Blues Musicology

Blues originated during the late nineteenth century, promulgated by African-American performers as a secular musical genre. The genre incorporates a fusion of what are both dually individual genres and sub-styles: country or down-home blues, boogie-woogie, classic blues, Chicago blues (also referred to as urban blues), and modern blues. As with most traditional musical styles, the blues have also been integral in the development of other genres such as jazz, gospel music, rock and roll, soul, and popular music.

The term “blues” dates back to sixteenth-century England when it was used to depict the misfortunes and sorrows of the time before, during, and after the English Civil War. But its reference to music has a direct connection to the African American traumas of slavery and post-slavery. The plight-filled emotion of slaves was transmuted into music. Consequently, that transmutation became the quintessential cries, hums, moans, pleadings, rasps, shouts, howling lyrics, and wordless sounds of the blues. In concert with the many vocal stylings, performers instrumentally echo the same despairing emotions.

In spite of these qualities, blues arises from an expression of traumatic experience, and its purpose is simply to provide consolation, solace, and of course, a defined measure of leisure and entertainment.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

One tonal element of blues has a specific name: the blue note (what theoretically is known as a minor). The blue note originated in African music and is played or sung at a slightly lower pitch than a normal scale (more frequently termed as a flat or accidental) and slides up and down along a tiny continuum of pitches. In contrast to the African interpretation, European theory of pitch dictates a given note is fixed to a precise point (save the use of a common undulation known as vibrato).

Blues lyrics range from elaborately prepared narratives to discontinuous, improvised couplets drawn from a common pool of formulaic lines. Lost or forbidden love is the typical subject, and the manner of delivery is often direct, appealing to common sense and streetwise intelligence. Despite its ostensible simplicity, the finest blues reveals an extraordinary sensitivity to the poetic rhythms of (American) colloquial speech and conveys evocatively beautiful lyrical and elegiac imagery.

The greatest percentage of blues song forms is a couplet in which the first line (line A) is repeated, and the third line (line B) rhymes with line A and typically resolves or posts an irony to line A – this yields an A-A-B pattern. One particular alternative structure ends each stanza with a refrain.

Blues song progression or arrangement is innately flexible, featuring a cyclic 12-bar form consisting of three 4-bar phrases (which correspond to the A-A-B rhymed couplet). Though this form may be extended or condensed, embellished, or left plain, it nevertheless retains its unique character. Furthermore, the novelty of the blues’ asymmetrical structure stands out by comparison with the balanced phrased 8-bar, 16-bar, and 32-bar forms of much contemporary pop music. Infrequent forms, such as 8-bar and 16-bar blues progressions, do occur as do metrically asymmetrical sequences. But these anomalies, when occurring, are generally found in the down-home blues style, where conventional rhythmic limitations are subordinate to lyrical invention.

BB King

Chronological facts of early blues styles are dependent on oral accounts because recording technology did not exist to capture the genre. The first hard (yet confusing) evidence came afterward when the word “blues” appears in early twentieth-century African American songs and customary blues progressions appeared in a 1904 ragtime song. However, blues sub-genres have a more clear chronology than their parent genre.

In the 1890s along the Mississippi Delta and east Texas, a blues sub-style known as down-home blues originated. This sub-genre usually involves a single artist, who simultaneously plays an acoustic steel-stringed guitar and sings. Enunciation and melodic range greatly vary, and individual eccentricity is highly valued. Many pieces, rather than presenting a preset wording, derive as a substitute from a consortium of traditional verses, and these verses meander from melody to melody. In delivering lyrics for maximum effect, a vocalist may allow the meter to waft significantly from the customary 12-bar framework while maintaining the A-A-B form.

The country-blues sub-style frequently incorporates and expresses distinctive traits. Various performers specialize in string bending (producing a minor pitch known as the blue note) while others utilize “bottleneck” effects (by sliding or vibrating a glass or metal tube over the strings without fretting the strings, producing a pseudo-harmonic tone) that parallel or counter the melodies the choral. Otherwise, repetitive and sometimes elaborately contrapuntal (active and strongly differentiated) fingerpicking patterns define a blues progression.

In the early twentieth century, following the first recordings of down-home blues, a prevalent blues guitarist, and a guitarist/pianist duo began to carry down-home blues in new directions. They embraced Northern urban topics rather than the more traditional Southern rural issues and conventionalized musical arrangements to facilitate group performance, much as jazz and classic blues had previously done. In the ensuing years, some present-day artists attempted a down-home blues revival. And in some circumstances, the influence of down-home blues musicians then-known as songsters reached outside the blues into other genres of American music, including spirituals, ragtime songs, and folk ballads.

Barrelhouse and Boogie-Woogie Blues are solo sub-styles focused on voice and piano. Boogie-Woogie features inexorably repetitive left-hand bass patterns with free simultaneous right-hand rhythmic varieties. It originated in the South, and most likely dates back as far as the late nineteenth century, but relatively little is known about the actual geography or the individuals of its history. Just after its inception, Boogie-woogie slipped into obscurity for about a decade, until it emerged again, but mostly as a sub-style of swing music.

