As a musical genre and art form, blues music has been through many changes throughout its history. It is also an important music genre in American culture, as it was first developed by African American people during the 1800’s. As such, it is important to know where the music was first developed, where the influences came from, and how that history has shaped it into what it is today.
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The beginnings of blues music were originally poorly documented, thanks to racial discrimination in the US, and the low rates of literacy throughout the African American population. However, it is thought that the first blues music was being developed as far back as 1890. The very first documented blues song is considered to be Dallas Blues by Hard Wand, followed by The Memphis Blues by W.C. Handy in 1912.
W.C. Handy became a well-known founder of the genre, with the W.C. Handy Awards being named after him. This gives awards to some of the most notable names in the genre, such as Janiva Magness, who was nominated in 2004.
The very first recordings of blues music were created by Howard W. Odum for research purposes at the beginning of the 20th century, but have now been lost. These songs were created in a style that has been called ‘proto blues’, and that style was used into the 1920’s and 30’s. At this point, you could see the many different structures that the songs could take, such as the twelve, sixteen or eighteen bar song.
The roots of how blues music was performed were in the traditions of African American people and the culture of slaves who had newly won their right to freedom. There is not one single style of blues, as the style very much came from the individual performer. However, you could see the influences from slave ring shouts and field hollers, among other influences that came from West Africa.
This music was soon embraced by record companies, looking for a way to capitalize on the blues style. It would often be sold and categorized as ‘race music’, as opposed to ‘hillbilly music’ which was designed with white people in mind.
Another influence of blues music was the religious music of the Afro-American culture. This music came from the slaves who were Christianized, and began to sing Christian hymns. At first, it was often considered to be the secular counterpart of Christian music. In some areas though, blues music was looked upon as ‘devil’s music’, leading to strict delineations between the two types of music.
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During the rise of blues music in the early 20th century, printed sheet music was becoming more and more accessible. W.C. Handy was a large part of bringing blues music to the industry, as he transcribed blues in a more ‘orchestral’ style for the sheet music they produced.
During the 1920’s, blues music what was arguably what helped to create the first African American female stars, and their performances helped further the appeal of blues music to the masses. This led to the opening of more blues music establishments, such as the Cotton Club and many different juke joints in Memphis.
As well as this, the recording industry was growing and giving more blues singers and musicians a platform. Several record companies were starting to record blues music, and these beginnings helped to give rise to more specialised labels, such as the Blues Leaf Records company headed by Joe Morabia.
In this pre-war era, there was a clear delineation between blues styles, as it began to spread. The Delta style was a more rootsy form, that had sparse style and was accompanied by instruments such as slide guitar.
Urban blues, on the other hand, were a more elaborate style that evolved thanks to the fact blues was being brought to audiences around the country. For example, famed early blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith each sang around center tones, in order to be able to project their voices towards the back of the room.
The unique style these front runners of blues sang in influenced many other music genres to this day, such as gospel, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.
With more black people moving to urban areas in the decades before World War II, and the Great Second Migration, there was a bigger market for blues music than ever before. As such, the term ‘race record’ was changed to ‘rhythm and blues’, and there was a movement towards more electric blues music.
This was especially true after World War II, with artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon all finding success using that style.
In the 1950’s, we started seeing blues finding mainstream success. Artists like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley started using blues accents in their work, and the musical style made its way to the UK after Muddy Waters did a tour there.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, there were white musicians that were bringing blues inspired music to new audiences. Bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles had been inspired by blues artists, and that made its way into some of the most popular songs of the time.
In the midst of the civil rights movement, there was a renewed interest in American roots music, and traditional blues was again gaining a following.
In the current era of blues music, there are so many different styles that grew out of that initial African American style. For example, you will see artists like Jon Paris performing in a rock inspired style, while Gene Ludwig is one of the most popular jazz organ musicians out there. With the rise of streaming, more people have been able to discover blues music than ever before.
Blues music has a long and storied history, and here you can see just how all the different branches of the art form came about over the years.
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