The History of the Blues
When most people think of the blues, the first thing that comes to their mind is some grief, misfortune or heartbreak. Indeed, blues lyrics often describe personal adversity, yet the music itself is not only about self-pity but is also about overcoming hardships, expressing various emotions or just having fun. The best blues reveals a cascade of emotion, from joy to sadness, and no other form of music can communicate more genuine feeling.
The blues appeared in America in the 19th century. It originated on Southern plantations where slaves used to sing it as they worked the cotton fields. Blues is thought to have evolved from African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music.
The popularity of blues spread up the Mississippi Delta, and New Orleans, known the birthplace of jazz, in particular. In fact, blues and jazz have always had a great impact on each other, and they still do today.
In the 1930s and '40s the Delta blues reached urban areas and the music transformed into electrified Chicago blues, other regional blues styles, and different jazz-blues hybrids to spawn rhythm 'n blues and rock 'n roll a decade later.
There is no evidence who exactly invented the blues, but the minstrel show bandleader W.C. Handy claimed that in 1903 he heard the blues performed by an itinerant street guitarist at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi. At that time many blues musicians entwined the blues motifs into traditional folk songs, vaudeville music, and minstrel tunes.
Among the famous blues musicians from the 1920s are Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson who mostly performed solo playing the guitar. Sometimes they teamed up with other bluesmen to perform in the plantation camps or rambling shacks of the South. Blues bands probably evolved from early jazz bands, gospel choirs and early jug bands popular in the South until the 1930s. Jug bands used not only guitars, mandolins, banjos, kazoos, stringed basses, harmonicas and fiddles, but also such items turned into crude instruments as jugs, washboards and other appliances.
After the country blues spread to the cities, it experienced regional transformations, and there appeared the St. Louis blues, the Memphis blues, Kansas City blues which is jazz oriented, the Louisiana blues featuring a swampy guitar or harmonica sound with lots of echo, etc. John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters who performed in Chicago changed the way the blues was played by electrifying the music and adding drums and piano in the late 1940s.
Today there are various forms of the blues. They are:
Traditional county blues referred to the rural blues of the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont and other rural areas;
Jump blues, a precursor to R&B, pioneered by Louis Jordan;
Boogie-woogie played by Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson is a piano-based blues that originated from barrelhouse and ragtime;
Chicago blues is a sort of a refined piano-based form that derives much from jazz;
West Coast blues influenced by the swing beat was played by Texas musicians who moved to California.
There is also the British blues, a rock-blues form popularized by John Mayall, Peter Green and Eric Clapton.