guitar, and is a possible antecedent of the slide guitar technique.
Blues music later adopted elements from the "Ethiopian airs"—"Ethiopian" is used here to mean black"—of minstrel shows and Negro spirituals, including instrumental and harmonic accompaniment. The style also was closely related to ragtime, which developed at about the same time, though the blues better preserved "the original melodic patterns of African music". Songs from this early period had many different structures. Examples can be found in Leadbelly's or Henry Thomas's recordings. However, the twelve-, eight-, or sixteen-bar structure based on tonic, subdominant and dominant chords became the most common. What is now recognizable as the standard 12-bar blues form is documented from and appearing in African American communities throughout the region along the lower Mississippi River during the first decade of the 1900s (and performed by white bands in New Orleans at least since 1908). One of these early sites of blues evolution was along Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee.
Early blues frequently took the form of a loose narrative, often with the singer voicing his or her "personal woes in a world of harsh reality: a lost love, the cruelty of police officers, oppression at the hands of white folk, hard times". Many of the oldest blues records contain gritty, realistic lyrics, in contrast to much of the music being recorded at the time. One of the more extreme examples, "Down in the Alley" by Memphis Minnie, is about a prostitute having sex with men in an alley. Music such as this was called "gut-bucket" blues. The term refers to a type of homemade bass instrument made from a metal bucket used to clean pig intestines for chitterlings, a soul food dish associated with slavery and deprivation. "Gut-bucket" described blues that was "low-down" and earthy, that dealt with often rocky or steamy man-woman relationships, hard luck and hard times. Gut-bucket blues and the rowdy juke-joint venues where it often was played, earned blues music an unsavory reputation. Upstanding church-going people shunned it, and some preachers railed against it as sinful. And because it often treated the hardships and injustices of life, the blues gained an association in some quarters with misery and oppression. But the blues was about more than hard times; it could be humorous and raunchy as well:
Rebecca, Rebecca, get your big legs off of me,
Rebecca, Rebecca, get your big legs off of me,
It may be sending you baby, but it's worrying the hell out of me.
Author Ed Morales has claimed that Yoruba mythology played a part in early blues, citing Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" as a "thinly veiled reference to Eleggua, the orisha in charge of the crossroads". However, many seminal blues artists such as Joshua White, Son House, Skip James, or Reverend Gary Davis were influenced by Christianity.
The original lyrical form of the blues was probably a single line, repeated three times. It was only later that the current, most common structure—a line, repeated once and then followed by a single line conclusion—became standard.
Though during the first decades of the twentieth century blues music was not clearly defined in terms of chords progression, the twelve-bar blues became standard in the '30s. However, in addition to the conventional twelve-bar blues, there are many blues in 8-bar form, such as "How Long Blues", "Trouble in Mind", and Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway". There are also 16-bar blues, as in Ray Charles's instrumental "Sweet 16 Bars". The basic twelve-bar lyric framework of a blues composition is reflected by a standard harmonic progression of twelve bars, in 4/4 or 2/4 time. The blues chords associated to a twelve-bar blues are typically a set of three different chords played over a twelve-bar scheme:
I or IV
I or V
where the Roman numbers refer to the degrees of the progression. That would mean, if played in the tonality of F, the chords would be as follows:
F or Bb
F or C
In this example, F is the subdominant. Note that much of the time, every chord is played in the dominant seventh (7th) form. Frequently, the last chord is the dominant (V or in this case C) turnaround making the transition to the beginning of the next progression.
The lyrics generally end on the last beat of the tenth bar or the first beat of the eleventh bar, and the final two bars are given to the instrumentalist as a break; the harmony of this two-bar break, the turnaround, can be extremely complex, sometimes consisting of single notes that defy analysis in terms of chords. The final beat, however, is almost always strongly grounded in the dominant seventh (V7), to provide tension for the next verse. Musicians sometimes refer to twelve-bar blues as "B-flat" blues because it is the traditional pitch of the tenor sax, trumpet/cornet, clarinet and trombone.
