Blues is the name given to both a musical form and a music genre that originated in African-American communities of primarily the “Deep South” of the United States at the end of the 19th century from spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll is characterized by specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues chord progression is the most common. The blue notes that, for expressive purposes are sung or played flattened or gradually bent (minor 3rd to major 3rd) in relation to the pitch of the major scale, are also an important part of the sound.
The blues genre is based on the blues form but possesses other characteristics such as specific lyrics, bass lines and instruments. Blues can be subdivided into several subgenres ranging from country to urban blues that were more or less popular during different periods of the 20th century. Best known are the Delta, Piedmont, Jump and Chicago blues styles. World War II marked the transition from acoustic to electric blues and the progressive opening of blues music to a wider audience, especially white listeners. In the 1960s and 1970s, a hybrid form called blues-rock evolved.
The term “the blues” refers to the “blue devils”, meaning melancholy and sadness; an early use of the term in this sense is found in George Colman’s one-act farce Blue Devils (1798). Though the use of the phrase in African-American music may be older, it has been attested to since 1912, when Hart Wand’s “Dallas Blues” became the first copyrighted blues composition.In lyrics the phrase is often used to describe a depressed mood.
The blues form is a cyclic musical form in which repeating progression of chords mirrors the call and response scheme commonly found in African and African-American music. During the first decades of the 20th century blues music was not clearly defined in terms of a particular chord progression. With the popularity of early performers, such as Bessie Smith, use of the twelve-bar blues spread across the music industry during the 1920s and 30s. Other chord progressions, such as 8-bar forms, are still considered blues; examples include “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” and in Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”. Idiosyncratic numbers of bars are also encountered occasionally, as with the 9-bar progression in “Sitting on Top of the World” by Walter Vinson.
Chords played over a 12-bar scheme:
I…I(or IV)…I…I7…IV…IV…I…I7…V…V(or IV)…I…I(or V)…
Chords for a blues in C:
C…C(or F)…C…C7…F…F…C…C7…G…G(or F)…C…C(or G)…
The basic 12-bar lyric framework of a blues composition is reflected by a standard harmonic progression of 12 bars in a 4/4 time signature. The blues chords associated to a twelve-bar blues are typically a set of three different chords played over a 12-bar scheme. They are labeled by Roman numbers referring to the degrees of the progression. For instance, for a blues in the key of C, C is the tonic chord (I) and F is the subdominant (IV). The last chord is the dominant (V) turnaround, marking 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 11th 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.
Much of the time, some or all of these chords are played in the harmonic seventh (7th) form. The use of the harmonic seventh interval is characteristic of blues and is popularly called the “blues seven”. Blues seven chords add to the harmonic chord a note with a frequency in a 7:4 ratio to the fundamental note. At a 7:4 ratio, it is not close to any interval on the conventional Western diatonic scale. For convenience or by necessity it is often approximated by a minor seventh interval or a dominant seventh chord.
In melody, blues is distinguished by the use of the flattened third, fifth and seventh of the associated major scale.These specialized notes are called the blue or bent notes. These scale tones may replace the natural scale tones, or they may be added to the scale, as in the case of the minor blues scale, in which the flattened third replaces the natural third, the flattened seventh replaces the natural seventh and the flattened fifth is added between the natural fourth and natural fifth. While the 12-bar harmonic progression had been intermittently used for centuries, the revolutionary aspect of blues was the frequent use of the flattened third, flattened seventh, and even flattened 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. The blue notes allow for key moments of expression during the cadences, melodies, and embellishments of the blues.
Blues shuffles or walking bass reinforce the trance-like rhythm and call-and-response, and they form a repetitive effect called a groove. Characteristic of the blues since its Afro-American origins, the shuffles played a central role in swing music. The simplest shuffles, which were the clearest signature of the R&B wave that started in the mid 1940s, 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” was created. Shuffle rhythm is often vocalized as “dow, da dow, da dow, da” or “dump, da dump, da dump, da”:it consists of uneven, or “swung,” eighth notes. On a guitar this may be played as a simple steady bass or it may add to that stepwise quarter note motion from the fifth to the sixth of the chord and back.
City or urban blues styles were more codified and elaborate as a performer was no longer within their local, immediate community and had to adapt to a larger, more varied audience’s aesthetic. Classic female urban and 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 second record, “Crazy Blues”, sold 75,000 copies in its first month. Ma Rainey, the “Mother of Blues”, and Bessie Smith each “[sang] around center 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.” Urban male performers included popular black musicians of the era, such Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Leroy Carr. An important label of this era was the chicagoean Bluebird label. Before WWII, Tampa Red was sometimes referred to as “the Guitar Wizard”. Carr accompanied himself on the piano with Scrapper Blackwell on guitar, a format that continued well into the 50s with people such as Charles Brown, and even Nat “King” Cole.
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 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.” The smooth Louisiana style of Professor Longhair and, more recently, Dr. John blends classic rhythm and blues with blues styles.
Another development in this period was big band blues. The “territory bands” operating out of Kansas City, the Bennie Moten orchestra, Jay McShann, and the Count Basie Orchestra were also concentrating on the blues, with 12-bar blues instrumentals such as Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and boisterous “blues shouting” by Jimmy Rushing on songs such as “Going to Chicago” and “Sent for You Yesterday”. A well-known big band blues tune is Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”. In the 1940s, the jump blues style developed. Jump blues grew up from the boogie woogie wave and was strongly influenced by big band music. It uses 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. Dallas-born T-Bone Walker, who is often associated with the California blues style, performed a successful transition from the early urban blues à la Lonnie Johnson and Leroy Carr to the jump blues style and dominated the blues-jazz scene at Los Angeles during the 1940s.
