Blues is probably the purest American music ever produced – and along with its jazz counterpart – is the only true American music form. Its roots lie in the work songs of West African slaves in the South. When they toiled hard in the fields of South plantation owners, these slaves built a ‘call and response’ method of singing, thus lending rhythm to the drudgery of their lives. These came to be called ‘field hollers’ and became the basis of all blues music to follow. After the Civil War ended, the blacks could either work as field labor or become traveling minstrels. So quite a few ended up being the latter – performing at all-nighters, fish-frys and juke joints, relying on their stamina and mental repertoire of many blues songs.
Powerful Blues Music Is Officially Born
While the lyrics of blues songs seem soulful and sad, the music itself is quite powerful and emotive – filled with rhythm and celebrating the life of black Americans. What makes this kind of music appealing is its reflection of their daily lives, talking about sex, drinking, poverty, love lost, hard labor – anything they experienced.
Among the first documented blues is W C Handy’s “Memphis Blues” in 1909. The music grew in popularity and when the 78-RPM phonograph came in the late 1920’s Paramount, Aristocrat and other record labels recorded some of the famous country blues artists. Around 1941-1943, field recordings of blues men were made in their surroundings by famous blues folklorist Alan Lomax. This is significant because that’s how the white folks got introduced to the blues. Budding artists got exposure to some national record labels.
Blues Travels North
The blacks migrated North during the Great Depression along the route of the Illinois Central Railroad toward Chicago, bringing with them blues music. With huge crowds gathering to enjoy this, performers like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf switched to electric guitars and also included drum sets to their bands. This became even more powerful than the original blues. There was a lull until the late 1950’s when The Kingston Trio recorded the chart topper, Tom Dooley, and gave birth to the folk revival in 1958. The Newport Folk Festival then brought back folk and blues music to the white American people till 1966.
What followed later was a merging of blues with rock – forming the rock blues bands of the 1960s and 1970s. Some artists faithful to the form were The Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Led Zeppelin.
Types of Blues Music
There are four types of blues music. The Deltas blues is said to be the original – being played by the black men from the Mississippi delta region, using the piano or harmonica. The style was a call and response lyrical framing. Then we have the Chicago Blues, which used electric amplification of voice using mics, drum sets and electric guitars. The Texas Blues are similar to the Chicago blues. In the early 1960s originated the Blues-rock, which was directly influenced by the Delta and Chicago blues.