From New World Encyclopedia

The Blues, a haunting, stylistic type of vocal and instrumental music, is based on the use of 'blue' notes or the intentional aberration or 'bending' of a scalar tone on a repetitive pattern, which is usually a twelve-bar structure. This gives the blues its characteristic melody and harmony.

It 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 influenced later American and Western popular music, as it became part of the genres of ragtime, jazz, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, hip-hop, country music, and pop songs.

The phrase the blues is a reference to having a fit of the blue devils, meaning 'down' spirits, depression and sadness. An early reference to "the blues" can be found in George Colman's farce Blue devils, a farce in one act (1798)[1]. Later during the nineteenth century, the phrase was used as a euphemism for delirium tremens and also in reference to 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".[2][3] In lyrics the phrase is often used to describe a depressed mood.[4]



There are few characteristics common to all blues, because the genre takes its shape from the idiosyncrasies of individual performances.[5] However, there are some characteristics that were present long before the creation of the modern blues.

An early form of blues-like music was a call-and-response shouts, which were a "functional expression… style without accompaniment or harmony and unbounded by the formality of any particular musical structure."[6] A form of this pre-blues was heard in slave field shouts and hollers, expanded into "simple solo songs laden with emotional content".[7] 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.[8]

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[9]. Ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik may have been the first to contend that certain elements of the blues have roots in the Islamic music of West and Central Africa.

Stringed instruments (which were favored by slaves from Muslim regions of Africa…), were generally allowed because slave owners considered them akin to European instruments like the violin. So slaves who managed to cobble together a banjo or other instruments, could play more widely in public. This solo-oriented slave music featured elements of an Arabic-Islamic song style that had been imprinted by centuries of Islam's presence in West Africa, says Gerhard Kubik, an ethnomusicology professor at the University of Mainz in Germany who has written the most comprehensive book on Africa's connection to blues music (Africa and the Blues).[6] sfgate.

Kubik also pointed out that the Mississippi technique of playing the guitar using a knife blade, recorded by W.C. Handy in his autobiography, corresponds to similar musical techniques in West and Central Africa cultures. The Diddley bow, a homemade one-stringed instrument thought to be common throughout the American South in the early twentieth century, is an African-derived instrument that likely helped in the transferral of African performance techniques into the early blues instrumental vocabulary.

Blues music later adopted elements from the "Ethiopian airs," minstrel shows and Negro spirituals, including instrumental and harmonic accompaniment.[10] 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".[11]

Blues songs from this period, such as Leadbelly's or Henry Thomas's recordings, show many different structures. The twelve, eight, or sixteen-bar structure based on tonic, subdominant and dominant chords became the most common forms.[12] What is now recognizable as the standard 12-bar blues form is documented from oral history and sheet music appearing in African American communities throughout the region along the lower Mississippi River, in Memphis, Tennessee's Beale Street, and by white bands in New Orleans.


"Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" (file info)
Performed by Leadbelly, a folk singer and guitarist; this Southern Appalachian song dates to the 1870s
"Po’ Gal" (file info)
East Coast blues, performed by Zora Neale Hurston in 1939
"Caldonia" (file info)
Jump blues performed by Louis Jordan in 1945
"Back Door Man" (file info)
Chicago blues performed by Howlin' Wolf in 1960
Problems listening to the files? See media help.

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, [and] hard times".[13]

Music such as this was called "gut-bucket" blues, a term which refers to a type of homemade bass instrument made from a metal bucket used for making chitterlings (a soul food dish associated with slavery). "Gut-bucket" blues songs are typically "low-down" and earthy, about rocky or steamy relationships, hard luck and hard times. Gut-bucket blues and the rowdy juke-joint venues where it was played, earned blues music an unsavory reputation; church-goers shunned it and some preachers railed against it.

Although the blues gained an association with misery and oppression, the blues could also be humorous and loving.

She's my baby, she's my lover, she's my pal,
She's my baby, she's my lover, she's my pal,
She's my, big-knee'd gal.
(Taj Mahal)

Author Ed Morales has claimed that Yoruba mythology played a part in early blues, citing Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues" as a "thinly veiled reference to Eleggua, the orisha in charge of the crossroads".[14] 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 of a line, repeated once and then followed by a single line conclusion, became standard. [15]

Musical style

During the first decades of the twentieth century blues music was not clearly defined in terms of chords progression. There were 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. More idiosyncratic numbers of bars are also encountered occasionally, as with the 9 bar progression in Howlin' Wolf's Sitting on top of the World. The basic twelve-bar lyric framework of a blues composition is reflected by a standard harmonic progression of twelve bars, in 4/4 or (rarely) 2/4 time. Slow blues are often played in 12/8 (4 beats per measure with 3 subdivisions per beat).

