Blues Essay, Research Paper

Joseph Machlis says that the blues is a native American musical and verse form, with no direct European and

African antecedents of which we know. (p. 578) In other words, it is a blending of both traditions. Something

special and entirely different from either of its parent traditions. (Although Alan Lomax cites some examples of

very similar songs having been found in Northwest Africa, particularly among the Wolof and Watusi. p. 233)

The word ‘blue’ has been associated with the idea of melancholia or depression since the Elizabethan era. The

American writer, Washington Irving is credited with coining the termthe blues,’ as it is now defined, in 1807.

(Tanner 40) The earlier (almost entirely Negro) history of the blues musical tradition is traced through oral tradition

as far back as the 1860s. (Kennedy 79)

When African and European music first began to merge to create what eventually became the blues, the slaves

sang songs filled with words telling of their extreme suffering and privation. (Tanner 36) One of the many

responses to their oppressive environment resulted in the field holler. The field holler gave rise to the spiritual, and

the blues, “notable among all human works of art for their profound despair . . . They gave voice to the mood of

alienation and anomie that prevailed in the construction camps of the South,” for it was in the Mississippi Delta that

blacks were often forcibly conscripted to work on the levee and land-clearing crews, where they were often

abused and then tossed aside or worked to death. (Lomax 233)

Alan Lomax states that the blues tradition was considered to be a masculine discipline (although some of the first

blues songs heard by whites were sung by ‘lady’ blues singers like Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith) and not many

black women were to be found singing the blues in the juke-joints. The Southern prisons also contributed

considerably to the blues tradition through work songs and the songs of death row and murder, prostitutes, the

warden, the hot sun, and a hundred other privations. (Lomax) The prison road crews and work gangs where were

many bluesmen found their songs, and where many other blacks simply became familiar with the same songs.

Following the Civil War (according to Rolling Stone), the blues arose as “a distillate of the African music brought

over by slaves. Field hollers, ballads, church music and rhythmic dance tunes called jump-ups evolved into a music

for a singer who would engage in call-and-response with his guitar. He would sing a line, and the guitar would

answer it.” (RSR&RE 53) (author’s note: I’ve seen somewhere, that the guitar did not enjoy widespread popularity

with blues musicians until about the turn of the century. Until then, the banjo was the primary blues instrument.) By

the 1890s the blues were sung in many of the rural areas of the South. (Kamien 518) And by 1910, the word

‘blues’ as applied to the musical tradition was in fairly common use. (Tanner 40)

Some ‘bluesologists’ claim (rather dubiously), that the first blues song that was ever written down was ‘Dallas

Blues,’ published in 1912 by Hart Wand, a white violinist from Oklahoma City. (Tanner 40) The blues form was

first popularized 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). (Kamien 518) Instrumental blues had been recorded as

early as 1913. Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, ‘Crazy Blues’ in 1920. (Priestly 9) Priestly claims

that while the widespread popularity of the blues had a vital influence on subsequent jazz, it was the “initial

popularity of jazz which had made possible the recording of blues in the first place, and thus made possible the

absorption of blues into both jazz as well as the mainstream of pop music.” (Priestly 10)

American troops brought the blues home with them following the First World War. They did not, of course, learn

them from Europeans, but from Southern whites who had been exposed to the blues. At this time, the U.S. Army

was still segregated. During the twenties, the blues became a national craze. Records by leading blues singers like

Bessie Smith and later, in the thirties, Billie Holiday, sold in the millions. The twenties also saw the blues become a

musical form more widely used by jazz instrumentalists as well as blues singers. (Kamien 518)

During the decades of the thirties and forties, the blues spread northward with the migration of many blacks from

the South and entered into the repertoire of big-band jazz. The blues also became electrified with the introduction

of the amplified guitar. In some 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. (RSR&RE 53)

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, 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. (RSR&RE 53) The latest generation of blues

players like Robert Cray and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others, as well as gracing the blues tradition

with their incredible technicality, have drawn a new generation listeners to the blues.