Melodically, blues music is marked by the use of the flatted third, fifth and seventh (the so-called blue or bent notes) of the associated major scale. While the twelve-bar harmonic progression had been intermittently used for centuries, the revolutionary aspect of blues was the frequent use of the flatted fourth, flatted seventh, and even flatted fifth in the melody, together with crushing—playing directly adjacent notes at the same time, i.e., diminished second—and sliding—similar to using grace notes. Where a classical musician will generally play a grace note distinctly, a blues singer or harmonica player will glissando; a pianist or guitarist might crush the two notes and then release the grace note. Blues harmonies also use the subdominant major-minor seventh and the tonic major-minor seventh in place of the tonic. Blues is occasionally played in a minor key. The scale differs little from the traditional minor, except for the occasional use of a flatted fifth in the tonic, often crushed by the singer or lead instrument with the perfect fifth in the harmony. Janis Joplin's rendition of "Ball and Chain", accompanied by Big Brother and the Holding Company, provides an example of this technique. Also, minor-key blues is most often structured in sixteen bars rather than twelve—e.g., "St. James Infirmary Blues" and Trixie Smith's "My Man Rocks Me"—and was often influenced by evangelical religious music.
Blues shuffles are also typical of the style. Their use reinforces the rhythm and call-and-response trance, the groove. Their simplest version commonly used in many postwar electric blues, rock-and-rolls, or early bebops is a basic three-note riff on the bass strings of the guitar. Played in time with the bass and the drums, this technique, similar to the walking bass, produces the groove feel characteristic of the blues. The last bar of the chord progression is usually accompanied by a turnaround making the transition to the beginning next progression. Shuffle rhythm is often vocalized as "dow, da dow, da dow, da" or "dump, da dump, da dump, da" as it consists of uneven eight notes. On a guitar this may be done as a simple steady bass or may add to that stepwise quarter note motion from the fifth to the seventh of the chord and back. An example is provided by the following tablature for the first four bars of a blues progression in E:
E7 A7 E7 E7
Blues has evolved from the spare music of poor black laborers into a wide variety of complex styles and subgenres, spawning regional variations across the United States and, later, Europe, Africa and elsewhere. What is now considered "blues" as well as modern "country music" arose at approximately the same time and place during the nineteenth century in the southern United States. Recorded blues and country can be found from as far back as the 1920s, when the popular record industry developed and created marketing categories called "race music" and "hillbilly music" to sell music by and for blacks and whites, respectively. At the time, there was no clear musical division between "blues" and "country," except for the race of the performer, and even that sometimes was documented incorrectly by record companies. While blues emerged from the culture of African-Americans, blues musicians have since emerged world-wide. Studies have situated the origin of "black" spiritual music inside slaves' exposure to their masters' Hebridean-originated gospels. African-American economist and historian Thomas Sowell also notes that the southern, black, ex-slave population was acculturated to a considerable degree by and among their Scots-Irish "redneck" neighbors. However, the findings of Kubik and others also clearly attest to the essential Africanness of many essential aspects of blues expression.
Much has been speculated about the social and economical reasons for the appearance of the blues. The first appearance of the blues is not well defined and is often dated between 1870 and 1900. This period coincides with the emancipation of the slaves and the transition from slavery to sharecropping and small-scale agricultural production in the southern United States. Several scholars characterize the development, which appeared at the turn of the century, as a move from group performances to a more individualized style. They argue that the development of the blues is strongly related to the newly acquired freedom of the slaves. According to Lawrence Levine, "there was a direct relationship between the national ideological emphasis upon the individual, the popularity of Booker T. Washington's teachings, and the rise of the blues. Psychologically, socially, and economically, Negroes were being acculturated in a way that would have been impossible during slavery, and it is hardly surprising that their secular music reflected this as much as their religious music did."
Flush with the success of appropriating the ragtime craze for commercial gain, the American sheet music publishing industry wasted no time in pursuing similar commercial success with the blues. In 1912, three popular blues-like compositions were published, precipitating the Tin Pan Alley adoption of blues elements: "Baby Seals' Blues" by Arthur Seals, "Dallas Blues" by Hart Wand and "Memphis Blues" by W. C. Handy. Handy, a formally trained musician, composer and arranger was a key popularizer of blues. Handy was one of the first to transcribe and then orchestrate blues in an almost symphonic style, with bands and singers. He went on to become a very popular composer, and billed himself as the "Father of the Blues", though it can be debated whether his compositions are blues at all; they can be described as a fusion of blues with ragtime and jazz, a merger facilitated using the Latin habanera rhythm that had long been a part of ragtime. Extremely prolific over his long life, Handy's signature work was the St. Louis Blues.