By the 1930s, twelve-bar blues became more standard. The blues chords associated to a twelve-bar blues are typically a set of three different chords played over a twelve-bar scheme:

I I or IV I I
V IV I I or V

where the Roman numbers refer to the degree (music)|degrees of the progression. That would mean, if played in the tonality of F, the chords would be as follows:

F F or Bb F F
Bb Bb F F
C Bb F F or C

In this example, F is the tonic chord, Bb the subdominant chord|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.

[[ Melody|Melodically]], blues music is marked by the use of the flatted minor third, tritone, fifth and minor seventh (the so-called blue or bent notes) of the associated major scale.[16] While the twelve-bar harmonic progression had been intermittently used for centuries, the revolutionary aspect of blues was the frequent use of the flatted third, 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.[17]

Whereas a classical musician will generally play a grace note distinctly, a blues singer or harmonica player will glissando, "crushing" the two notes and then releasing the grace note. Blues harmonies also use the subdominant major chord with and added minor seventh (IV 7) and the tonic major triad with an added minor seventh (I 7) 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.
  • Minor-key blues is most often structured in sixteen bars rather than twelve, for example, St. James Infirmary Blues and Trixie Smith's My Man Rocks Me–and was often influenced by evangelical religious music.

Blues rhythm shuffles reinforce the trance-like rhythm and call-and-response, and form a repetitive effect called a " groove (popular music)|groove." The simplest shuffles commonly used in many postwar electric blues, rock-and-rolls, or early bebops were a three-note riff on the bass strings of the guitar. When this riff was played over the bass and the drums, the groove "feel" is created. The walking bass is another device that helps to create a "groove". The last bar of the chord progression is usually accompanied by a turnaround that makes the transition to the beginning of the next progression.

Shuffle rhythm is often vocalized as "dow, da dow, da dow, da" or "dump, da dump, da dump, da"[18] as it consists of uneven, or "swung," eighth 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:[19][20]

   E7                  A7                  E7                  E7
E |-------------------|-------------------|-------------------|-------------------|
B |-------------------|-------------------|-------------------|-------------------|
G |-------------------|-------------------|-------------------|-------------------|
D |-------------------|2—2-4—4-2—2-4—4|-------------------|-------------------|
A |2—2-4—4-2—2-4—4|0—0-0—0-0—0-0—0|2—2-4—4-2—2-4—4|2—2-4—4-2—2-4—4|
E |0—0-0—0-0—0-0—0|-------------------|0—0-0—0-0—0-0—0|0—0-0—0-0—0-0—0|



Blues has evolved from an unaccompanied vocal music of poor black laborers into a wide variety of styles and subgenres, with regional variations across the United States and, later, Europe and Africa. The musical forms and styles that are now considered the "blues" as well as modern "country music" arose in the same regions 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.[21] 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 African-ness of many essential aspects of blues expression.

The social and economic reasons for the appearance of the blues are not fully known.[22] The first appearance of the blues is not well defined and is often dated between 1870 and 1900, a period that coincides with the emancipation of the slaves and the transition from slavery to sharecropping and small-scale agricultural production in the southern U.S.

Several scholars characterize the early 1900s development of blues music as a move from group performances to a more individualized style. They argue that the development of the blues is associated with the newly acquired freedom of the slaves. According to Lawrence Levine,[23] "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." Levine states that "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."

Prewar blues

The American sheet music publishing industry produced a great deal of ragtime music. By 1912, the sheet music industry published three popular blues-like compositions, precipitating the Tin Pan Alley adoption of blues elements: Baby Seals' Blues by "Baby" F. Seals (arranged by Artie Matthews), Dallas Blues by Hart Wand and Memphis Blues by W. C. Handy [24].

Handy was a formally trained musician, composer and arranger who helped to popularize the blues by transcribing and orchestrating blues in an almost symphonic style, with bands and singers. He became a popular and prolific composer, and billed himself as the "Father of the Blues"; however, his compositions 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;[25] [26] Handy's signature work was the Saint Louis Blues.