Many blues pianists of the time did not limit themselves to the dichotomous patterns of boogie-woogie. The result of playing outside the boogie-woogie sub-style by incorporating more jazzy piano blues yielded barrelhouse piano. The label “barrelhouse” was derived from Southern venues where beer and whiskey were dispensed from barrels and where some early blues pianists performed. The sub-styles name also serves as a catchall for all boogie-woogie styles.

One of the few popular early twentieth-century music styles specifically featuring women, Classic Blues, coalesce vaudeville, and blues traditions. However, classic blues did not receive prevalence until after a 1920 recording. In this sub-style, the soloist is strictly a vocalist and is accompanied by a pianist or a small jazz band. Songs are sometimes in the standard A-A- B, 12-bar form, but the repertory also features pieces that mix the blues poetic and musical structure with popular vaudevillian song form characteristics.

Eric Clapton

In an effort to keep classic blues within the musical mainstream, record executives originally promoted African- American women, all of whom sang with wholesomely full resonance and clearly enunciated lyrics. But in 1923, about three years after the first classic blues recording, it became apparent that many listeners did not embrace the new vocal timbre style, but instead preferred the traditional rougher vocal delivery.

Before and during World War II (1939-1945) a massive African-American migration from the South to the North resulted in a dramatic population shift. Then-popular African- American leisures likewise migrated, and Chicago or urban blues was born from a renovation of down-home country blues. Unlike its down-home parent, Chicago blues featured an electronically amplified singer and instrumental group, which included a harmonica, piano, and especially electric guitar melodies that interacted with the voice. Meticulously repetitive bass lines and straightforward drum patterns outline the 12-bar progression. Urban blues groups may also include trumpets and saxophones, which give the band a somewhat jazzier sound.

Because of the new and powerful emphasis on the melodies, rhythms, and stylings of the electric guitar in urban blues, Chicago blues artists have been directly linked and at least partially, if not fully, credited with the development of a genre that would later become known as rock-n-roll.

Johnny Winter

By 1960, the urban Chicago blues sound lost its popularity with its original black listeners on a national level, and the Motown sound, along with rhythm and blues and girl groups, found its way into the popular mainstream. As a result of this shift in pole position, only a few artists, such as B. B. King, who had created a uniquely distinctive, idiosyncratic technique and sound, survived the change in the reigning musical guard.

Although no longer a nationally popular genre, blues found favored regional support by black audiences in Chicago, Memphis, Baton Rouge, and northern Mississippi. Furthermore, a newfound interest by white audiences in Europe and North America greatly added to the fan base of the blues in the early 1960s.

Even though the blues were relegated to second chair, the genre has enjoyed a three-phase revival. The first part consisted of recorded 1920s and 1930s country blues musicians, who signed new recording contracts with labels and performed on the folk circuit in coffeehouses, on college campuses, and at major festivals.

The second part of the blues revival was an upsurge of British and American interest in the electric resonance of postwar Chicago-style blues. This contemporary attraction translated into a new audience for both recordings and performances by the most popular artists of the style. Moreover, this portion of the revival transcended race, and young white rock stars such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Johnny Winter formed bands that covered earlier blues recordings by influential African-American idols and performed their own original rock-n-roll blues-based compositions.

The third segment of the revival came in Chicago, where a wave of young, black artists achieved reputable and sustaining careers. These musicians could play in Chicago-area clubs for a local, primarily black audience and tour nationally, playing for the same white audience that was also supporting the old African-American bluesmen. Fascinatingly, many of the latter blues artists were more than moderately influenced by the newer white musicians’ blues-rock stylings. Consequently, there were a number of tracks that featured corroborations between young white rock musicians and black Chicago-style blues musicians.

Since the blues revival continued well into the mid-1970s, one would think it would have been sustained by the masterful black Chicago-style bluesmen, which enjoyed some of their largest and most enthusiastic audiences to date. But the revival was instead carried on by blues-based rock-n-roll bands and artists such as Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd, and Eric Clapton. In addition, even eclectic and psychedelic groups such as the Grateful Dead and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which were not blues-rock bands per se, routinely included blues covers in their live and recorded repertoire. In the early 1980s, the blues revival once more gained momentum, spurred on by the ultra-talented blues guitarist Robert Cray and the mainstream success of two white Texas blues-rock groups founded by two brothers, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, which was formed by older brother Jimmy Vaughan, and younger brother Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble.

The commercial success of Stevie Ray Vaughan and other blues-rock guitarists such as Eric Clapton have kept them and their influences, such as B.B. King, in the commercial mainstream. Commercial success, in tandem with a number of developments – such as the growing numbers of blues festivals – helped keep the blues a vibrant, living genre into the new millennium. Currently, blues radio programs became a standard part of the programming on cable and satellite stations, as well as at many college and community radio stations.