The Blue Tonalities And What Defines The Blues

There are a number of different ideas as to what the blues really are: a scale structure, a note out of tune or out of

key, a chord structure; a philosophy? The blues is a form of Afro-American origin in which a modal melody has

been harmonized with Western tonal chords. (Salzman 18) In other words, we had to fit it into our musical system

somehow. But, the problem was that the blues weren’t sung according to the European ideas of even tempered

pitch, but with a much freer use of bent pitches and otherwise emotionally inflected vocal sounds. (Machlis 578)

These ‘bent’pitches are known as ‘blue notes’.

The ‘blue notes’ or blue tonalities are one of the defining characteristics of the blues. Tanner’s opinion is that these

tonalities resulted from the West Africans’ search for comparative tones not included in their pentatonic scale. He

claims that the West African scale has neither the third or seventh tone nor the flat third or flat seventh. “Because of

this, in the attempt to imitate either of these tones the pitch was sounded approximately midway between [the

minor AND major third, fifth, or seventh], causing what is called a blue tonality.” (Tanner 37) When the copyists

attempted to write down the music, they came up with the so-called “blues scale,” in which the third, the seventh,

and sometimes the fifth scale-degrees were lowered a half step, producing a scale resembling the minor scale.

(Machlis 578) There are many nuances of melody and rhythm in the blues that are difficult, if not impossible to

write in conventional notation. (Salzman 18) But the blue notes are not really minor notes in a major context. In

practice they may come almost anywhere. (Machlis 578)

Before the field cry, with its bending of notes, it had not occurred to musicians to explore the area of the blue

tonalities on their instruments. (Tanner 38) The early blues singers would sing these “bent” notes, microtonal

shadings, or “blue” notes, and the early instrumentalists attempted to duplicate them. (Kamien 520) By the

mid-twenties, instrumental blues were common, and “playing the blues” for the instrumentalist could mean

extemporizing a melody within a blues chord sequence. Brass, reed, and string instrumentalists, in particular, were

able to produce many of the vocal sounds of the blues singers. (Machlis 578-9)

Blues Lyrics

Blues lyrics contain some of the most fantastically penetrating autobiographical and revealing statements in the

Western musical tradition. For instance, the complexity of ideas implicit in Robert Johnson’s ‘Come In My

Kitchen,’ such as a barely concealed desire, loneliness, and tenderness, and much more:

You better come in my kitchen, It’s gonna be rainin’ outdoors.

Blues lyrics are often intensely personal, frequently contain sexual references and often deal with the pain of

betrayal, desertion, and unrequited love (Kamien 519) or with unhappy situations such as being jobless, hungry,

broke, away from home, lonely, or downhearted because of an unfaithful lover. (Tanner 39)

The early blues were very irregular rhythmically and usually followed speech patterns, as can be heard in the

recordings made in the twenties and thirties by the legendary bluesmen Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson,

Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins among others. (RSR&RE 53) The meter of the blues is usually written in

iambic pentameter. The first line is generally repeated and third line is different from the first two. (Tanner 38) The

repetition of the first line serves a purpose as it gives the singer some time to come up with a third line. Often the

lyrics of a blues song do not seem to fit the music, but a good blues singer will accent certain syllables and

eliminate others so that everything falls nicely into place. (Tanner 38)

The structure of blues lyrics usually consists of several three-line verses. The first line is sung and then repeated to

roughly the same melodic phrase (perhaps the same phrase played diatonically a perfect fourth away), the third line

has a different melodic phrase:

I’m going to leave baby, ain’t going to say goodbye. I’m going to leave baby, ain’t going to say

goodbye. But I’ll write you and tell you the reason why. (Kamien 519)

Construction Of The Blues

Most blues researchers claim that the very early blues were patterned after English ballads and often had eight, ten,

or sixteen bars. (Tanner 36) The blues now consists of a definite progression of harmonies usually consisting of

eight, twelve or sixteen measures, though the twelve bar blues are, by far, the most common.