As the recording industry grew, country blues performers like Charlie Patton, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Son House and Blind Blake became more popular in the African American community. 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 or the sawed-off neck of a bottle. The slide guitar became an important part of the Delta blues.[27] The first blues recordings from the 1920s were in two categories: a traditional, rural country blues and more polished 'city' or urban blues.

Country blues performers often improvised, either without accompaniment or with only a banjo or guitar. There were many regional styles of country blues in the early twentieth century. The (Mississippi) Delta blues was a rootsy sparse style with passionate vocals accompanied by a slide guitar. Robert Johnson,[28] who was little-recorded, combined elements of both urban and rural blues. Along with Robert Johnson, influential performers of this style were his predecessors Charley Patton and Son House. Singers such as Blind Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller performed in the southeastern "delicate and lyrical" Piedmont blues tradition, which used an elaborate fingerpicking guitar technique. Georgia also had an early slide tradition.[29].

The lively Memphis blues style, which developed in the 1920s and 1930s around Memphis, Tennessee, was influenced by jug bands, such as the Memphis Jug Band or the Gus Cannon Jug Stompers. Performers such as Frank Stokes, Sleepy John Estes, Robert Wilkins, Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie used a variety of instruments such as a washboard, violin, fiddle, kazoo or mandolin. Memphis Minnie was famous for her virtuoso guitar style. Pianist Memphis Slim 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 1930s or early 1940s and became part of the urban blues movement which blended country music and electric blues.

Bessie Smith was a very famous early blues singer.

City or urban blues styles were more codified and elaborate.[30] classic female blues|Classic female urban or vaudeville blues singers were popular in the 1920s, among them Mamie Smith, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Victoria Spivey. Mamie Smith, more a vaudeville performer than a blues artist, was the first African- American to record a blues in 1920; her Crazy Blues sold 75,000 copies in its first month.[31]

Ma Rainey, called the "Mother of Blues," and Bessie Smith sang "… each song around centre tones, perhaps in order to project her voice more easily to the back of a room." Smith would "…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"[32]. Urban male performers included popular black musicians of the era, such Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Leroy Carr. Before World War II, Tampa Red was sometimes referred to as "The Guitar Wizard." Carr made the then-unusual choice of accompanying himself on the piano.[33]

A typical boogie-woogie bassline

Boogie-woogie was another important style of 1930s and early 1940s urban blues. While the style is often associated with solo piano, boogie-woogie was also used to accompany singers and, as a solo part, in bands and small combos. Boogie-Woogie style was characterized by a regular bass figure, an ostinato or riff and shift of level|shifts of level in the left hand, elaborating each chord and trills and decorations in 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 boogie-woogie performers included 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".[34]

In the 1940s, the jump blues style developed. Jump blues is influenced by big band music and uses the saxophone or other brass instruments and the guitar in the rhythm section to create a jazzy, up-tempo sound with declamatory vocals. Jump blues tunes by Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner, based in Kansas City, Missouri, influenced the development of later styles such as rock and roll and rhythm and blues.[35] The smooth Louisiana style of Professor Longhair and, more recently, Dr. John blends classic rhythm and blues with blues styles.

Early postwar blues

After World War II and in the 1950s, as African Americans moved to the Northern cities, new styles of electric blues music became popular in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Kansas City. Electric blues used amplified electric guitars, electric bass, drums, and harmonica. Chicago became a center for electric blues in the early 1950s.

The Chicago blues is influenced to a large extent by the Delta blues|Mississippi blues style, because many performers had migrated from the Mississippi region. Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Jimmy Reed were all born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. Their style is characterized by the use of electric guitar, sometimes slide guitar, harmonica, and a rhythm section of bass and drums. J. T. Brown who played in Elmore James' or J. B. Lenoir's bands, also used saxophones, but these were used more as 'backing' or rhythmic support than as solo instruments.

Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) are well known harmonica (called "harp" by blues musicians) players of the early Chicago blues scene. Other harp players such as Big Walter Horton and Sonny Boy Williamson were also influential. Muddy Waters and Elmore James were known for their innovative use of slide electric guitar. B. B. King and Freddy King (no relation), who did not use slide guitar, were influential guitarists of the Chicago blues style. Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters were known for their deep, 'gravelly' voices.

