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Concepts Of The Blues Essay, Research Paper

Concepts of the Blues

Most of what we hear today, in essence, probably developed from the blues. The word “blue” has been associated with the idea of melancholia or depression since the Elizabethan era. To have the blues meant that you had a depressed mood or felt things that weren’t going your way. The American writer, Washington Irving is credited with coining the term “the blues.” The earlier (almost entirely Negro) history of the blues musical tradition is traced through oral tradition as far back as the 1860’s. (Priestley, 79) The way they expressed their feelings often came out as music. That music took on the name “blues.” (Shirmer, 1)

There are a number of different ideas as to what the blues really are: a scale structure, a note out of tune or out of key, a chord structure or quite possibly a philosophy. The blues is a form of Afro-American origin in which a model melody has been harmonized with Western tonal chords. In other words, wehad to fit it into our musical system somehow. A major problem was that the blues weren’t sung according to the European ideas of even tempered pitch. Blues incorporated three common practices that were fundamental to African American society. The first is cross rythms, which are simple polyrythms and are considered the foundation of African American drumming. Secondly, are “blue notes”, which are the express rising emotions with falling pitch, a blending or flattening of certain notes of the diatonic scale. These notes are with a much freer use of bent pitches and otherwise emotionally inflected vocal sounds. (James, 278)

These blue notes are considered one of the defining characteristics of the blues. The final practice used are vocal techniques such as coarse tones, slurs, and melisma. (Marshall and Basquiat, 43) By the mid-twenties, instrumental blues were common, and “playing the blues” for the instrumentalist could mean improvising a melody within a blues chord sequence.

Brass, reed, and string instrumentalists, in particular, were able to produce many of the vocal sounds of the blues singers (Shirmer, 79). Blues lyrics contain some of the most fantastically penetrating autobiographical and revealing statements in the Western musical tradition. Blues lyrics are often intensely personal, frequently contain sexual references and often deal with the pain of betrayal, desertion, and unrequited love (Priestley,119) or with unhappy situations such as being jobless, hungry, broke, away from home, lonely, or downhearted because of an unfaithful

lover. (Abrams, 159)

The early blues were very irregular rhythmically and usually followed speech patterns, as can be heard in the recordings made in the twenties and thirties by the legendary bluesmen Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins among others (Marhall & Basquiat, 53). The meter of the blues is usually written in iambic pentameter. The first line is generally repeated and third line is different from the first two (Shirmer, 38).

The repetition of the first line serves a purpose as it gives the singer some time to come up with a third line. Often the lyrics of a blues song do not seem to fit the music, but a good blues singer will accent certain syllables and eliminate others so that everything falls nicely into place. (Shirmer, 98) The structure of blues lyrics usually consists of several three-line verses. The first line is sung and then repeated to roughly the same melodic phrase (perhaps the same phrase played diatonically a perfect fourth away), the third line has a different melodic phrase. Most blues researchers claim that the very early blues were patterned after English ballads and often had eight, ten, or sixteen bars. (James, 36)

The blues first originated and emerged from rural areas in the south. Rural blues were developed by a new generation of black agricultural workers in the south. Different types of rural blues were folk blues, Missippi Delta blues, east Texas blues, and Piedmont blues. These different types of rural blues described the location, time, and style of each type of music.

Folk blues was extremely popular among the younger members of African American society. It spread from the fields to many different types of work. Rural blues voiced people’s concerns about daily life and their environment. Blues lyrics came from two different sources. The first source was individual events and how people viewed things. The second source was African American tradition and heritage that was passed from generation to generation.

When African and European music first began to merge and create what eventually became the blues, the slaves sang songs were filled with words telling of their extreme suffering and privation. (Priestley, 36) One of the many responses to their oppressive environment resulted in the field holler. Thefield holler gave rise to the spiritual, and more imporantly, provided a backbone for the blues, “notable among all human works of art for their profound despair . . . They gave voice to the mood of alienation that prevailed in the construction camps of the South,” for it was in the Mississippi Delta that blacks were often forcibly conscripted to work on the levee and land-clearing crews, where they were often abused and then tossed aside or worked to death.(Shirmer,233) Tanner states that the blues tradition was considered to be a masculine discipline although some of the first blues songs heard by whites were sung by women blues singers (Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith) and not many black women were to be found singing the blues in the juke-joints.

The Southern prisons also contributed considerably to the blues tradition through work songs and the songs of death row, murder, prostitutes, the warden, the hot sun, and hundreds of other privations. (Shirmer, 147) The prison road crews and work gangs thrived upon their prison experiences for their songs, and also is where many other blacks simply became familiar with the same songs. The composing of work songs was done collectively and sponaneously. The slave owner also encouraged work songs because the songs increased work output and maintaned moral. Slaves viewed the songs as a way to rebel and show resistance.

Following the Civil War, the blues arose as “a distillate of the African music brought over by slaves. Field hollers, ballads, church music and rhythmic dance tunes called jump-ups evolved into music that a singer who would engage in the

call-and-response with his guitar. He would sing a line, and the guitar would answer it.”(James, 173) The guitar did not enjoy widespread popularity with blues musicians until about the turn of the century. Until then, the banjo was the primary blues instrument.