In the 1920s, the blues became a major element of African American and American popular music in general, reaching "white" audience via Handy's work and the classic female blues performers. It evolved from informal performances to entertainment in theaters, for instance within the Theater Owners Bookers Association, in nightclubs, such as the Cotton Club, and juke joints, for example along Beale Street in Memphis. This evolution led to a notable diversification of the styles and to a clearer cut between blues and jazz. Several record companies, such as the American Record Corporation, Okeh Records, and Paramount Records, began to record African American music. As the recording industry grew, so did, in the African American community, the popularity of country blues performers like Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Son House and Blind Blake. Jefferson was one of the few country blues performers to record widely, and may have been the first to record the slide guitar style, in which a guitar is fretted with a knife blade, the sawed-off neck of a liquor bottle, or other implement. The slide guitar went on to become an important part of the Delta blues. When blues recordings were first made, in the 1920s, there were two major divisions: a traditional, rural country blues, and a diverse set of more polished city or urban blues.
Country blues performers were often unaccompanied, or performed with only a banjo or guitar, and were often improvised. There were many regional styles of country blues in the early 20th century, a few especially important. The (Mississippi) Delta blues was a rootsy style, often accompanied by slide guitar and harmonica, and characterized by a spare style and passionate vocals. The most influential performer of this style is usually said to be Robert Johnson, who was little recorded but combined elements of both urban and rural blues in a unique manner. Along with Robert Johnson, major artists of this style were his predecessors Charley Patton and Son House. The southeastern "delicate and lyrical" Piedmont blues tradition, based on an elaborated fingerpicking guitar technique, was represented by singers like Blind Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller. The lively Memphis blues style, which developed in the '20s and '30s around Memphis, Tennessee, was mostly influenced by jug bands, such as the Memphis Jug Band or the Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers. They used a large variety of unusual instruments such as washboard, fiddle, ">kazoo or mandolin. Representative artists in this style include Sleepy John Estes, Robert Wilkins, Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. Memphis Minnie was a major female blues artist of this time. She was famous for her virtuoso guitar style. The pianist Memphis Slim also began his career in Memphis, but his quite distinct style was smoother and contained some swing elements. Many blues musicians based in Memphis moved to Chicago in the late thirties or early forties and participated in the urban blues movement, straddling the border between the country and electric blues.
City blues was much more codified and elaborate. Classic female urban or vaudeville blues singers were extremely popular in the 1920s, among them Mamie Smith, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Victoria Spivey. Though more a vaudeville performer than a blues artist, Mamie Smith was the first African- American to record a blues in 1920. Her success was such that 75,000 copies of "Crazy Blues" sold in its first month. Ma Rainey, was called the "Mother of Blues." According to Clarke, both Rainey and Bessie Smith used a "method of singing each song around centre tones, perhaps in order to project her voice more easily to the back of a room" and Smith "would also choose to sing a song in an unusual key, and her artistry in bending and stretching notes with her beautiful, powerful contralto to accommodate her own interpretation was unsurpassed". Urban male performers included some of the most popular black musicians of the era, such Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Leroy Carr. Before WWII, Tampa Red was sometimes referred to as "the king of the slide guitar." Carr made the unusual choice to accompany himself on the piano.
Another important style of 1930s and early '40s urban blues was boogie-woogie. Though most often piano based, it was not strictly a solo piano style, and was also used to accompany singers and, as a solo part, in bands and small combos. Boogie-Woogie was a style characterized by a regular bass figure, an ostinato or riff. It was featured by the most familiar example of shifts of level, in the left hand which elaborates on each chord, and trills and decorations from the right hand. Boogie-woogie was pioneered by the Chicago-based Jimmy Yancey and the Boogie-Woogie Trio (Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis). Chicago also produced other musicians in the style, like Clarence "Pine Top" Smith and Earl Hines, who "linked the propulsive left-hand rhythms of the ragtime pianists with melodic figures similar to those of Armstrong's trumpet in the right hand".
