Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The history of a True American Musical Art Form, The Blues

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In the history of music there has probably not been one musical style that has influenced “Popular Music” more than Blues. Blues also is unique in that it is truly an “American” musical art form. As we will discover, the roots of the musical styles of Jazz, Rock, Gospel and musical artists from BB King, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin, all were heavily influenced by the Blues.

It is important to note that the term “Popular Music” as I have used it above is a bit misleading. Too often we mention Classical Music and Popular Music as too completely different musical expressions. I am not inferring that they are not very different from each other. What I am saying is that the word “Popular” actually only relates to the time period one lives in.

Let me explain. If we were living in Europe in 1786 when Mozart was 30 years old and in the height of his career (he died at age 36) his music would have been considered Popular, would it not? If there had been recording studios, radio stations, Mp3’s and iPods in 1786 would it be too naive and simplistic to conclude that one of his symphonies or piano concertos would have been a “Top-Ten Release?” And if so, would it not be considered “Popular Music?” I think you will admit that this is certainly an unconventional but truthful perspective.

Since Blues has been such a powerful influence, it is important to understand why. Following is a brief history.

The Blues were born in the North Mississippi Delta following the Civil War. Its heartfelt and passionate performances are deeply rooted in slavery and the African American culture. Early compositions were Field Hollers, Ballads, Church Spirituals and Rhythmic Dance tunes called Jump-Ups that showcased a singer who would engage in a call-and-response with his guitar. He would sing a line, and the guitar would answer. For many years, due to the lack of music education, multitudes of songs were recorded and passed on only by memory. Because of this fact, it is very possible that many a great song was “lost in translation.”

The Blues became the essence and hope of the African American laborer, whose spirit is wed to these songs, reflecting his inner soul to all who will listen. Rhythm and Blues is the cornerstone of all forms of African American music. The Blues, with it's 12-bar, dissonant 7th chord progression and its bent-note melodies were the early anthems of an oppressed race, bonding themselves together through their soulful cries for freedom and equality. From its origins at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, and the platform of the Clarksdale Railway Station, the blues eventually began to expand and headed north to Beale Street in Memphis.

The term "The Blues" refers to the "The Blue Devils", meaning melancholy and sadness. An early use of the term in this sense is found in George Coleman's one-act farce Blue Devils (1798). Though the use of the phrase in African American Music may be older, it has been attested to since 1912, when Hart Wands "Dallas Blues" became the first copyrighted blues composition.

The Blues form was first mainstreamed about 1911-14 by the black composer W.C. Handy (1873-1958). However, the poetic and musical form of the blues first crystallized around 1910 and gained popularity through the publication of Handy's "Memphis Blues" (1912) and "St. Louis Blues" (1914). Instrumental blues had been recorded as early as 1913. During the twenties, the blues became a national craze.

Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, 'Crazy Blues' in 1920. The Blues influence on jazz brought it into the mainstream and made possible the records of blues singers like Bessie Smith and later, in the thirties, Billie Holiday.

In northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, during the later forties and early fifties, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and Elmore James among others, played what was basically Mississippi Delta blues, backed by bass, drums, piano and occasionally harmonica, and began scoring national hits with blues songs. At about the same time, T-Bone Walker in Houston and B.B. King in Memphis were pioneering a style of guitar playing that combined jazz technique with the blues tonality and repertoire. It is also important to mention that the roots of Jazz began with the Blues. So, if there were no Blues, there would be no Jazz!

In the early nineteen-sixties, the urban bluesmen were "discovered" by young white American and European musicians. Many of these blues-based bands like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Canned Heat, and Fleetwood Mac, brought the blues to young white audiences, something the black blues artists had been unable to do in America except through the purloined white cross-over covers of black rhythm and blues songs.

Since the sixties, rock has undergone several blues revivals. Some rock guitarists, such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Eddie Van Halen have used the blues as a foundation for offshoot styles. While the originators like John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins and B.B. King--and their heirs Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and later Eric Clapton and the late Roy Buchanan, among many others, continued to make fantastic music in the blues tradition. The latest generation of blues players would be Robert Cray and the late Stevie Ray.

Today there are many different shades of the blues. Forms include:

Traditional County Blues - A general term that describes the rural blues of the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont and other rural locales. 

Jump Blues - A danceable amalgam of swing and blues and a precursor to R&B. Jump blues was pioneered by Louis Jordan.

Boogie-Woogie - A piano-based blues popularized by Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, and derived from barrelhouse and ragtime.

Chicago Blues - Delta blues electrified.

Cool Blues - A sophisticated piano-based form that owes much to jazz.

West Coast Blues - Popularized mainly by Texas musicians who moved to California. West Coast blues is heavily influenced by the swing beat. 

The public’s affection for the Blues only seems to be increasing. In Dana Point California, the city next to mine, Doheny Beach now has a yearly Blues Festival that keeps getting bigger and bigger. Others can be found in Portland, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and the list goes on.

As for me personally, Blues has always been a regular part of my life. When I play guitar and sing with other musicians, it is the easiest and most enjoyable form of popular music to “jamb” with. When I was growing up and my parents owned a music store and rock club called The Four Muses in San Clemente California from 1965 to 1975, we always had Blues groups performing. Most notable was the famous Blues Duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

My only personal problem with listening to a lot of Blues is that it can become very repetitious and not “fresh” sounding due to the consistent use of the standard 12 bar Blues Chord Progression. That said, I highly recommend that everyone make an attempt to listen to some live Blues this summer. The music and the crowd it attracts normally guarantee an enjoyable experience.

Thank you for reading!

Jonathan Morgan Jenkins


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