By the 1890’s, the blues were sung in many of the rural areas of the South, and by 1910 the word “blues” as applied to the musical tradition was in fairly

common use (Marshall & Basquiat, 40). Some “bluesologists” claim that the first blues song that was ever written down was ‘Dallas Blues,’ published in 1912 by Hart Wand, a white violinist from Oklahoma City. (Shirmer, 40)

Another form of the”blues”, Delta blues, came out of the farming and segregated black enclaves especially social gatherings. Influences ranged from dances to church events, and “Juke Joints” were eventually opened. “Juke Joints” were places that people gathered at to dance and gamble. The delta blues represented a definite break in country-dance music. Couple dancing and hip shaking soon became popular styles of dancing. (Priestley, 189)

This is where the guitar evetually emerged as a center piece of the blues world. Guitars were used because they had a broad range of notes, they were

portable, affordable, and they were permitted by slave owners at that time. The

slave owners didn’t permit drums because they thought the drums could be used to

signal to each other. The self-taught delta guitar players were the most traditional and the most original interpreters of the rural blues. Charley Patton is considered to be the heart and soul of the delta blues. Many other performers also stemmed from Patton such as Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, and Son House. Robert Johnson was another key transitional figure working with the Missippi. He helped bridge the gap between the music’s rural beginning and it’s modern future. (Shirmer, 212)

As early as the turn of the century the blues were trickling into cities of the south and the Midwest with the development of urban blues. The major difference between urban blues and country blues were the lyrics involved in the songs.

(Davis, 96) Minstrel shows were started in the post civil times and were considered the only true form of African American entertainment. These shows traveled around the south putting on skits and musical performances. The shows were run by white businessmen and were designed to often make fun of the African American culture. Blues performers started to join these shows as the only oppurtunity to make a living.(Shirmer, 247)

Other blues shows started and theaters that catered to African Americans eventually started booking the shows. Soon after, the Theaters Owners Booking Association (TOBA) was created. Circuits of theaters were formed where they would book a series of black performers. The TOBA provided valuable experience and exposure for the blues performers. Women as well as men achieved stardom on the TOBA. Blues writing soon became a profession were songs were produced in mass quantities. Once a song became popular the writers used that formula to write other songs. Writers would produce songs and have them copyrighted faster than the musicians could play them. All too often, the songs weren’t very original and rarely accepted by the public.

The blues form was first popularized and nationally recongnized between 1911-14, by the black composer W.C. Handy (1873-1958). However, the poetic and musical form of the blues first crystallized around 1910 and gained popularity through the publication of Handy’s “Memphis Blues” (1912) and “St. Louis Blues”(1914). (Kamien 518) Instrumental blues had been recorded as early as 1913. Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, ‘Crazy Blues’ in 1920. (Priestly 9) Priestly claims that while the widespread popularity of the blues had a vital influence on subsequent jazz, it was the “initial popularity of jazz which made possible the recording of blues in the first place, and thus made possible the absorption of blues into both jazz as well as the mainstream of pop music.” (Priestly 10)

American troops also contributed and brought the blues home with them following the World War I. They did not, of course, learn them from Europeans, but from Southern whites who had been exposed to the blues. At this time, the U.S. Army was still segregated and blacks remained seperated from whites. During the twenties, the blues became a national craze. Records by leading blues singers like Bessie Smith and later, in the thirties, Billie Holiday, sold in the millions. The twenties also saw the blues become a musical form more widely used by jazz instrumentalists as well as blues singers. (Abrams, 218)

During the decades of the thirties and forties, the blues began to spread northward with the migration of many blacks from the South and entered into the repertoire of big-band jazz. The blues also became electrified with the introduction of the amplified guitar. In some Northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, during the

later forties and early fifties, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker,

Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James among others, played what was basically

Mississippi Delta blues, backed by bass, drums, piano and occasionally harmonica, began scoring national hits with blues songs.

The blues is neither an era in the chronological development of jazz, nor is it actually a particular style of playing or singing jazz. (James, 35) Some maintain that the blues are defined by the use of blue notes and others feel that the song form (twelve bars, one-four-five) is the defining feature of the blues.

Some feel that the blues is a way to approach music, a philosophy, in a manner of speaking. And still others hold a much wider sociological view that the blues are an entire musical tradition rooted in the black experience of the post-war South.

Whatever one may think of the social implications of the blues, whether expressing the American or black experience in microcosm, it was their “strong autobiographical nature, their intense personal passion, chaos and loneliness, executed so vibrantly that it captured the imagination of modern musicians” and the general

public as well. (Marshall & Basquiat, 13)


1. Abrams, Byron. Wasserman, Emily. The American Scene – Music and theEarly Twentieth Century.

Published: N.Y. c1992

2. Priestly, Brian. Blues On Record: A Historical account of the Blues.

Published: N.Y. c1988

3. Shirmer, G. Lost in the Blues.

Published: Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown Publishers, 1984.

4. Marshall, Richard and Jean-Michel Basquiat. African American music and its roots.

Published: N.Y. c1983

5. James, Marshall. A Historical account of African American music.

Published: Century. New York: Jupiter Art Library. c1984.

6. Davis, Nathan Jr. Writings in Jazz.

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