A History of Blues Music

"No other form of music communicates more genuine personal emotion"

Date March 6, 2013 at 4:04 PM

Publication Santa Fe Sun Monthly

Categories Culture Entertainment & Nightlife Performing Arts

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Photo: Larissa J. Longfellow

Blues is the name given to the musical form and the music genre that emerged from the African-American communities and the black cultural melting pot of the American South of the 1890's, drawing on a fascinating mixture of African-American spirituals, traditional songs, work songs of the slaves, field hollers, shouts and chants, folk ballads, European hymns, contemporary dance music and rhymed simple narrative ballads. During their back-breaking toil in the fields of the Southern plantations, black slaves developed a "call and response" way of singing to give rhythm to the drudgery of their work.

The term blues may mean melancholy or sadness, but not as much in recent years as at the outset. The origin of the term was most likely derived from mysticism involving blue indigo, which was used by many West African cultures in death and mourning ceremonies where the mourner's clothes were dyed blue to indicate misfortune and suffering. 

Today, when one thinks of the blues, you think about misfortune, betrayal and regret. When you lose your job you get the blues. When your mate falls out of love with you, you get the blues. When your dog dies, you get the blues. 

While blues lyrics often deals with personal adversity, the music itself goes far beyond self pity. The blues is also about overcoming bad luck, saying what you feel, getting rid of frustrations, letting your hair dow, and just plain having fun. The best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional on a very personal level. Blues goes from unbridled joy to deep sadness. No other form of music communicates more genuine personal emotion.

As discussed above, the blues have deep roots in American history, particularly African-American history. The blues grew up in the Mississippi Delta just upriver from New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Blues and jazz have always influenced each other, and they still interact in countless ways today. Following the end of the Civil War, black men had few options other than doing backbreaking manual work or something like becoming a traveling minstrel. Many chose to rely on their physical stamina and the soulful and melancholy lyrics of many blues songs to create a powerful, emotive and rhythmic music celebrating the life of black Americans. The lyrics they sang reflected their daily lives including sex, drinking, jail, murder, poverty, hard labor and lost love.

In the early 20th century, the blues was considered disreputable as white audiences began listening to blues. Blues came into its own as an important part of the country's relatively new popular culture in the 1920s with the recording, first, of great female classic blues singers and, then, of the country folk blues singers of the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont of the Carolinas, and Texas. The first copyrighted song was in l912, the "Dallas Blues." As huge numbers of African-Americans left the South at this time due to failed Reconstruction, dismal economic conditions, oppression in the South and the hope of better treatment in the North between l915 and l940, the blues went with them, and settled in the urban centers of the North, especially Chicago. A more urban, electric blues developed as a result, which eclipsed the rural blues of the South and eventually became both rock and roll and what would become known as rhythm and blues.

Blues fell somewhat out of popular favor until the later l950's. In l958, the Kingston Trio recorded "Tom Dooley" and gave birth to a folk revival. Folk and blues were reintroduced to white Americans. Blues had a huge influence on American popular music. Popular musicians Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry with their enthusiastic playing styles departed from the melancholy aspects of blues. After this time, the blues became increasingly merged with rock music to form the rock blues bands of the l960s and 70s.

When the country blues moved to the cities and other locales, it took on various regional characteristics. These were called the St. Louis Blues, the Memphis Blues, the Louisiana Blues, etc. Today there are many different shades of blues. Forms include:

Traditional country Blues —A general term that describes the rural blues of the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont and other rural locales.

Jump Blues —A danceable amalgam of swing and blues and a precursor to thythm and blues.

Boogie-woogie —A piano based blues derived from barrelhouse and ragtime.

Chicago Blues —Delta blues electrified.

Cool Blues —A sophisticated piano based form that owes much to jazz.

West Coast Blues—Popularized mainly by Texas musicians who moved to California, heavily influenced by the swing beat.

There are Blues Societies all over the world, including New Mexico. In recent years, perhaps as a result of the recessionary economic times there has been a revival of interest in the Blues.

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