Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A genre created by Americans of African descent. With jazz, blues is one of the few new art forms of modern times, also (paradoxically) a true folk music, its development complete shortly after 1900. Jazz included a greater European element, while blues remained relatively unsophisticated, accessible to untrained players and singers, whose art was in subtle but direct communication.

Ex-slaves sang as they worked; the inexorable rhythm of work songs, with lyrics full of irony and earthy imagery, became a commentary on daily life and love, and a relief of tension. (Mose Allison once said 'The blues is like a religion,' then elaborated: 'Well, what is a religion? A survival technique.') A harmonic tension is created by flatted notes of the scale of the central key, the third, seventh and sometimes the fifth; the third especially often wanders into micro-tonality, creating a major-minor conflict: the off-pitch 'blue notes' cannot be played on the piano and are now thought to be more or less direct from African music. Yet it is important to remember that the early blues singers regarded themselves as all-round entertainers, who played ragtime, pop songs and anything else they wanted, and that poor whites and poor blacks in the USA shared the same traditions and influenced each other: hence there were black hillbilly string bands as well as Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams bringing the blues to country music, but racial divisions in broadcasting and in marketing records created an artificially strict division of genres. (Three compilation volumes of Before The Blues on Yazoo, with notes by co-producer Richard Nevins, are recommended.)

The classic blues is a twelve-bar form, three lines of four bars each; the lyric is a couplet with the first line repeated once: each line of lyric takes about 2.5 bars, the rest of each four-bar segment being improvised fill, sometimes vocal, but usually instrumental on the singer's own guitar or piano. The form has been further developed by many artists: 13-bar blues are not uncommon; it used to be said that songs such as W. C. Handy's 'St Louis Blues' were not really blues, but such distinctions now seem unnecessary. Blues are contrary to European musical practice and were therefore frowned upon by educated blacks (we were also taught that polyphonic music was invented in Renaissance Europe; Africans had practiced it for centuries). Blues were first published in 1912 ('Dallas Blues', Handy's 'Memphis Blues') but Bill Broonzy claimed that some of his blues dated to 1890. The first blues record in 1920 was by Mamie Smith: her OKeh record of Perry Bradford's 'Crazy Blues' was a surprise hit and a new market was discovered (yet she again was an entertainer, not strictly a blues singer, and blues was already well established in black vaudeville: see ''They Cert'ly Sound Good To Me'': Sheet Music, Southern Vaudeville and the Commercial Ascendency of the Blues, by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff in American Music vol. 14 no. 4).

Great female blues singers included the Smiths (not related: Mamie, Clara, Trixie, and Bessie, greatest of all), Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox and many more, accompanied on piano by James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Fletcher Henderson and many others; Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats were sidemen on records. A pattern of fractured family life resulting from slavery followed by institutionalized racism meant that male blues singers were itinerant, accompanying themselves on guitar, often recorded in the field by talent scouts and researchers; they led hard lives and often died young. Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House and Bukka White came from the Mississippi Delta; Tommy Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and many more had a powerful influence on post-war pop music decades after they died, thanks to records. Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Gary Davis represented the more delicate Piedmont tradition of the South-East USA. Instrumental blues piano enjoyed a vogue in the 1940s as boogie woogie, the term first used in a song title by Pine Top Smith; Memphis Slim (Peter Chatman) and Roosevelt Sykes played piano and sang classic songs. Guitarists John Lee Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins became legends in their own lifetimes; Snooks Eaglin, Mance Lipscombe and Mississippi John Hurt never lost the influence of ragtime and other styles as well as blues. Leroy Carr played piano and sang a smoother style in the 1930s; his fine songs in a more urban vein influenced later black styles. The emergence of the Count Basie band and others from Kansas City in the late 1930s gave a powerful reinjection of blues into the big-band jazz of the Swing Era; partly for this reason, bop had a strong blues element for all its technical sophistication, and small-group 'blowing sessions' from the Blue Note and Prestige labels '50-60s always included blues: the saying was that 'the blues is not jazz but the jazz has blues in it'. Rhythm & blues was influenced equally by jazz and blues; from the '40s the smooth barroom styles of pianists Charles Brown and Amos Milburn and guitarist T-Bone Walker were important, while the noisier black pop/party music influenced rock'n'rollers in the '50s.

