What are the Blues?

The Blues; images of smoke filled backwater honkytonks, sad, tears in your beer lyrics, the blues brothers. Are the blues jazz? Is jazz the blues?

So what makes the blues the blues? The blues are a purely African-American musical form of the 20th century. From obscure and largely undocumented rural American origins, the blues became the most extensively recorded of all folk music types. The blues have evolved over time, subject to social changes that have affected its character. Since the early 1960s, the blues have been the most important single influence on the development of western popular music.

The most important extra-musical definition of the blues is a state of mind. Since the 16th century the blues has symbolized a state of depression or melancholy. But, the blues did not enter popular useage until after the Civil War. As a description of music that expressed such a state of mind among blacks, the term did not enter current useage till after 1900. It has been suggested that the form evolved around the Civil War but according the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, there is no supporting evidence. The state of mind is so closely associated with the blues as music that some performers maintain that they cannot effectively play or sing the blues unless one is feeling blue.

Musically, the blues are structured as a 12 bar composition that was later to become a three line stanza in which the second line repeated the first and enabling the singer to improvise a third rhyming line. The structure was supported by a fixed harmonic progression of four bars on the tonic with the fourth usually introducing a flattened seventh, also known as a "blue note"* (see below). That is followed by two bars in the subdominant, two more on the tonic, two on the dominant 7th and two concluding bars on the tonic. The blues evolved mainly through improvisation by talented musicians who understood music but unfortunately most of whom could not read or write music. As a result, much of the development is undocumented. Around 1912, blues compositions began to emerge in published compositions, the first of which included The Dallas Blues by Hart Wand and Lloyd Garret and The Memphis Blues by W.C. Handy. W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues, published in 1914 is one of the most famous early blues compositions and Handy and the Memphis style further defined and arguably, became the predominant model of the written blues.

Handy was born in Florence, Alabama. He began his musical career as a cornet soloist and bandmaster with minstrel shows; one of his engagements was with the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. From 1900 to 1902 he was a music teacher at the Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama. Handy turned to composition in 1907; his first published song was "Memphis Blues" (1912). Among his other popular songs are "Saint Louis Blues" (1914), "Beale Street Blues" (1917), and "Loveless Love" (1921). Handy also founded a music publishing house and edited and wrote several books, including the autobiographical Father of the Blues (1941). Handy's songs brought the blues to international attention. Some of the greatest blues singers were from Memphis and the Mississippi delta region, among them was the great Bessie Smith, called "The Empress of the Blues".

Around 1920 the first recordings of blues music were made and along with the many popular sheet music works, recordings helped make the blues one of the most popular styles in history. Click on the title to listen to a 30 second cut from an authentic original recording of St. Louis Blues. Over the years, the blues evolved and many different styles emerged. Many rock artists owe their music to the blues and African-American rhythms and style. It was in the late 1950's when two young men from the Memphis/Mississippi area, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis introduced blues styles into popular music. Though they were not the first to do so, they were the first to gain national fame and popularity and through them and others as well, American popular music was changed forever.

* BLUE NOTE: A blue note is created through a microtonal lowering of the 3rd, 7th and sometimes the 5th scale degrees. The precise pitch or intonation is not fixed and varies according to the performer's instinct or expression. As such, the blue note is difficult to notate in traditional composition and must be interpreted by the performer. Certain instruments and the human voice are capable of such nuances while others, such as the piano are limited in pitch variation.


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