Bassist and composer Willie Dixon played a major role on the Chicago blues scene. He composed and wrote many blues standard|standard blues songs of the period, such as Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want to Make Love to You (both penned for Muddy Waters), Wang Dang Doodle for Koko Taylor, and Back Door Man for Howlin' Wolf. Most artists of the Chicago blues style recorded for the Chicago-based Chess Records label.

In the 1950s, blues had a huge influence on mainstream American popular music. While popular musicians like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry were influenced by the Chicago blues, their enthusiastic playing styles departed from the melancholy aspects of blues. Diddley and Berry's approach to performance was one of the factors that influenced the origins of rock and roll|transition from the blues to rock 'n' roll. Elvis Presley and Bill Haley were more influenced by the jump blues and boogie-woogie styles. They popularized rock and roll within the white segment of the population. Chicago blues also influenced Louisiana's 'zydeco' music, with Clifton Chenier using blues accents. Zydeco musicians used electric solo guitar and cajun arrangements of blues standards.

Other blues artists, such as T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker, had influences not directly related to the Chicago style. Dallas, Texas born T-Bone Walker is often associated with the West Coast, California blues style, which is smoother than Chicago blues and is a transition between the Chicago blues, the jump blues and swing with some jazz guitar influence. John Lee Hooker's blues is more "personal," based on Hooker's deep rough voice accompanied by a single electric guitar. Though not directly influenced by boogie woogie, his "groovy" style is sometimes called "guitar boogie." His first hit Boogie Chillen reached the number one position on the Rythym and Blues charts in 1949.[36].

By the late 1950s, the swamp blues genre developed near Baton Rouge, with performers such as Slim Harpo, Sam Myers and Jerry McCain. Swamp blues has a slower pace and a simpler use of the harmonica than the Chicago blues style performers such as Little Walter or Muddy Waters. Songs from this genre include "Scratch my Back," "She's Tough" and "King Bee."

Resurrecting the Blues in the 1960s and 1970s

By the beginning of the 1960s, genres influenced by African American music such as rock and roll and soul were part of mainstream popular music. White performers had brought African-American music to new audiences, both within the U.S. and abroad. In the UK, bands emulated U.S. blues legends, and UK blues-rock-based bands had an influential role throughout the 1960s.

John Lee Hooker blended his blues style with rock elements and playing with younger white musicians, creating a musical style that can be heard on the 1971 album Endless Boogie. B.B. King's 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 from a saxophone, trumpet, and trombone, instead of using slide guitar or harp. Tennessee-born Bobby "Blue" Bland, like B.B. King, also straddled the 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 and early African American music. Music festivals such as the Newport Folk Festival brought traditional blues to a new audience, which helped to revive interest in prewar acoustic blues and performers such as Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Reverend Gary Davis. Many compilations of classic prewar blues were republished by the Yazoo Records company. J.B. Lenoir from the Chicago blues movement in the 1950s recorded several LPs using acoustic guitar, sometimes accompanied by Willie Dixon on the acoustic bass or drums. His songs commented on political issues such as racism or Vietnam War issues, which was unusual for this period. His Alabama blues recording had a song that stated:

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

Writers too were influenced by the Blues. Langston Hughes, the Harlem poet, often attributed his work to the blues. The "Last Poets," a rhythym based, talking group, of the 1960s, made records that sounded strongly of the Blues, spoken, not sung, only their subject matter was much different, dealing with the political issues of the day. Curtis Mayfield, a writer of his own "soul" songs incorporated the blues into his own lyrics, dealing with the issues of the day or tender love ballads. These styles eventually became the rap and hip-hop music of today.

Amongst female Blues singers, in the 1960s, Nina Simone, trained in classical piano but whose roots in the Blues and Gospel, proved to be a great innovator. Her great voice and instrumental skills crossed all boundaries in her vast repertoire of Jazz, Ballads, Stage Musical and modern Pop songs. She also used her music to great effect, politically, protesting racial inequalities.

Of course all the great male Jazz singers from, Louis Armstrong, King Pleasure, Eddie Jefferson, John Hendricks, Jimmy Rushing, Al Jarreau, etc. had their roots firmly in Blues soil.

White audiences' interest in the blues during the 1960s increased due to the Chicago-based Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the British blues movement. The style of British blues developed in the UK, when bands such as Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and Cream performed classic blues songs from the Delta blues or Chicago blues traditions.

