The History of Blues in America

Although the lyrics of blues have gotten a reputation for being sad and come people would even describe them as depressing, blues music has a strong emphasis on going beyond your struggles. Relaxing and having fun, even when times are tough, is the name of the game for blues music which conveys deep and genuine emotion. This style of music has a rich history in the United States and has been an influential partner for a variety of other styles derived in the US as well.

Where Blues Began

Blues history runs very closely along with African American history, hailing from 19th century plantations in the southern parts of the United States. Singing and song composition began with slaves, their descendents, or those who had one time been slaves and were then freed. Beginning with Negro Spirituals which were often sung during slave work, the blues was developed from the chants, hollers, drums, and hymns which were prevalent in that day and age.

A northern relative of Cajun-style New Orleans jazz music, the blues has strongly been influenced by jazz culture and vice versa, with many musicians crossing over genres. It was not until the late 1930s that the blues began moving north up the Mississippi river to Midwestern urban areas eventually to Chicago. Regional styles brought differences to some of the music, including the electrified versions of Chicago which began with Muddy Waters following World War II.

Although the style began in the 1800s, sheet music of blues did not make an appearance until the early 1900s, following a great deal of ragtime style music. Recordings were made of pre-blues music were made in the 1920s and 1930s from around the southern states such as Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, and Louisiana. Urban areas which began to develop a strong blues influence included St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Chicago. Many of the earlier blues performing artists used only a guitar as their accompaniment and then eventually the musicians began to team up with cohorts from gospel choirs, jazz bands, drummers, and even country style jug bands.

Blues Instruments

Commonly used instruments began with what could be found cheaply and easily since the time was the Depression era. This included washboards, jugs, kazoos, harmonicas, whistles, make-shift drums, and spoons. Traditional instruments used included guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, and other stringed instruments such as basses. Twelve bar blues are the most common type of chord progression used, with cyclic or repeating chords which may include a call/response. The sounds often includes notes that are flattened or bent purposefully as part of the minor key sound. There may be a shuffle style which creates a repetition known as a groove.


Blues Influences

As blues music began to develop, many diverse styles were created. R & B (Rhythm & Blues), Rock ‘n Roll, Boogie-Woogie, West Coast (Swing) Blues, and Jump were all spinoffs of the traditional county blues which comes from the southern and rural areas of Mississippi. Some of the stronger influences came from Count Basie, Eric Clapton, Guitar Slim, Blind Lemon Jefferson, John Lee Hooker, Louis Jordan, and Pete Johnson are just a small sampling of the folks who have been recipients as well as developers of the blues music genre.

The development of blues music, and the impact that it has made on the rest of the music world has been prominent. Often performers of jazz, rock, or folk music such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Bob Dylan, have incorporated some blues songs in their recordings, or use blues-hybrid music in their popular songs. Even George Gershwin’s orchestral movements have included blues type tones and sounds. R & B has been developed as a blend of gospel with blues and has had a strong influence on the spiritual aspects of the African American community.

As recently as the 1980s and 1990s came The Blues Brothers movies which brought to the forefront talented artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, B. B. King, Bo Diddley, and other  Whether standing on its own in the classical blues sense, or blended with other styles such as jazz or rock, blues music is an American staple and will likely continue to develop and influence for many years to come.