The blues are an African American musical genre created as the personal expression of the collective emotive response to the cultural and social experience of Africans living in America. The blues are not only musical compositions and styles of performing but also a conscious state of being. The music encompasses a wide range of styles from meditative solo performances to barrelhouse piano to sizzling dance music. Characteristic features of the blues include “blue notes”—altered pitches in a diatonic scale; special vocal effects—hums, grunts, growls, and falsetto; AAB form—a three-line stanza with statement, restatement, and concluding commentary; and a standardized chord progression in the instrumental accompaniment.
Based in oral tradition, the blues are directly linked to African musical precedents in structure and tonality, style of delivery, choice of accompanying instrument, and the role of the musician. Distinctive elements in the music performed by the djelis, praise singers, of Senegambia are so prevalent in the blues that the blues can be seen as a transformation of this African musical heritage to accommodate the experiences of Africans in America. The use of the pentatonic scale, call-and-response patterns, and special vocal effects are common in both the music performed by the djelis and the blues. The koni and xalam played by the djelis are the prototypes of the banjo that was used as an accompanying instrument in the early forms of the blues. The blues musician maintains the role of cultural historian and social commentator that is so vital to the djeli tradition.
Other early African American musical forms rooted in African tradition also contributed to the development of the blues as a genre. The early blues singers incorporated the vocal potentiality and musical resourcefulness of the cries, calls, and hollers of field workers and street vendors. Blues musicians continued the rhythmic elements and call-and-response patterns of the work songs. In addition, many blues compositions are indistinguishable from spirituals.
The blues are central to the creative and ingenious communicative dynamics in African American culture. The blues engage in a search for truth in the African American experience, thus blues songs communicate the performers' responses to the realities of life. The song texts cover a wide range of subject areas and convey an underlying theme of hope and optimism regarding the survival and progress of African Americans despite their social conditions. This message of the blues is proliferated through proverbial wisdom, philosophy, humor, satire, imagery, self-affirmation, political commentary, and protest. Some common topics found in blues texts include emotional concerns like love, loneliness, frustration, and grief, as well as social concerns like oppression, injustice, poverty, and homelessness.
Itinerant musicians who sang at social functions, railroad stations, street corners, and restaurants performed the earlier forms of the blues. They accompanied themselves on the banjo or fiddle, and their blues songs were improvisatory in nature. The banjo was eventually replaced by the guitar, which became the preferred accompanying musical instrument of the blues singer. The blues singer could adapt the guitar to produce sounds expressing a “blues” feeling by sliding a knife or bottleneck against the strings.
The blues as a distinct musical form was stabilized in the 1920s by the recording and publishing industries. W. C. Handy is credited as one of the first musicians to notate his blues compositions, and he established a music publishing company in 1907 in partnership with singer Harry Pace. Handy's composition St. Louis Blues, published in 1914, gained worldwide recognition and resulted in the dissemination of the blues sound to a wide-ranging audience. Beginning in the 1920s, talent scouts from recording companies searched the United States for blues performers to record, concentrating first on female singers and by the mid-1920s on male singers. The blues are most often described in four general categories—the country blues, the classic blues, piano blues, and the urban blues.
The country blues, or down-home blues, are associated primarily with regional styles, including the delta blues from the Mississippi Delta, the Carolina Piedmont blues from the Southeast, and the Texas blues. The performers were primarily solo male singers who were accompanied by guitar, banjo, or harmonica. Performers of country blues—like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie Ledbetter, Charlie Patton, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and Son House— became known for their personal style and creativity.
The blues performed by female singers accompanied by piano or small instrumental ensembles, and with a more standardized musical formula, are categorized as city blues or classic blues. Classic blues singers were mostly from the Southern states and were well versed in the songs sung by the country blues singers. Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, and Alberta Hunter are among those referred to as classic blues singers.
Piano blues developed from the banjo and guitar accompaniments of the country blues, with the specific styles created known as barrelhouse, honky-tonk, and boogie-woogie. Leading blues pianists included Albert Ammons, Meaude Lux Lewis, Jimmy Young, Clarence “Pine Top” Smith, and Jelly Roll Morton.
The urban blues, or electric blues, are typified by the big band accompaniment of electric guitars, amplified harmonicas, saxophones, drums, and piano. Features of earlier blues are maintained in these blues, although the music is notated and arranged. This style is expressed in the music of B. B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bobby Blue Bland, and T-Bone Walker.
The blues have served as the basis for the early development of jazz and greatly influenced American popular music forms such as rhythm and blues, soul music, and rock-n-roll. The study of the blues is important because the blues are a synthesis of ideologies and sensibilities that provide critical insight into the African American psyche.
- Barlow, William. (1989). Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. This is one of the best books written on blues to date.
- Keil, Charles. (1991). Urban Blues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Keil is an original student of the blues, and this is his best book on the subject.
- Woods, Clyde. (1998). Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta. New York: Verso Books. This is a relatively new look at the relationship of the blues to plantation life in Mississippi.