This was due to an influx of Blues and Jazz musicians into Europe, from the USA. Tired of lack of proper respect and renumeration for their work, they sought new audiences there. They were warmly welcomed, and their music excited European musicians. Young Brits, especially, were eager to sit at the feet of these venerated masters. Singers, including, Rod Stewart, Long John Baldry, and keyboard artists such as Brian Auger (the 'Steampacket'), Elton John, and all the other young musicians crowding the London clubs at the time, started a whole new wave of the Blues and Rhythym and Blues (known affectionately as, Beedle and Bo!). Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley & Chuck Berry were the most influential artists received, then and there.

This reception inspired other R&B, Soul, MoTown and Jazz greats, to cross the Atlantic Ocean too, winning great acclaim. In return, British artists would tour the States, returning their great love of the Blues and African American music in general, awakening a new spirit of recognition amongst the young there, as to their own heritage. One direct result being, that the recording of Cream's version of a Skip James song, "I'm so glad," was so popular that the sales were able to pay the elderly musician's hospital bills for cancer, giving him a reprise of three years of life.

The British blues musicians of the early 1960s inspired a number of American blues-rock fusion performers, including Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, The J. Geils Band, Ry Cooder. Many of Led Zeppelin's earlier hits were renditions of traditional blues songs. 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.[37] Through these artists and others, blues music influenced the development of rock and roll music.

In the late 1960s, the West Side style blues emerged in Chicago with Magic Sam, Magic Slim and Otis Rush. West Side style has strong rhythmic support from a rhythm guitar, bass electric guitar, and drums. Albert King, Buddy Guy, and Luther Allison had a West Side style that was dominated by amplified electric lead guitar.

1980s to the present

Since the 1980s, blues has continued in both traditional and new forms through the music of Taj Mahal; recording everything from field hollers, to blues on his Ole Miss National steel guitar, piano and penny whistle. He also covers Carribbean and Hawaiian music to Big Band Swing and Modern Blues. Ry Cooder with his southern steel slide guitar blues to Tex-Mex and recordings with Mali musician, Ali Farka Toure and the Cuban, Buena Vista Club. Robert Cray, Albert Collins, Keb' Mo', Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Kim Wilson. The Texas rock–blues style emerged which used guitars in both solo and rhythm roles. In contrast with the West Side blues, the Texas style is strongly influenced by the British rock-blues movement. Major artists of the Texas style are Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and ZZ Top. The 1980s also saw a revival of John Lee Hooker's popularity. He collaborated with Carlos Santana, Miles Davis, Robert Cray and Bonnie Raitt. Eric Clapton, known for his performances with the Blues Breakers and Cream, made a comeback in the 1990s with his MTV Unplugged album, in which he played some standard blues numbers on acoustic guitar and subsequent albums with BB King and JJ Cale in the new Millenium. Not to forget Mark Knoffler (ex Dire Straits) recording with Chet Atkins and others and Peter Green (from the 1960s Blues band, Fleetwood Mac) having recovered from a long illness.

Since the 1980s, there has been a resurgence of African-American interest in the blues, particularly around Jackson, Mississippi and other deep South regions. Often termed "soul blues," the music at the heart of this movement was given new life by the unexpected success of two particular recordings on the Jackson-based Malaco label: Z. Z. Hill's Down Home Blues (1982) and Little Milton's The Blues is Alright (1984). Contemporary African-American performers who work this vein of the blues include Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle, Sir Charles Jones, Bettye LaVette, Marvin Sease, Peggy Scott-Adams, and Willie Clayton. The American Blues Radio Network, founded by Rip Daniels, a black Mississippian, features soul blues on its playlists and radio personalities such as Duane "DDT" Tanner and Nikki deMarks.

In the 1980s and 1990s, blues publications such as Living Blues and Blues Revue began to be distributed, major cities began forming blues societies, outdoor blues festivals became more common, and [38] more nightclubs and venues for blues emerged.[39]

In the 1990s, blues performers explored a range of musical genres, as can be seen, for example, from the broad array of nominees of the yearly Blues Music Awards, previously named W. C. Handy Awards[40] Contemporary blues music is nurtured by several blues labels such as Alligator Records, Blind Pig Records, Chess Records (Music Corporation of America|MCA), Delmark Records, and Vanguard Records (Artemis Records). Some labels are famous for their rediscovering and remastering of blues rarities such as Delta Groove Music, Arhoolie Records, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (heir of Folkways Records), and Yazoo Records (Shanachie Records).[41]

Musical impact

Blues musical styles, forms (12-bar blues), melodies, and the blues scale have influenced many other genres of music, such as rock and roll, jazz, and popular music. Prominent jazz, folk or rock performers, such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Red Hot Chili Peppers have performed significant blues recordings. The blues scale is often used in popular songs like Harold Arlen's Blues in the Night, blues ballads like Since I Fell for You and Please Send Me Someone to Love, and even in orchestral works such as George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F.

