When I was in college, I took a class called “Good vs. Evil, the Faustian Bargain in Music and Literature.” The class was team taught by a very tall, quiet, and distracted English gentleman who refused to make eye contact with anyone, and a loud, boisterous, and rotund New Jersey music professor who would listen to the first three words of any question, and then launch into the answer before hearing the rest of it. I regretted taking the class almost immediately, but the drop date had already passed, so I had no choice but to persevere.
One thing I remember is that I wrote a mid-term paper that touched on types of music that were initially considered to be “The Devil’s Music,” such as Blues and Jazz. In an off-hand aside, I wrote how the Blues led to Jazz, and then to many other types of music.
This led to her giving me a B grade on the paper, because she said it was the other way around, and tried to back up that assertion by stating that it was true, because her husband was a blues musician. And then she mentioned some early jazz performers, and implied that jazz was a less complex form. It may have been coincidental that most of them were white men.
I knew then, as now, that the significance of blues music has continually been downplayed as has its place as the immediate foundation of most modern popular music. It has a rich history, and almost all of that history rests on its origins in Africa, and in the religion and culture of enslaved African Americans.
The term Blues may have come from the term “blue devils,” representing sadness. The first mention of the term comes from George Colman’s one-act farce Blue Devils, written in 1798. Additionally, the term appears in English writings of the 1600s, to represent the “intense visual hallucinations that can accompany severe alcohol withdrawal”. Both of those references seem particularly apt when many blues lyrics and feelings are examined. As to common usage, in 1827 John James Audubon wrote to his wife that he “had the blues” to describe his sad state of mind. Though the use of the phrase in African-American music may also be older, the first example in print is from 1912, when Hart Wand’s “Dallas Blues” became the first copyrighted blues composition.
On December 14, 1862, Charlotte Forten, a free-born black schoolteacher then aged 25 and teaching both slaves and freedmen, wrote in her diary in South Carolina that she “came home with the blues” because she felt lonesome and pitied herself. She overcame her depression and spoke of a number of songs, such as “Poor Rosy,” that were popular among the slaves that helped her to do so. She also wrote that the songs “can’t be sung without a full heart and a troubled spirit”, which is a pretty good description of many blues songs.
The basic structure of early traditional blues songs often consisted of a single lyric repeated four times. This is described as the “AAB” pattern, consisting of a line sung over the four first bars, then repetition over the next four, and then a longer concluding line over the last four bars. This is known as “12-bar blues.” The lyrics are often sung closer to patterns of talking than to an abstract melody. The musical form is usually a repeating progression of chords mirroring the call and response scheme common to centuries of African and African-American music. Although different numbers of bars and structures are occasionally used, the blues chords associated to a twelve-bar blues are typically a set of three different chords played over a 12-bar scheme.
The first publication of blues sheet music may have been “I Got the Blues”, published by New Orleans musician Antonio Maggio in 1908 and described as “the earliest published composition known to link the condition of having the blues to the musical form that would become popularly known as ‘the blues.’ The first recording by an African American singer was Mamie Smith’s 1920 rendition of Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues”. But the origins of the blues as a distinct genre of professional music probably began around 1890. This music is poorly documented, partly because of racial discrimination in U.S. society, including academic circles, and partly because of the low rate of literacy among rural African Americans at the time. Songs and music were usually committed to memory, and the occasional wandering troubadour would also commonly make lyrics up on the spot to amuse his audience.
Characteristics of the eventual form were present long before the creation of modern music or even some of the instruments. Call-and-response shouts were an early form of blues-like music; they were sung usually without musical accompaniment or any attempt at harmony. Forms of this “pre-blues” were heard in slave ring shouts and field hollers and evolved into simple work songs with emotional and sometimes subversive and religious content.
Sometimes, instruments such as the one-stringed diddley bow, the banjo, and percussion instruments made from jugs or gourds that were familiar to the slaves as African-derived instruments were used on large plantations and may have helped in the transfer of African performance techniques into the early blues structure and performance. The banjo in particular shows many similarities to the musical instruments that griots of African peoples such as the Igbo, Wolof, Fula, and Mandinka played to accompany their recitations of the history of the world and its people. Another assertion made to show the direct link from African culture to African-American blues culture is that many of the original performers of this early proto form were from the Igbo people, who were known for their general resigned pessimism and quiet but strongly resistant acceptance of the nature of the world, even after their abduction and enslavement.
Once blues became a popular form of music in the early 1900s, it began to spread out from the African-American community, and branched out into different forms that by the early 1920s included Jazz, and Country Blues. At this point, these musical forms began to spread more widely, and the practice of re-recording the compositions of African-American performers by mainstream artists began. The original records began to be called “race records,” and were not distributed as widely, and received less eventual radio play. This was common until the 1960s, by which time further variations, from rock and roll to blues rock, to bebop, to funk and Rhythm and Blues, had developed. Most of these forms were pioneered with very strong contributions by gifted African-American musicians.
For example, In England, acclaimed blues demigod Muddy Waters went on a massively popular tour. Waters, unaware of his audience’s familiarity only with skiffle, a softer acoustic type of blues, turned up his amp and started to play Chicago Style electric blues. His surprising performance influenced local musicians such as Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies to emulate this louder style and thereby inspiring young musicians like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and The Who. They in turn influenced later generations of rock and roll music to this day.
Blues musical styles, forms, melodies, and the blues scale have influenced many other genres of music, such as folk, bluegrass, punk, new wave, heavy metal, ska, hip-hop, rap, reggae, alternative, and grunge. Performers, such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan have also performed significant blues recordings. The blues scale was used in popular songs like Harold Arlen’s “Blues in the Night,” blues ballads like “Since I Fell for You” and “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” and even in orchestral works such as George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Concerto in F.” Gershwin’s second “Prelude” for solo piano is an interesting example of a classical blues, combining blues with academic strictness. The blues scale is ubiquitous in modern popular music
Blues form is even used in the Batman theme, for God’s sake.
In celebration of African-American Music Appreciation Month, the significance and long history of the blues is a reason to celebrate. Go out and listen to Howlin’ Wolf, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, Albert Collins, and Buddy Guy. Then tell me I should have gotten an A on that paper, because the African-American music form called “The Blues” is definitely one of the most important contributions to music of all time.