Eiland's Online English Materials

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The Blues

Blues is one of the three main roots of American music. It is considered the most important influence on popular music since the 1960's.

Blues' musical roots are in American folk and rural African-American music derived from African polyrhythms, spirituals and call and response modes of musical communication. Blues derived its name from the slang term for a depressed or oppressed feeling. Although music that originates in the oral tradition tends to have a blurry history, the first recorded blues works surfaced in the early 1900's, with W.C. Handy claiming writing blues as early as 1914 (he would have been 12 at the time). Blind Lemon Jefferson is credited with the first verifiable blues recordings. As it developed, blues became centered in urban areas such as Chicago, New York and New Orleans, although there are distinctive blues styles in most areas of the nation.

The lyrical themes in the blues tend to reflect the harsher realities of both rural and urban (mostly African American) life, especially prison, poverty, racism and the universal topics of love and sex. Generally, early blues lyrics tended to reflect lack of formal education, with a relative lack of sophistication and a great deal of repetition. Often, blues lyrics were instantaneously improvised in live settings because the lyrics themselves had not been written down. Thus, there is a proliferation of songs with quite similar themes and even shared lines that are otherwise different in lyrical content.

Blues is differentiated from other music by flattened or so-called blue notes. Vocally, the blues is associated with various vocal styles, but especially the rasp or growl in the voice, denoting the burdened soul. Men and women both sing and play the blues, with men dominating the scene. The singer may even sing lyrics or scat to replicate the arpeggiated notes played on piano or guitar, a form perfected by guitarist George Benson. Musically, blues music is based on a simplified basic fixed structure over which improvisation vocally or instrumentally is performed. Instrumentally, guitar (6-string, 12-string, slide, acoustic and electric), piano, bass and drums are prevalent, with some harmonica and other horn (saxaphone) accompaniment as the form progressed.

W.C. Handy, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Howlin' Wolf

Works Cited

Oliver, Paul. Blues. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed.
       S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan, 2001.

© T. T. Eiland, January 1998
Last modified: January 12, 2003