Introduction | Blues

Few would deny that the blues has played a more important role in the history of popular culture than any other musical genre. As well as being a complete art form in itself, it is a direct ancestor to the different types of current popular music we know and love today.

Without the blues there would have been no Beatles or Jimi Hendrix, no Led Zeppelin or Nirvana, Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis, James Brown or Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd or Frank Zappa, Oasis or Blur … the list is endless.

The blues emerged out of the hardships endured by generations of African American slaves during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By 1900, the genre had developed to a three-line stanza, with a vocal style derived from southern work songs. ‘Call and response’ songs were a fundamental part of African slave labour, with the gang leader singing a line and the other workers following in response. This style was developed further by early blues guitar players, who would sing a line and then answer it on the guitar. They would often sing when they were feeling depressed, or ‘blue’, and by 1910, the word ‘blues’ was commonly used in southern states to describe this musical tradition. Capitalizing on its popularity, the music industry published ‘Memphis Blues’ by the black composer W. C. Handy in 1912.

By the 1920s, rural African-Americans had migrated to the big cities in search of work, bringing their music with them. Mamie Smith, a New York vaudeville singer, made the first known blues recording, ‘Crazy Blues’, with Okeh Records in 1920. Its success convinced singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey to follow suit. Louis Armstrong accompanied them on their recordings, absorbing some of their blues vibes into his jazz singing and trumpeting styles. Street musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson also started to make recordings, which inspired a whole generation of blues guitar players.

The 1930s were a crucial period in the development of the blues, for it was then that early Mississippi Delta blues performers Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson travelled throughout the southern states, singing about their woes, freedom, love and sex to community after community. Johnson, who allegedly made a pact with the Devil in order to become a better guitar player, was the first true blues performance artist. On the east coast, musicians such as Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Terry and the Rev. Gary Davis developed a more folky, ’Piedmont’ blues style. In Kansas City, Count Basie was absorbing the blues and reinjecting it into the big band jazz style of the swing era. And in New York, Billie Holiday, one of the most famous blues/jazz singers of all time, began captivating audiences with her haunting, sensuous voice.

As urban blues grew and developed in cities all over the country, the 1940s witnessed the birth of a wide range of new musical styles....

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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