The Blues: its history, evolution, most recognized representatives. In the first of a new series looking at musical genres we explore the one that is considered by many to be the root of all that came after it…
What is the blues?
The blues originated in the late 19th and early 20th century amongst black communities in America’s deep south, particularly the area around the Mississippi delta. In a time of heavy segregation it was music that managed to express pain and joy, hope and anguish all at once. The blues took traditional African music, folk music from Europe, church songs, work-songs, chants and hollers and distilled them in to a form that would go on to influence music way beyond it’s own boundaries, especially jazz and rock. Although there were many figures involved in it’s developement a composer and educated musician called W.C. Handy is often referred to as “The Father of the Blues” and widely credited as the man who formalised it.
In it’s most essential form the blues uses a 5-note (pentatonic) scale and is played in measures of 12 bars and 3 lines of lyrics where one line is sung twice in the first 8 (the call) and then resolved in a single line in the last (the response), and although this format isn’t strictly necessary to the blues it’s by far the most accepted definition. Harmonically it makes heavy use of major and minor 7th chords which I could explain to the non-musicians amongst you but it would take far too long. Trust me, they’re very important. Melodically its most notable feature is the use of what are commonly known as ‘blue notes’ which is where the singer or guitarist (it’s not possible on the piano) bends or slides a note upwards, playing between the notes to convey emotion. This combination of factors all help give the blues its immediately recognisable mood and feel.
Women and the Blues
It may have been the beginning of the last century, when society and women´s role in it was completely different. When choosing to be something other than a wife and a mother made any woman an outcast, but fortunately that was not the case for women in blues. The female musicians we are going to discuss were independent, willful, strong women, who walked their own path and set aside society´s expectations of them. Women in blues were talented, bohemian, cheeky characters who could spend the night drinking with the boys and made their voices and pain be heard just as loud as any of the guys.
Bessie Smith, “The Empress of the Blues” sold 780.000 copies of her single “Downhearted Blues” in 6 months. The single not only was sang by her, a woman but co-written with Alberta Hunter (another great blues singer in her own right). Bessie also had female pianist Ida Goodson (who was also a singer) during the decade of the twenties. Victoria Spivey (included in our playlist) recorded an album in 1962 in which Bob Dylan played the harmonica and backup vocals, it was the first time he recorded an album. Blue Lu Barker had a peculiar tone to her voice, which later went on to inspire jazz singer Billie Holiday. Gladys Bentley was not only a singer, she was a worldwide class piano player, there was also Ida Cox, known as “the uncrowned queen of blues”…and thankfully, the list goes on for women within the blues world. It is a relief to know that even though the music world has been dominated by men (like painting and many of the arts world, clearly not because of a lack of talent but because of the chauvinistic system) women in blues are represented, because heartbreak is no gender´s property.
If there’s one instrument that the blues helped bring to prominence more than any other it’s definitely the guitar. There are so many legendary blues guitarists, both acoustic and electric, that it’s almost hard to know where to begin, although Robert Johnson would be a pretty good place. His style fused intricate bursts of fingetrstyle with slide and bottom heavy rhythm playing. He was influenced quite a bit by the pre-eminent blues master Son House, and would go on to almost define the way acoustic blues is played. Not only that but the mythology surrounding his short life concerning selling his soul to the devil at a remote crossroads in exchange for his musical gifts have become central to blues folklore. He recorded less than 30 songs but they left an indelible mark, such was the bewitching power of his music. Other unplugged masters include Lightnin’ Hopkins, Skip James, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bukka White, Charlie Patton, Kokomo Arnold, and Blind Boy Fuller.
Just as Johnson helped define acoustic blues guitar, the late B.B. King did so with the electric, and his fluid single-note soloing which could go from a whisper to a scream was the sound of a master at work. It was as an electric instrument that the blues really made a name for the guitar and the likes of Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, T-Bone Walker, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Elmore James, Peter Green and Johnny Winter are just a few of the names that made electric blues so popular, as well as heavily influencing generations of rock and metal guitarists.
Harmonica and Piano Blues
There is a reason why in America the harmonica is also known as the blues harp. The first recording of an harmonica performance was in 1904 by African American player Pete Hampton, and then there are more famous ones by the Memphis Jug Band. The instrument started to travel and it became very important in Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis. One of the most famous harmonica players was Sonny Boy Williamson II, who is credited with first using his hands to provide effects on the harmonica (you can find him in our playlist also). Another player who revolutionized harmonica at the time was Marion “Little” Walter who started playing near a microphone used for taxi dispatchers radios and also cupped his hands around the instrument which gave it a distorted sound and also used his tongue to block some holes to sound an octave. Then there was Big Walter Horton who was very skilled in playing the instrument. There is an interesting list of blues harmonica legends. And we chose some great ones for our playlist also!
Piano Blues, a kind of blues were piano is the star of the game it has different styles within itself also, there is “St. Louis Blues” is related to ragtime, it has a drum rhythm and heavy accents, there is also Boogie Woogie which focuses on the “dance” part more. There are several artists for each sub genre, but the most famous piano blues players are: Ray Charles, Memphis Slim, Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkings, Charles “Cow Cow” Davenport, Dr. John, and Willie Mance among hundreds of others. We could write a lot of posts on just piano blues, but we can´t, so we recommend you watch Clint Eastwood’s take on the subject.
British Blues Revival
British music lovers had been getting their hands on blues records from the 1930’s onwards, however it was in the mid to late 50’s that it really took hold amongst musicians, particularly via the skiffle craze. The singer Lonnie Donegan had covered a few tunes by Leadbelly and the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters had toured Britain but it really began when friends and musicians Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner opened The London Blues and Barrellhouse club in Soho and formed the band Blues Incorporated who were inspired by Waters to play loud electric blues. The band would become a breeding ground for members of both the Rolling Stones and Cream as well as Graham Bond and Long John Baldry.
In the 60’s the british blues scene would spawn others like The Kinks, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and the Pretty Things. However, two bands embody the scene more than any others: The Yardbirds and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. The former would consecutively feature guitar legends Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page whilst the latter would feature Peter Green, Mick Taylor (two more guitar legends), and once again Clapton who played on the seminal Mayall album Bluesbreakers. Indeed, it is Clapton who would go on to form the supergroup Cream, earn himself the nickname ‘God’ and become one of the most important and lauded guitarists of all time. Maybe the greatest effect the British blues scene had was to help inspire a new generation of American blues artists with Paul Butterfield, Johnny Winter, and Canned Heat all emerging in the late 60’s.
Blues in Our Days
By the late 70’s blues as a contemporary music had largely lost its way. However, in the 80’s it would undergo something of a revival and new artists such as Robert Cray, Jeff Healey, and in particular Stevie Ray Vaughan would find commercial success playing music that was both rooted in the traditions of the blues whilst also pointing a way forward. Vaughan’s 1983 album Texas Flood is a classic of the genre and perfectly showcases his explosive style. Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash in August of 1990 just after playing a show with Eric Clapton. He was only 35 years old.
Throughout the 1990’s and in to the 21st century the blues has proved to be very durable. The likes of Joe Bonnamassa, Gary Clark jr., Shemekia Copeland, Jason Ricci, and Susan Tedeschi have been keeping the blues very much alive whilst alternative rock like Jack White, Black Keys, and Ben Harper have all displayed a strong influence in their work. Whilst it might be tempting for some to think of the blues as music of the past, it continues to find new ways to be expressed via new artists willing to express it. Over 100 years after its birth this most fundamental of styles is alive and most definitely kicking.