The transition from country to urban blues, that began in the 1920s, had always been driven by the successive waves of economic crisis and booms and the associated move of the rural Blacks to urban areas, the Great Migration. The long boom in the aftermath of World War II induced a massive migration of the African American population, the Second Great Migration, which was accompanied by a significant increase of the real income of the urban Blacks. The new migrants constituted a new market for the music industry. The name race record disappeared and was succeeded by Rhythm and Blues. This rapidly evolving market was mirrored by the Billboard Rhythm and Blues Chart. This marketing strategy reinforced trends within urban blues music such as the progressive electrification of the instruments, their amplification and the generalization of the blues beat, the blues shuffle, that became ubiquitous in R&B. This commercial stream had important consequences for blues music which, together with Jazz and Gospel music, became a component of the R&B wave.
After World War II and in the 1950s, new styles of electric blues music became popular in cities such as Chicago, Memphis, Detroit and St. Louis. Electric blues used electric guitars, double bass (slowly replaced by bass guitar), drums, and harmonica played through a microphone and a PA system or a guitar amplifier. Chicago became a center for electric blues from 1948 on, when Muddy Waters recorded his first success: “I Can’t Be Satisfied”. Chicago blues is influenced to a large extent by the 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’s bands, or J. B. Lenoir’s 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 were also influential. Muddy Waters and Elmore James were known for their innovative use of slide electric guitar. 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 standard blues songs of the period, such as “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “I Just Want to Make Love to You” (both penned for Muddy Waters) and, “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Back Door Man” for Howlin’ Wolf. Most artists of the Chicago blues style recorded for the Chicago-based Chess Records and Checker Records labels. Smaller blues labels of this era included Vee-Jay Records and J.O.B. Records. During the early 1950s, the dominating Chicago labels were challenged by Sam Phillips’ Sun Records company in Memphis, which recorded B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf before he moved to Chicago in 1960. After Phillips discovered Elvis Presley in 1954, the Sun label turned to the rapidly expanding white audience and started recording mostly rock ‘n’ roll.
In the 1950s, blues had a huge influence on mainstream American popular music. While popular musicians like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, both recording for Chess, were influenced by the Chicago blues, their enthusiastic playing styles departed from the melancholy aspects of blues. 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.
Overseas, in England, electric blues took root there during a much acclaimed Muddy Waters tour. Waters, unsuspecting of his audience’s tendency towards skiffle, an acoustic, softer brand of blues, turned up his amp and started to play his Chicago brand of electric blues. Although the audience was largely jolted by the performance, the performance influenced local musicians such as Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies to emulate this louder style, inspiring the British invasion of the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds.
In the late 1950s, a new blues style emerged on Chicago’s West Side pioneered by Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush on Cobra Records. The ‘West Side Sound’ had strong rhythmic support from a rhythm guitar, bass guitar and drums and as pefected by Guy, Freddie King, Magic Slim and Luther Allison was dominated by amplified electric lead guitar.
Other blues artists, such as John Lee Hooker had influences not directly related to the Chicago style. 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 #1 on the R&B charts in 1949.
By the late 1950s, the swamp blues genre developed near Baton Rouge, with performers such as Lightnin’ Slim, Slim Harpo, Sam Myers and Jerry McCain around the producer J. D. “Jay” Miller and the Excello label. Strongly influenced by Jimmy Reed, 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 “I’m a King Bee”. Alan Lomax’s recordings of Mississippi Fred McDowell would eventually bring him wider attention on both the blues and folk circuit, with McDowell’s droning style influencing North Mississippi hill country blues musicians.
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 US and abroad. However, the blues wave that brought artists such as Muddy Waters to the foreground had stopped. Bluesmen such as Big Bill Broonzy and Willie Dixon started looking for new markets in Europe. Dick Waterman and the blues festivals he organized in Europe played a major role in propagating blues music abroad. In the UK, bands emulated US blues legends, and UK blues-rock-based bands had an influential role throughout the 1960s.
Blues performers such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters continued to perform to enthusiastic audiences, inspiring new artists steeped in traditional blues, such as New York–born Taj Mahal. 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. During this period, Freddie King and Albert King often played with rock and soul musicians (Eric Clapton, Booker T & the MGs) and had a major influence on those styles of music.
The music of the Civil Rights and Free Speech movements in the US prompted a resurgence of interest in American roots music and early African American music. As well as Jimmi Bass 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. 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, originally distributed in Europe only, commented on political issues such as racism or Vietnam War issues, which was unusual for this period.
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 The Animals, Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and Cream and Irish musician Rory Gallagher performed classic blues songs from the Delta or Chicago blues traditions. Many of Led Zeppelin’s earlier hits were renditions of traditional blues songs.
The British and blues musicians of the early 1960s inspired a number of American blues rock fusion performers, including Canned Heat, the early Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, The J. Geils Band, Ry Cooder, and The Allman Brothers Band. One blues rock performer, Jimi Hendrix, was a rarity in his field at the time: a black man who played psychedelic rock. Hendrix was a skilled guitarist, and a pioneer in the innovative use of distortion and feedback in his music. Through these artists and others, blues music influenced the development of rock music.
Santana, which was originally called the Carlos Santana Blues Band, also experimented with Latin-influenced blues and blues-rock music around this time. At the end of the 1950s appeared the very bluesy Tulsa Sound merging rock’n’roll, jazz and country influences. This particular music style started to be broadly popularized within the 1970s by J.J. Cale and the cover versions performed by Eric Clapton of “After Midnight” and “Cocaine”.
In the early 1970s, 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 Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and ZZ Top. These artists all began their musical journey in the 1970s, but they did not achieve major international success until the next decade.