Blues music is all around us. What do Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, and Aretha Franklin all have in common? Their music directly utilizes the blues!
While traditional forms of the blues are pretty easy to distinguish due to their speed and mellow tone, several other forms of blues emerged to keep the blues alive within the changing culture of America.
Let's get into the history of the blues.
With roots in African American spirituals and work songs, blues music has been prevalent within the African American community to elicit a spiritual or emotional connection with their people.
While there are many forms of blues music, a good standard blues music definition is a song based on a twelve bar blues chord progression that often seeks to draw attention to social injustices.
African American spirituals and work songs, sometimes called field hollers, would help enslaved workers on the railroads and cotton fields coordinate their work.
These call-and-response type chants not only gave them a sense of community but allowed the slaves to express the types of emotions they felt as they experienced injustice on a daily basis.
The African American spirituals evolved into what is known as rural or traditional blues. These traditional blues were often passed down orally from generation to generation and introduced the use of the guitar as an accompaniment. Like spirituals, these songs aimed to create an emotional response in the audience.
One of the most significant gifts that blues music brought to America was the ability for African Americans to express themselves and advocate for equality during the entirety of the 20th century.
While there was still a significant divide in the way white Americans viewed African Americans during the early 1900s, blues music, specifically classic blues, appealed to a lot of white audiences.
For the first time, mixed audiences with black and white people began to occur, and African Americans began to gain ground in the professional music world.
Blues music set the stage for classic blues, Mississippi delta blues, country blues, boogie-woogie blues, jump blues, Chicago electric blues, R&B, rock n' roll, soul, funk, and more.
Arguably, without blues music, there wouldn't be much music at all.
While the many variations of the blues each have their own specific styles and techniques, there are a couple of trademark values that most, if not all, blues songs have in common.
First on the list are bent notes. Bent notes are defined as any tone that lies outside of the traditional European scale structure.
For example, if a traditional C major scale consists of the notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and a composer played an F sharp or A flat instead of F or A natural that would be adding a bent note.
When you listen to blues music, bent notes are everywhere. They often add a sense of freedom or emotion to a song and can also be used as accents in order to stress a word or phrase.
The last common theme among blues music is the use of beat one being stressed. There usually are four beats within a measure. A measure is simply a method of separating every group of four beats.
In blues music, the first beat of every measure is stressed. If there is only a guitar being played, it will strum on beats one and three. The kick drum will play on one and three.
Some other examples of beats being stressed in music to indicate a genre can be seen in waltz music and reggae.
Waltzes also stress beat one, so you might be asking, “What makes this different from blues music?”
Waltzes have measures consisting of only three beats; therefore, when the tempo is sped up, these waltzes can be counted as measures of only one beat. You cannot do this with blues music for two reasons: blues music's tempo is often relatively slow, and they have non-negotiable total four-beat measures.
Although reggae music is a derivative of R&B and likewise an ancestor of blues music, beat one is often unstressed. While the kick drum will still take place on one and three, you'll hear the rhythm guitar strum on two and four.
The last signature characteristic of blues music is the twelve-bar phrase. A blues song is composed of around three four-bar phrases that will come out to be twelve total measures.
There will be three chords utilized within this twelve-bar phrase. Amazingly, most blues songs only use these three chords to create their song.
To go more in-depth with this explanation, a twelve-bar blues phrase can be broken up into three four-bar phrases.
These four-bar phrases can be broken down into one four-bar phrase and then three consecutive groups of two bars.
Let's name them phrase A, phrase B, and phrase C.
Phrase A will consist of the first scale degree, also known as the tonic chord. Phrase B will contain the fourth scale degree or the subdominant chord. Phrase C will have the fifth scale degree or the dominant chord.
Scale degrees can be defined as the number of notes away from the original key name that you go. Using the C major scale example again: F would be the fourth scale degree in that key because it is four notes away from C (counting C as one).
Using this information, the standard form of a twelve-bar blues phrase should be as follows (phrase letter followed by the number of measures it will take up): A(4), B(2), A(2), C(2), A(2).
Now that you're an expert on form, it's time to get into masters of the twelve-bar blues.
“Tom Rushen” is a Mississippi delta blues song that details the story of an African American man being mistreated by a white man named Tom Rushen.
This song uses a lot of the same elements as rural blues but uses the music to talk about the daily struggles of African Americans during that time period. The twelve-bar blues pattern can be heard clearly within this simple song.
With roots in ragtime era Tin Pan Alley, “St. Louis Blues” is an all-instrumental orchestral song that demonstrates what classic blues are all about. It was meant to appeal to white audiences while still incorporating traditional blues aspects within it.
Handy uses bent notes continuously throughout the piece while keeping a march feel. Beat one is still stressed despite the cut-time time signature. It is a true mix of early 20th century classical music and blues.
As one of the most recorded songs of all time, there have been several renditions of this song in the following years, all of which add various blues elements to different degrees.
A frontrunner for country blues, “That Black Snake Moan” tells of the singer's struggle with personal demons.
Jefferson mainly spoke of the handicaps he faced as a blind, African American individual. This song demonstrates the rough vocals and guitar playing trademark of Mississippi Delta blues.
During the big band craze, blues in the form of boogie-woogie blues began to show up. The “Rocket Boogie” is an excellent example of solo piano utilizing the stressed rhythms of blues while utilizing the bent notes and twelve-bar phrasing trademark of blues.
The form of this song is very improvisational while still keeping within the chord form. The use of drums, bass, and guitar adds to the song's dance feel while remaining true to blues roots.