The 12 bar blues harmonic progression (the one-four-five) is most often agreed to be the following: four bars of

tonic, two of subdominant, two of tonic, two of dominant, and two of tonic. Or, alternatively,

I,I,I,I,IV,IV,I,I,V,V,I,I. Each roman numeral indicates a chord built on a specific tone in the major scale. Due to

the influence of rock and roll, the tenth chord has been changed to IV. This alteration is now considered standard.

(Tanner 37) In practice, various intermediate chords, and even some substitute chord patterns, have been used in

blues progressions, at least since the nineteen-twenties. (Machlis 578) Some purists feel that any variations or

embellishments of the basic blues pattern changes its quality or validity as a blues song. For instance, if the basic

blues chord progression is not used, then the music being played is not the blues. Therefore, these purists maintain

that many melodies with the word “blues” in the title, and which are often spoken of as being the blues, are not the

blues because their melodies lack this particular basic blues harmonic construction. (Tanner 37) I believe this

viewpoint to be a bit wide of the mark, because it places a greater emphasis on blues harmony than melody.

The principal blues melodies are, in fact, holler cadences, set to a steady beat and thus turned into dance music

and confined to a three-verse rhymed stanza of twelve to sixteen bars. (Lomax 275) The singer can either repeat

the same basic melody for each stanza or improvise a new melody to reflect the changing mood of the lyrics.

(Kamien 519) Blues rhythm is also very flexible. Performers often sing “around” the beat, accenting notes either a

little before or behind the beat. (Kamien)

Jazz instrumentalists frequently use the chord progression of the twelve-bar blues as a basis for extended

improvisations. The twelve or sixteen bar pattern is repeated while new melodies are improvised over it by the

soloists. As with the Baroque bassocontinuo, the repeated chord progression provides a foundation for the free

flow of such improvised melodic lines. (Kamien 520)


One of the problems regarding defining what the blues are is the variety of authoritative opinions. The blues is

neither an era in the chronological development of jazz, nor is it actually a particular style of playing or singing jazz.

(Tanner 35) Some maintain (mostly musicologists) that the blues are defined by the use of blue notes (and on this

point they also differ – some say that they are simply flatted thirds, fifths, and sevenths applied to a major scale

[forming a pentatonic scale]; some maintain that they are microtones; and some believe that they are the third, or

fifth, or seventh tones sounded simultaneously with the flatted third, or fifth, or seventh tones respectively [minor

second intervals]). Others feel that the song form (twelve bars, one-four-five) is the defining feature of the blues.

Some feel that the blues is a way to approach music, a philosophy, in a manner of speaking. And still others hold a

much wider sociological view that the blues are an entire musical tradition rooted in the black experience of the

post-war South. Whatever one may think of the social implications of the blues, whether expressing the American

or black experience in microcosm, it was their “strong autobiographical nature, their intense personal passion,

chaos and loneliness, executed so vibrantly that it captured the imagination of modern musicians” and the general

public as well. (Shapiro 13)


Kamien, Michael. _Music: An Appreciation_. 3d Ed. N.Y.: McGraw Hill, 1984.; Kennedy, Michael. _The

Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music_. N.Y.: 1980.; Lomax, Alan. _The Land Where the Blues Began_. N.Y.:

Pantheon Books, 1993.; Pareles, Jon and Patricia Romanowski, eds. _The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock

and Roll_.N.Y.: Rolling Stone Press, 1983.; Priestly, Brian. _Jazz On Record: A History_. N.Y.: Billboard

Books, 1991.; Salzman, Eric and Michael Sahl. _Making Changes_. N.Y.: G. Schirmer, 1977.; Shapiro, Harry.

_Eric Clapton: Lost in the Blues_. N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1992.; Tanner, Paul and Maurice Gerow. _A Study of

Jazz_. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown Publishers, 1984.

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