Blues History

Blues history

Book One photo credit: John Keen. Courtesy Brian O’Connor. All rights reserved. Book Two photo credit: Carrie Powell. All rights reserved. Book Three photo credit Diana Davies. Courtesy of the Smithsonian. All rights reserved.

Early Roots of Blues History

Volumes of blues history have been written about the plaintive, expressive sound rising from a musical style that was born on the plantations of the Deep South. It was inspired by the polyrhythms and instruments of Africa and became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The ancestry of the “pure blues’ takes us back to the plantations. Enslaved people, emancipated men and women, and their descendants nurtured the blues into a musical legacy. They deserve full credit for spreading the rich, deep African American music tradition that has influenced the world for well over two centuries.

As a broad genre recognized by the record labels of the early 1900s, the traditional acoustic blues drew on a host of influences, including plantation spirituals, hymns, folk rhymes, work songs, interactive call-and-response melodies, field hollers, and ballads that have been traced back to African American folk culture.

Blues History Interpreted Through Music

Blues music was born in the Mississippi Delta while jazz was born in Louisiana, and most blues musicians also played jazz and faster tunes demanded by white audiences. Louisiana blues artists specialized in barrelhouse piano roll music (the 44s or Forty-Fours) and spread the technique to the Mississippi Delta. Blues music was also captured in traditional folk songs, minstrel songs, and vaudeville music played along the Blues Highway and the Chitlin Circuit — and made a mark on blues history.

This culturally and historically significant music was reflected in the stylistic finger picking of blues artist Eugene Powell. His story, The Original Rolling Stone: The Travelin’ Riverside Blues of Eugene Powell, exemplifies the travels of an itinerant musician who performed with Hacksaw Harney, Ernest 44 Johnson, Little Brother Montgomery, Richard Nighthawk, Robert Johnson, Mott Willis, Lonnie Chatmon, Sam Chatmon, Bo Carter Chatmon and just about every blues legend who emerged from the Delta. His biography is a walk through nearly 90 years of blues ambassadorship.

Musical Styles

Although the term “original blues” or “pure blues” is typically associated with soulful lyrics and wistful singing styles, it also includes party tunes, lively dance tunes, topical themes, clever lyrics and instrumental showcases. Much of its purpose was to entertain and provide an escape from the brutality of life. Many African Americans were constrained by “black codes,” Jim Crow laws, voter intimidation tactics and prejudice, blues songs and musical performances provided an to “cut loose” on Saturday nights. Songs might include comical references, double entendres, innuendo and hokum lyrics. Toe-tapping, hand-clapping and dance-inducing rhythms offered a respite from the fields, lumber mills and factories.

Stylistically, blues is often recognized by its twelve-bar progressions and the presence of richly expressive “ blue notes” played at a slightly lower pitch than that of the major scale. Additional progressions and techniques including boogie-woogie, riffs, and chants have evolved and continue to evolve as modern musicians revisit their musical roots. Musicians like Eugene Powell invented accompaniments in which one player would “second” the lead guitarist to generate rich complimentary tones. In fact, the blues musicians of the Delta experimented with sound and styles that shaped the blues into sub-genres.

Types of Blues Music

Through blues education and research, we recognize authentic African influences in all music genres today. Instruments such as drums, banjos, harps, musical bows, fiddles, lyres, lutes, guitars, tambourines, and even the piano (originating with the dulcimer) have deeply impacted modern music. The famed blues slide guitar technique and improvisational syncopator performances are attributed to African origins, as well.

Muddy Waters (April 4, 1913 – April 30, 1983) once said, “There’s no way in the world I can feel the same blues the way I used to. When I play in Chicago, I’m playing up-to-date, not the blues I was born with. People should hear the pure blues—the blues we used to have when we had no money.” He was referring to the original blues—the acoustic, folk-inspired styles of “country blues” which evolved into the pop-influenced sounds of “city blues.” Unlike jazz, which spread northward early on, the blues reached the midwest and northern locales in the late 1930s and 1940s. It covers a broad range of regional and instrumental styles, including:

Deep south blues (from delta region of Mississippi and Arkansas)

East Coast blues (attached to the Carolinas)

Texas blues

Louisiana piano blues (the 44s or Forty-Fours)

Chicago blues (often electrified)

Iconic Figures of Blues History

While we know quite a bit about blues figures such as Muddy Waters, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, the lives of many blues artists of the late 1800s and early 1900s are veiled in mystery. They shaped and defined the blues during this distinct period and created an array of music despite financial instability, lack of education, and an absence of civil rights.

These musicians and vocalists lived during the turn of the century, WWI, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and WWII, and navigated poverty, war and discrimination. Some bluesmen were blind due to lack of medical access. Many were functionally illiterate. Some were recorded without compensation or acknowledgment. Most worked on the plantations and in factories by day, and sang by night. Rising above it all was their music—the rich, heartfelt tunes and lyrics that spoke to the hearts of their people and impacted the musical landscape worldwide.

Help Us Preserve the Heritage of the Blues

If you have a musical ancestor or know of a blues icon who contributed to the genre, please feel free to contact us. We consider the photos, records, music, instruments, documents and narratives of original blues artists for possible inclusion in future projects. Contributions by families, fans, historians and researchers can often help preserve the fast-fading history of the blues.

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