The blues scale is ubiquitous in modern popular music and informs many modal frame (music)|modal frames, especially the ladder of thirds used in rock music (for example, in A Hard Day's Night. Blues forms are used in the theme to the televised Batman, teen idol Fabian's hit, Turn Me Loose, country music star Jimmie Rodgers' music, and guitarist/vocalist Tracy Chapman's song Give Me One Reason.

Blues is sometimes danced as a type of swing dance, with no fixed patterns and a focus on connection, sensuality,body contact, and improvisation. Most blues dance moves are inspired by traditional blues dancing. Although blues dancing is usually done to blues music, it can be done to any slow tempo 4/4 music.

Rhythym and Blues music can be traced back to spirituals and blues. Musically, spirituals were a descendant of New England choral traditions, and in particular of Isaac Watts's hymns, mixed with African rhythms and call-and-response forms. Spirituals or religious chants in the African-American community are much better documented than the "low-down" blues. Spiritual singing developed because African-American communities could gather for mass or worship gatherings, which were called camp meetings.

Early country bluesmen such as Skip James, Charley Patton, Georgia Tom Dorsey played country and urban blues and had influences from spiritual singing. Dorsey helped to popularize Gospel music. Gospel music developed in the 1930s, with the Golden Gate Quartet. In the 1950s, soul music by Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and James Brown used gospel and blues music elements. In the 1960s and 1970s, gospel and blues were these merged in soul blues music. Funk music of the 1970s was influenced by soul; funk can be seen as an antecedent of hip-hop and contemporary Rhythym and Blues.

Duke Ellington straddled the big band and bebop genres. Though Ellington was a jazz artist, he used the blues form extensively.

Before World War II, the boundaries between blues and jazz were less clear. Usually jazz had harmonic structures stemming from brass bands, whereas blues had blues forms such as the 12-bar blues. However, the jump blues of the 1940s mixed both styles. After WWII, blues had a substantial influence on jazz. Bebop classics, such as Charlie Parker's Now's the Time, used the blues form with the pentatonic scale and blue notes.

Bebop marked a major shift in the role of jazz, from a popular style of music for dancing, to a "high-art," less-accessible, cerebral "musician's music." The audience for both blues and jazz split, and the border between blues and jazz became the more defined. Artists straddling the boundary between jazz and blues are categorized into the jazz blues sub-genre.

The blues' twelve-bar structure and the blues scale was a major influence on rock-and-roll music. Rock-and-roll has been called "blues with a back beat." Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog," with its unmodified twelve-bar structure (in both harmony and lyrics) and a melody centered on flatted third of the tonic (and flatted seventh of the subdominant), is a blues song transformed into a rock-and-roll song.

Many early rock-and-roll songs are based on blues: Johnny B. Goode, Blue Suede Shoes, Whole Lotta' Shakin' Going On, Tutti-Frutti, Shake, Rattle, and Roll, What'd I Say, and Long Tall Sally. The early African American rock musicians retained the sexual themes and innuendos of blues music: "Got a gal named Sue, knows just what to do" or "See the girl with the red dress on, she knows how to do it all night long." Even the subject matter of "Hound Dog" contains well-hidden sexual double entendres.

More sanitized early "white" rock borrowed the structure and harmonics of blues, although there was less harmonic creativity and sexual frankness (for example, Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock). Many white musicians who performed black songs changed the words; Pat Boone's performance of Tutti Frutti changed the original lyrics ("Tutti frutti, loose booty … a wop bop a lu bop, a good Goddamn") to a tamer version.

Social impact

Like jazz, rock and roll and hip hop music, blues has been accused of being the "devil's music" and of inciting violence and other poor behavior.[42] In the early twentieth century, the blues was considered disreputable, especially as white audiences began listening to the blues during the 1920s.[43] In the early twentieth century, W.C. Handy was the first to make the blues more respectable to non-black Americans.