With its moving orchestral set-up and powerful social message, “A Change is Gonna Come” is one of the most essential blues/R&B songs of all time.
The song tells of how African Americans still face a lot of danger and prejudice in society. Cooke advocates for an equal world. The solemn tone he sings in is filled to the brim with both a sorrowful and hopeful tone.
“Black Night” is an excellent example of crooner blues. The smooth vocals tell the story of a man who can't find his way in the dark night.
While the singing style in this song is undoubtedly very different from the standard gritty blues vocals, the use of improvisation and bent notes are still evident.
With Electric guitar accompanying solid and gritty vocals, “Still a Fool” is the perfect song to see that the true roots of rock n' roll lie in blues music. The song is about the singer falling in love with another man's wife.
While the tempo and chord progression is in line with a blues song, the use of the electric guitar was groundbreaking at the time and helped create Chicago electric blues and lay down the foundation for rock n' roll.
The fast tempo of “Maybellene” is what makes it a standout among blues songs. Berry signs of an unfaithful girlfriend over a quick drum beat and between guitar riffs.
While this song does tend to cross into the rock n' roll category, it is an excellent example of how blues created the rock genre. The singer still sings of personal strife over a twelve-bar blues phrase while emphasizing beats one and three.
“Georgia On my Mind” is a blend of many genres but still fits into the blues category. While singing about missing his love, Charles uses the crooner blues-singing technique over bent note style piano dialogue, a chorus, and a string ensemble.
While it pushes the envelope, the emotional lyrics and slow tempo are what keep this modern song loyal to traditional blues.
Known as the “Father of the Blues,” W.C. Handy was a former schoolteacher who toured the Southern U.S. playing and composing for classic blues orchestras.
He composed the hits “Memphis Blues” and “St.Louis Blues.” His aim was to draw white audiences to his music using orchestration while exposing them to styles incorporated in blues music.
His tactic often worked, with his music becoming extremely popular among both black and white audiences.
Blind Lemon Jefferson was born blind, but that didn't stop him from singing the blues across America. He's often credited with the creation of country blues.
With singles such as “That Black Snake Moan, “his style is characterized by clear vocals, call and response tactics, and his use of humor and storytelling within his music.
Although Cooke started as a gospel singer, he made his way into the world of rock n' roll and blues by 1956. He wanted to incorporate spirituality into the world of rock.
The song “Change is Gonna Come” is his most well-known song and demonstrates how he sought to create social change through emotion in his work.
Charles Brown had a smooth voice that he often used in crooner blues. While some of his styles are pretty different from traditional blues, he was a gifted songwriter.
He emphasized that people should stay in touch with their roots while still having a sense of pride and independence about where they came from and where they are now.
Muddy Waters was the first to incorporate electric guitar into blues music truly. He did this initially to be heard over noisy bar crowds.
Eventually, Waters had an entire band playing with him, creating the Chicago electric blues genre.
His frequent use of distortion and feedback on the electric guitar paved the way for rock n' roll style guitarists while still keeping with many of the themes shown in Mississippi Delta Blues.
The shift from African American spirituals into genuine folk or traditional blues happened in the late 19th century in the south between the Mississippi Delta and East Texas.
While rural blues in field hollers were still around for workers to chant, the blues began to become popularized thanks to W.C. Handy incorporating it in his classical blues compositions.
W.C Handy also helped familiarize audiences of all races with the emerging techniques seen in blues music, such as bent notes and strong rhythms.
Traveling blues musicians like Gertrude “Ma” Rainey helped popularize traditional blues in black audiences around America.
By the 1920s, the Mississippi Delta Blues style, characterized by the storytelling of African Americans' daily lives and struggles, had become popularized.
The 1930s saw the emergence of the country blues. Blind Lemon Jefferson kept all the Mississippi delta blues style elements but added guitar riffs and humor to please audiences.
Guitar playing soon became a more central part of the blues. Robert Johnson was so good of a country blues guitarist that people thought he'd sold his soul to the devil to gain his skills.
Before World War II, big bands came into focus as country blues began to make their way into the hands of solo pianists needing to be heard in rowdy venues.
Pianists like Pete Johnson began to implement blues elements like bent notes and more rhythmic bass lines while playing with bands.
After World War II, a lack of funds made most big bands die out into smaller bands. R&B became a staple of the blues genre as the increased economy begged for an increase in music.
By the 1960’s, the social justice movement had become more vocalized by African Americans, as seen in Sam Cooke's “A Change is Gonna Come.”
From R&B stemmed the jump blues and Chicago electric blues. The use of stage presence and electric guitar with the vocals of traditional blues music helped build the stage for rock n' roll, reggae, and funk music.
In today's musical landscape, traditional blues are most commonly seen in the form of R&B. As of 2020, R&B is the third most popular genre of music within the U.S.
If you're looking to hear good blues music, you can search for the genre on most free streaming platforms like Spotify or Youtube.
Be aware that searching for R&B will give you different results than searching for Chicago electric blues. Listening to each other kind will provide you with an idea of what you like and dislike.
Additionally, you might find good blues music within your community. Part of the beauty of blues music is that it is supposed to create an emotional and spiritual bond over storytelling about daily life.
Check your local bars and restaurants for up-and-coming artists. Blues music can be a powerful experience when you expose yourself to a live performance.
While there will always be innovations of blues music as it continues to be loved, played, and revised by millions of people worldwide, it is crucial to appreciate the history of the blues.
Blues music is not only an art form that sets the stage for several different genres of music, but a strong voice that has told stories of injustice, lost love and forgotten opportunity throughout time.