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The Blue Highway

Mississippi Musicians


Blues is the folk music of black America, a development from the work songs and field hollers of black slaves as they toiled in the fields, labour camps and prisons of the old South. Here the rhythmic circular chanting which had been a traditional part of farming in Africa was encouraged by the slave masters, who saw it as an aid to their backbreaking, repetitive labours. The playing of the 'banjar', a four-stringed instrument made from a gourd and the forerunner of the banjo, was also usually encouraged as a harmless, amusing diversion. On the other hand, many other parts of African culture, drumming for example, were suppressed, for fear they might be used to communicate and organise a revolt.
Traditional African religions were also suppressed and replaced with Christianity, which was used as a framework for social control. But gradually the slaves began to embrace the new religion, seeing in it's imagery a reflection of their own plight. Out of this mixing came the spiritual, a powerful element within the blues.
It wasn't until the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of the slave population in 1865 that the blues really came into being. To the newly liberated black population freedom was a mixed blessing. The oppression of slavery was gone, but so were it's certainties. No longer under the control of the white man, many blacks fled the shattered economy of South and headed for the cities of the north and midwest looking for work. But freed black men and women in a white society were still constantly reminded of their inferior position and subjected to cruelty, segregation and oppression.
A time of hope, continuing hardship and often shattered dreams thus gave rise to the itinerant bluesman of legend - his plangent voice all too often recounting tales of freight trains and faithless lovers, hard liquor, hard times. Now no longer singing with his fellow workers or worshippers, he accompanied his voice with a guitar, entering into either a sing-speak dialogue with it, or strumming chords arranged within a loose framework he'd learned from spirituals or white hymns. The pentatonic hollers and moans of black vocal styles were thus set against a basic white harmony within a flexible framework, and the evolution of blues structure had begun.
The names of many of these poor, illiterate musicians are lost in the mists of time, but one man, W.C.Handy, a classically trained black band leader, saw the potential of this haunting, primitive music and became the first person to formalise and popularise the blues. He is, I suppose, the first recognised blues songwriter, his most famous compositions being "Memphis Blues", written in 1912, and "St. Louis Blues", in 1914. Some would argue, however, that this is not authentic blues but a dressed-up caricature, the real thing residing with the legendary names of the early 20th century. ( see list of prominent songwriters ).
Round about 1910 the lyrical and musical forms of the blues had just about crystallized, and it began to be absorbed into jazz and also into mainstream popular music. In 1920 Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues, and the following decade, the "Roaring Twenties", saw the new music of black America, blues and jazz, at the centre of a craze which would see it infiltrate and change the traditional popular music of mainstream white society forever.
Bessie Smith, the "Empress Of The Blues", was at the centre of that craze, and Billie Holiday took it forward into the 1930's and 1940's as blues sensibilities informed the repertoires of Big Band jazz. By the 1950's, as it migrated into the northern cities of Chicago, Detroit and New York, the blues took on a new harder-edged sound with the introduction of amplification and the electric guitar. But the black proponents of urban blues, men like Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Elmore James and B.B.King, remained in relative obscurity until after the coming of Elvis and rock & roll, a new mainstream style that drew on many others, not least the blues, for much of it's energy and early repertoire, prompting white European musicians - John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards etc. - to rediscover the roots of the music, by which time, of course, rock & roll had launched popular music into the modern era.

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Prominent songwriters

Charley Patton
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Son House
Robert Johnson
Bukka White
T-Bone Walker
Big Bill Broonzy
Bo Diddley
Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup
Jimmy Reed
Willie Dixon


audio : Blues Home Page

books : on the Blues


Blues Home Page

books : on the Blues