Now blues is a major component of the African American and American cultural heritage in general. This status is not only mirrored in scholarly studies in the field, but also in main stream movies such as Sounder (1972), the Blues Brothers (1980 and 1998), and Crossroads (1986). The Blues Brothers movies, which mix almost all kinds of music related to blues such as Rythym and Blues or 'Zydeco', have had a major impact on the image of blues music.

They promoted the standard traditional blues Sweet Home Chicago, whose version by Robert Johnson is probably the best known, to the unofficial status of Chicago's city anthem. More recently, in 2003, Martin Scorsese made significant efforts to promote the blues to a larger audience. He asked several famous directors including Clint Eastwood and Wim Wenders to participate in a series of films called The Blues. He also participated in the rendition of compilations of major blues artists in a series of high quality CDs.


Films dealing with blues history or prominently featuring blues music as a theme include:

  • Crossroads (Walter Hill) (1986): A film about a "deal with the devil," with a soundtrack by Ry Cooder and a guitar duel between Ralph Machhio and Steve Vai.
  • The Blues, a Musical Journey (2003): Martin Scorcese produced seven documentaries about the blues:
  • Feel Like Going Home (Martin Scorsese): about the African origins of the Blues
  • The Soul of a Man (Wim Wenders): about Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and J.B. Lenoir
  • The Road to Memphis (Richard Pearce) : focuses on B.B. King's contributions
  • Warming by the Devil's Fire (Charles Burnett): fiction on a blues-based theme
  • Godfathers and Sons (Marc Levin) : about Chicago blues and hip-hop
  • Red, White & Blues (Mike Figgis) : About British blues-influenced music (e.g., Tom Jones, Van Morrison)
  • Piano Blues (Clint Eastwood): Focuses on blues pianists such as Ray Charles and Dr. John


  1. The "Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé" provides this etymology to the word blues and George Colman's farce as the first appearance of this term in the English language, see [1]
  2. The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Ed., (1989) gives Handy as the earliest attestation of "Blues."
  3. Eric Partridge. A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. (Routledge, UK: 2002, ISBN 0415291895)
  4. Tony Bolden. Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and Culture. (University of Illinois Press, 2004. ISBN 0252028740)
  5. Eileen Southern. The Music of Black Americans. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997), 333
  6. Reebee Garofalo. Rockin' Out: Popular Music in the USA. (Allyn & Bacon, 1997), 44
  7. Jean Ferris. America's Musical Landscape. (Brown & Benchmark, 1993), 229
  8. Ed Morales. The Latin Beat. (New York: Da Capo Press, 2003), 276. Morales attributes this claim to John Storm Roberts in Black Music of Two Worlds, beginning his discussion with a quote from Roberts There does not seem to be the same African quality in blues forms as there clearly is in much Caribbean music.
  9. Jonathan Curiel, Muslim Roots of the Blues The music of famous American blues singers reaches back through the South to the culture of West Africa. SFGate. accessdate August 24, 2005
  10. Garofalo, 44 Gradually, instrumental and harmonic accompaniment were added, reflecting increasing cross-cultural contact. Garofalo cites other authors that also mention the "Ethiopian airs" and "Negro spirituals".
  11. Gunther Schuller. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. (Oxford University Press, 1968), cited in Garofalo, 27
  12. Garofalo, 46-47
  13. David Ewen. Panorama of American Popular Music. (Prentice Hall, 1957), 142-143
  14. Morales, 277
  15. Ferris, 230
  16. Ewen, 143
  17. Grace notes were common in the Baroque and Classical periods, but they acted as ornamentation rather than as part of the harmonic structure. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 has a flatted fifth in the dominant. However, this was a technique for building tension for resolution into the major fifth, while a blues melody uses the flatted fifth as part of the scale.
  18. David Hamburger. Acoustic Guitar Slide Basics. (String Letter Publishing, 2001. ISBN 1890490385)
  19. Lesson 72: Basic Blues Shuffle by Jim Burger. [2] accessdate November 25, 2005
  20. Wilbur M. Savidge, Randy L. Vradenburg. Everything About Playing the Blues. (Music Sales Distributed, 2002. ISBN 1884848095), 35
  21. Garofalo, 44-47 As marketing categories, designations like race and hillbilly intentionally separated artists along racial lines and conveyed the impression that their music came from mutually exclusive sources. Nothing could have been further from the truth…. In cultural terms, blues and country were more equal than they were separate. Garofalo claims that artists were sometimes listed in the wrong racial category in record company catalogues.
  22. Philip V. Bohlman, "Immigrant, folk, and regional music in the twentieth century," in The Cambridge History of American Music, ed. David Nicholls, , (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 285
  23. Lawrence W. Levine Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. (Oxford University Press, 1977), 223
  24. Garofalo, 27; Garofalo cites Barlow in Handy's sudden success demonstrated [the] commercial potential of [the blues], which in turn made the genre attractive to the Tin Pan Alley acks, who wasted little time in turning out a deluge of imitations. {parentheticals in Garofalo)
  25. Garofalo, 27
  26. Morales, 277
  27. Donald Clarke. The Rise and Fall of Popular Music. (St. Martin's Press, 1995), 138
  28. Clarke, 141
  29. Clarke, 139
  30. Garofalo, 47
  31. Hawkeye Herman, "General background on African American Music," What is the blues? The Blues Foundation. Retrieved October 2, 2008.
  32. Clarke, 137
  33. Clarke, 138
  34. Garofalo, 47
  35. Garofalo, 76
  36. Lars Bjorn. Before Motown. (University of Michigan Press, 2001. ISBN 0472067656), 175
  37. Garofalo, 224-225
  38. A directory of the most significant blues festivals can be found at
  39. A list of important blues venues in the U.S. can be found at [3]
  40. Blues Music Awards informations. [4] accessdate November 25, 2005
  41. A complete directory of contemporary blues labels can be found at [5]
  42. Curiel, SFGate
  43. Garofalo, 27