Muddy Waters first recorded in Mississippi in 1941-2, went to Chicago '43; urban blues emerged as performers adopted microphones and electric guitars to be heard in noisy taverns: a Chicago scene of great power developed with Waters, Willie Dixon, Walter Horton, Little Walter, James Cotton, Otis Rush, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Spann, J. B. Hutto, Magic Sam, Johnny Shines and many others; inspired by country blues artists of the 1920s-30s mentioned above, their own post-war work in Chicago was imitated in the '60s by rock bands and singers. Blues singers visiting the UK were billed as folk singers; together with imported records this inspired the scene that threw up the Rolling Stones (see also Alexis Korner, John Mayall), thus having a profound impact on the pop music of several decades. [Sonny Boy Williamson said, 'Those English boys, they want to play the blues real bad--and they do, real bad.'] Beginning in the late 1950s whites in the USA like Paul Butterfield, John Koerner, John Hammond and Dave Van Ronk worked hard at playing an authentic blues style: at the Newport Folk Festival '65 folkies booed Bob Dylan, appearing with Butterfield's electric band, but accepted the band separately because they'd never heard electric blues before: despite a foolishly insulting introduction from Alan Lomax, Michael Bloomfield's guitar did not fail to impress; the band's album on Elektra sold steadily and long-overdue commercial success of the modern bluesmen was at hand. From the '60s Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Dawkins, Houndog Taylor and others held down the Chicago scene; B. B. King began at a Memphis radio station late '40s, worked the 'chitlin circuit' for years, emerged as the most highly regarded living bluesman (Albert King and Freddie King were also highly rated; Albert may have been related to B. B.). As the blues genre was worked to death by rock'n'rollers (leading to heavy metal, whose lack of subtlety is a vulgar antithesis), Texans Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland, then Robert Cray emerged as keepers of the flame.

Followers of blues are divided into fans of the more authentic black stuff and those of white guitarists such as Roy Buchanan, Johnny Winter, Elvin Bishop, Stevie Ray Vaughan etc, but streams have been converging to some extent since the '80s: Rush was recording again, Earl King was backed on an album by the white band Roomful of Blues; white bands like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Kingsnake (from NY state, albums on Blue Wave) carried on with love for the music, and new talents like Cray and Walter 'Wolfman' Washington (on Rounder) transcended category; the venerable John Lee Hooker's career was revitalized by a series of albums from '89. Singer, songwriter and guitarist from Los Angeles Keb' Mo' (Kevin Moore) made an obscure album c.1980 he later described as 'alternative R&B', and had to decide whether to stick with music or not; he played Robert Johnson in a dramatized documentary on public TV and immersed himself in Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy: his first (eponymous) album on a revived OKeh label '94 was followed by Just Like You '96, which reached the Billboard chart. He says he does not regard himself as 'a real blues musician', which would surprise his fans; after a century, the blues is a part of who we all are. Corey Harris (on Alligator) and Ben Harper (Virgin) are more young artists reworking the tradition in their own way without losing the spiritual roots. Of the white guitarists, Johnny Winter and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan were the most highly rated.

Britain's Climax Blues Band is now extremely experienced and still touring after 30 years; we keep hearing about blues revivals, but blues never really goes away. At the Fish Market at Kedzie Avenue and Jackson Boulevard on the west side of Chicago, blues was still played and sung outdoors every night at the end of the 20th century (except, presumably, in the depths of winter, when it gets cold in Chicago). Good books include the classic Urban Blues '66 by Charles Keil; The Devil's Music by Giles Oakley (with '76 BBC TV series); The Roots Of The Blues: An African Search '81 by Samuel Charters; Blues Off The Record '85 by Paul Oliver (an anthology of 30 years' writing). Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary 2009 by Stephen Calt demystifies many of the words and phrases heard on the classic records, which in many cases were simply the black slang of the day,

Some would ask if there can be any authentic blues anymore in the 21st century, yet the blues subculture is astonishingly vital, like a big family, even though nobody makes much money; there are clubs all over the country like Blues on Grand in Des Moines, Iowa, and the fans know where they are. The Blues Foundation in Memphis hands out awards every year for the best recordings, new artists and so on; the award used to be called the Handy but now it's just the Blues Music Award. As many as 90 blues bands and artists from all over the world and from regional contests converge on Memphis once a year for the annual blues bash. Blues Revue is a good print magazine and BluesWax was a free weekly blues mag by email that kept fans up to date, until done in by the economy. 

Bill Wax (no relation to BluesWax) of Sirius/XM Satellite Radio is the nation's premier blues disck jockey, said to have 1.5m listeners. When Sirius and XM merged in 2009, 80% of the XM staff was let go, but Wax made the cut. He was the host of that year's BMAs, broadcast live; when he walked into the Flying Saucer that week (a bar in Memphis) the room erupted with applause. A few days later he said to BluesWax's Don Wilcock, 'This music is so resilient. People who [say], "Oh, the Blues is dying," this and that, it's like, "Yo, guys, if the white slave owners and the plantation owners couldn't beat the shit out of it, there ain't no way we're gonna do anything!" '