One kind of early 1940s urban blues was the jump blues, a style heavily influenced by big band music and characterized by the use of the guitar in the rhythm section, a jazzy, up-tempo sound, declamatory vocals and the use of the saxophone or other brass instruments. The jump blues of people like Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner, based in Kansas City, Missouri, later became the primary basis for rock and roll and rhythm and blues. Also straddling the border between classic rhythm and blues and blues is the very smooth Louisiana style, whose main representatives are Professor Longhair and, more recently, Doctor John.
Early Postwar Blues
After World War II and in the 1950s, increased urbanization and the use of amplification led to new styles of electric blues music, popular in cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City.
Chicago became a blues center in the early fifties. The Chicago blues is influenced to a large extent by the Mississippi blues style, because most artists of this period were migrants from the Mississippi region: Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Jimmy Reed were all born in Mississippi. Their style is characterized by the use of electric guitar, sometimes slide guitar, harmonica, traditional bass and drums. Nevertheless, some musicians of the same artistic movement, such as Elmore James or J. B. Lenoir, also used saxophones but more as a rhythm support than as solo instruments. Though Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) are the best known harp musicians of the early Chicago blues scene, others such as Big Walter Horton and Sonny Boy Williamson, who had already begun their careers before the war, also had tremendous influence. Muddy Waters and Elmore James were known for their innovative use of slide electric guitar. However, B. B. King and Freddy King did not use slide guitars and were perhaps the most influential guitarists of the Chicago blues style. Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters were famous for their deep voices. Howling Wolf is particularly acknowledged for distorting his voice with a special use of the microphone. Willie Dixon played a major role on the Chicago scene. He was a bassist, but his fame came from his composing and writing of most standard blues numbers of the period. He wrote "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "I Just Want to Make Love to You" for Muddy Waters, "Wang Dang Doodle" for Koko Taylor, and "Back Door Man" for Howlin' Wolf, and many others. Most artists of this style recorded for the Chicago-based Chess Records label.
The influence of blues on mainstream American popular music was huge in the fifties. In the mid-1950s, musicians like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry emerged. Directly influenced by the Chicago blues, their enthusiastic playing departed from the melancholy aspects of blues and is often acknowleged as the transition from the blues to rock 'n' roll. Elvis Presley and Bill Haley, mostly influenced by the jump blues and boogie-woogie, popularized rock and roll within the white segment of the population. The influence of the Chicago blues was also very important in Louisiana's zydeco music. Clifton Chenier and others introduced many blues accents in this style, such as the use of electric solo guitars and cajun arrangements of blues standards. However, other artists popular at this time, such as T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker, showed up different influences which are not directly related to the Chicago style. Dallas-born T-Bone Walker is often associated with the California blues style. This blues style is smoother than Chicago blues and is a transition between the Chicago blues, the jump blues and swing with some jazz-guitar influence. On the other hand, John Lee Hooker's blues is very personal. It is based on Hooker's deep rough voice accompanied by a single electric guitar. Though not directly influenced by boogie woogie, his very groovy style is sometimes called "guitar boogie". His first hit "Boogie Chillen" reached #1 on the R&B charts in 1949.
Blues in the '60s and '70s
By the beginning of the 1960s, African American music like rock and roll and soul were parts of mainstream popular music. White performers had brought black music to new audiences, both within the United States and abroad. Though many listeners simply enjoyed the catchy pop tunes of the day, others were inspired to learn more about the roots of rock, soul, R&B and gospel. Especially in the United Kingdom, many young men and women formed bands to emulate blues legends. By the end of the decade, white-performed blues in a number of styles, mostly fusions of blues and rock, had come to dominate popular music across much of the world.
Blues masters such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters continued to perform to enthusiastic audiences, inspiring new artists steeped in traditional blues, such as New York-born Taj Mahal. John Lee Hooker was particularly successful in the late sixties in blending his own style with some rock elements, playing together with younger white musicians. The 1971 album Endless Boogie is a major example of this style. B.B. King had emerged as a major artist in the fifties and reached his height in the late sixties. His virtuoso guitar technique earned him the eponymous title "king of the blues". In contrast to the Chicago style, King's band used strong brass support (saxophone, trumpet, trombone) instead of slide guitar or harp. Tennessee-born Bobby "Blue" Bland is another artist of the time who, like B.B. King, successfully straddled blues and R&B genres.