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barlow, William. "Cashing In." In Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media, 31. 1993
  • Bjorn, Lars. Before Motown. University of Michigan Press, 2001. ISBN 0472067656
  • Bohlman, Philip V. "Immigrant, folk, and regional music in the twentieth century." In The Cambridge History of American Music, ed. David Nicholls. Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0521454298
  • Bolden, Tony. Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and Culture. University of Illinois Press, 2004. ISBN 0252028740
  • Clarke, Donald. The Rise and Fall of Popular Music. St. Martin's Press, 1995. ISBN 0312115733
  • Curiel, Jonathan. Muslim Roots of the Blues The music of famous American blues singers reaches back through the South to the culture of West AfricaSFGate. Retrieved September 17, 2019.
  • Ewen, David. Panorama of American Popular Music. Prentice Hall, 1957. ISBN 0136483607
  • Ferris, Jean. America's Musical Landscape. Brown & Benchmark, 1993. ISBN 0697125165
  • Garofalo, Reebee. Rockin' Out: Popular Music in the USA. Allyn & Bacon, 1997. ISBN 0205137032
  • Hamburger, David. Acoustic Guitar Slide Basics. String Letter Publishing, 2001. ISBN 1423445783
  • Kubik, Gerhard. Africa and the Blues. (American Made Music) University Press of Mississippi, 2008 (original 1999). ISBN 1578061466
  • Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford University Press, 1977. ISBN 0195023749
  • Morales, Ed. The Latin Beat. New York: Da Capo Press, 2003. ISBN 0306810182
  • Roberts, John Storm. Black Music of Two Worlds: African, Caribbean, Latin, and African-American Traditions, 2 edition. Schirmer, 1998 (original 1973). ISBN 002864929X
  • Savidge, Wilbur M. and Randy L. Vradenburg. Everything About Playing the Blues. Music Sales Distributed, 2002. ISBN 1884848095
  • Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. Oxford University Press, 1968. ISBN 0195040430
  • Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997. ISBN 0393038432

Further reading

  • Oakley, Giles. The Devil's Music: a History of the Blues. BBC, 1976. ISBN 0563160128
  • Oliver, Paul. The Story Of The Blues. Northeastern University Press, 1998. ISBN 1555533558
  • Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York: Viking, 1981. ISBN 0670495115
  • Rowe, Mike. Chicago Breakdown. Eddison Press, 1973. ISBN 0856490156
  • Titon, Jeff Todd. Early Downhome Blues: a Musical and Cultural Analysis, 2nd ed.

University of North Carolina Press, 1994. ISBN 0807844829

External links

All links retrieved November 16, 2023.


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