The music of the Civil Rights and Free Speech movements in the U.S. prompted a resurgence of interest in American roots music in general and in early African American music, specifically. Important music festivals such as the Newport Folk Festival brought traditional blues to a new audience. Prewar acoustic blues was rediscovered along with many forgotten blues heroes including Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Reverend Gary Davis. Many compilations of classic prewar blues were republished, in particular by the Yazoo Records company. J. B. Lenoir, an important artist of the Chicago blues movement in the fifties, recorded several outstanding LPs using acoustic guitar, sometimes accompanied by Willie Dixon on the acoustic bass or drums. His work at this time had an unusually direct political content relative to racism or Vietnam War issues. As an example, this quotation from Alabama blues record:
I never will go back to Alabama, that is not the place for me (2x)
You know they killed my sister and my brother,
and the whole world let them peoples go down there free
In the late sixties, the so-called West Side blues emerged in Chicago with Magic Sam, Magic Slim and Otis Rush. In contrast with the early Chicago style, this style is characterized by a strong rhythm support (a rhythm and a bass electric guitar, and drums). Talented, new musicians like Albert King, Freddy King, Buddy Guy, or Luther Allison appeared.
However, what made blues really come across to the young white audiences in the early 1960s was the Chicago-based Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the British blues movement. The style of British blues developed in England, when dozens of bands such as Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and Cream took to covering the classic blues numbers from either the Delta or Chicago blues traditions. The British blues musicians of the early 1960s would ultimately inspire a number of American blues-rock fusion performers, including Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, The J. Geils Band and others, who at first discovered the form by listening to British performers, but in turn went on to explore the blues tradition on their own. One blues-rock performer, Jimi Hendrix, was a rarity in his field at the time: a black man who played psychedelic blues-rock. Hendrix was a virtuoso guitarist, and a pioneer in the innovative use of distortion and feedback in his music. Through these artists and others, both earlier and later, blues music has been strongly influential in the development of rock music.
Blues from the 1980s to the present
Since 1980, blues has continued to thrive in both traditional and new forms through the continuing work of Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and the music of Robert Cray, Albert Collins, Keb' Mo' and others such as Jessie Mae Hemphill or Kim Wilson. The Texas rock-blues style emerged based on an original use of guitars for both solo and rhythms. In contrast with the West Side blues, the Texas style is strongly influenced by the British rock-blues movement. Major artists of this style are Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and ZZ Top. The '80s also saw a revival of John Lee Hooker's popularity. He collaborated with a diverse array of musicians such as Carlos Santana, Miles Davis, Robert Cray and Bonnie Raitt. Eric Clapton, who was known for his virtuoso electric guitar within the Blues Breakers and Cream, made a remarked comeback in the '90s with his MTV Unplugged album, in which he played some standard blues numbers on acoustic guitar.
Around this time blues publications such as Living Blues and Blues Revue began appearing at newsstands, major cities began forming blues societies and outdoor blues festivals became more common. More nightclubs and venues emerged. In the 1990s and today blues performers are found touching elements from almost every musical genre, as can be seen, for example, from the broad array of nominees of the yearly Blues Music Awards, previously named W. C. Handy Awards Contemporary blues music is nurtured by several well-known blues labels such as Alligator Records, Blind Pig Records, Chess Records (MCA), Delmark Records, and Vanguard Records (Artemis Records). Some labels are famous for their rediscovering and remastering of blues rarities such as Arhoolie Records, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (heir of Folkways Records), and Yazoo Records (Shanachie Records). (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
"The Blues Progression, which consists of only three chords, is widely used as the basis for rock, jazz, and blues songs. There are eight, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, and twenty-four bar Blues progressions. The two most common Blues forms are the twelve bar chord progressions shown below. The main difference between the two is that the second progression includes what is known as the “Quick Change” to the “F7” chord in the second bar.