Closely connected with jazz, blues music is America’s very own music form with its roots in the South, in the fields where the West African slaves worked. They developed a kind of singing that had the form of a call and response that was rhythmic and subsequently formed the foundation for all the blues music that came later. Back when the Civil War ended, the black man had just two choices – either work hard in the fields or become a traveling minstrel. Traveling minstrels sang blues songs with soulful lyrics that described their lives and was based on themes like love, labor, poverty, jail, drinking, sex and whatever they knew.
Today, there are different types of blues music and a number of legendary artists who make unforgettable music. In fact, blues music has been integrated into various genres of music successfully, producing memorable sounds that appeal to music fans across the world.
Let’s take a deeper look at blues history – it is very interesting.
History Of The Blues
The blues is called so as it is likened to a cry of hurt, and a cry for freedom. This simple music form has a plethora of emotions and its structure revolves around three chords making it a common expression of pain. There is no specific information about when the blues started, but what we do know is that it originated in the Mississippi Delta where the field workers sang at work and from gospel music around the end of the 19th century. W C Handy is called the Father of Blues music, but not because he was the first one to sing blues music but because his music was the first ever blues music to be published. He first heard blues music as he waited at Tutwiler, a country railway station when a fellow traveler played the guitar, using his knife as a slide and sang, “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog.” He was so impressed that he used it in the pieces he composed. Blues can be played with three notes and chords, the first, fourth and fifth in the scale played in an eight or 12-bar cycle. Mastering it is another story.
1920 - 1930
Close to the 1930s, the blues gradually grew into an art form with amazing guitarists. The harmonica became the most preferred accompanying instrument since it was cheap, could be carried around easily and had the ability to play a variety of sounds. Artist Sonny Boy Williamson practically made it sound like an orchestra. Robert Johnson acknowledged as the greatest blues music artist of all time became popular during this period. Although there are not many recordings of his work, from what is available, it is obvious that he played with a passion, surpassing everyone else.
Country blues saw its rise in the 1920s when the 78-rpm record was popular and record labels like Paramount, Aristocrat etc., began recording the most popular blues artists of the time.
The nightclubs in Chicago heard the blues for the first time when blacks migrated there, during the Great Depression. The pianists from New Orleans who played in honky tonks, closely followed by the Fast Western pianists and county singers joined these folk singers. The combined style now spread to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and New York where classic blues musicians, together with these folk blues musicians took their music to clubs, theaters and dance halls. Blues now sounded more professional, with a refined and definite form.
The classic blues style became popular basically because of female singers who evolved from singing in churches and within the community to perform in theaters, clubs, dance halls, vaudeville shows. It was in 1920 that Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues sold 75,000 copies in its first month of release and encouraged more classic blues singers to come forward. During the 1920s and 1930s the market was among the blacks. The records were even called race records, with recording companies advertising to the blacks and only black stores selling the records.
Around 1929 during the Depression in the US, life became hard for the blues musicians. Record sales dipped and the popularity of blues music declined.
1940 – 1960
Around 1941, the famous Alan Lomax recorded blues musicians live, and it is this that made blues popular with the white Americans. There was a slight decline during the 1950s. Then the Kingston Trio’s hit Tom Dooley brought back blues music to the people and gradually, rock bands integrated the blues into their music during the 60’s and 70’s. Some prime examples are the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, John Mayall, etc. In fact, in the 1960s, the earliest recordings from the original blues men was discovered by white musicians in the US and England, helping revive it again.
Legendary artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf added electric guitars and drums to be heard in larger crowds.
Today blues music has a strong influence over other genres of music like rock, rhythm and blues, rap, etc.
Types Of Blues Music
Blues music can be broadly categorized into four types. They are:
• Delta blues
• Chicago blues
• Texas blues
• Blues rock
Said to be the original blues, this was played by the black people in the Mississippi delta region. They rarely used the harmonica and piano. The distinctive feature of this music was the 12-bar arrangement and the vocal repetition in the call and response style. Popular Delta blues artists are Muddy Waters, Charlie Patton, Eddie J ‘Son’ House, Robert Johnson, etc.
When the Delta blues musician migrated to Chicago they used the electric guitar to accompany their blues music giving rise to the urbanized Chicago blues. Voice amplification via microphones, bass and drum sets, horns and of course, electric guitars typified the Chicago Blues. Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf are good representatives of the Chicago Blues.
Texas Blues is similar to the Chicago Blues and popular musicians were T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Blues rock saw its origins in the early 1960s and it had its influence from the Delta and Chicago blues. Popular with the younger white musicians who imitated the lyrical style and passion of the early blues players, blues rock reveled in volume and beat. Examples are the ZZ Top, The Rolling Stones, the Doors, and Credence Clearwater Revival. The Modern Blues seems different from the original African American way of expression, but there are many artists that keep the original sounds alive through their music. The Fat Possum record label is famous for releasing Mississippi hill country sounds. Buddy Guy is popular for his Chicago blues sounds. Then there are artists like Corey Harris, Guy Davis, and Otis Taylor. Stevie Ray Vaughn is considered the god of guitar. Bonnie Raitt is one of the most acclaimed blues artists with her raspy voice, especially acknowledged for her slide playing. Rory Block has mastered the acoustic sound. Let us look at some of the legendary blues artists that have made blues music what it is today.
Legendary Blues Artists
If you love the blues, here are some artists you must know about, particularly if you intend starting a collection.
Muddy Waters - The Father of the Chicago Blues
Muddy was among the earliest blues musicians to make the move from acoustic to electric guitar. He combined Delta blues and the electric guitar to produce Chicago Blues along with Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Little Walter and James Cotton. One of his greatest album is Hard Again, a collection of old and new songs, with Johnny Winter, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton etc. in the band. Muddy Waters’ band reads like the who’s who of blues music. Don’t miss You got to take sick and die some of these days and I be’s troubled. You will find it in his 1941 Library of Congress recording by Alan Lomax.
B.B. King - The King of the Blues
Who hasn’t heard of B B King? A blues musician from the original Mississippi cotton fields, he played at the White House and the Buckingham Palace, exemplifying the global artist. King of the Blues spans his career during the 50’s right through to the 90’s. His album Live at the Cook County Jail and Live at the Regal are a must have in any blues collection. BB King is the king of expression as well, and you will hear humor, pain, depression and everything else.
John Lee Hooker - The King of the Boogie
Hooker was especially popular for his storytelling style packed with emotion. His earlier albums are the favorites of most die hard blues fans. He performed Mr Lucky with Dr John and Carlos Santana. Hooker influenced artists like ZZ Top. If you are looking to add to your collection, then a compilation of Hooker’s hits is an essential.
Albert King – The Godfather of the Blues
Albert King has a modern urban style including full horn portions in his music. King is a self taught blues musician who performs with his signature Flying V guitar which is rare for a bluesman.
Koko Taylor - The Queen of the Blues
The queen of the blues, Koko is a respected blues artist with hits like "I Can Love You Like a Woman or Fight You like a Man" Koko played with Willie Dixon to make Wang Dang Doodle. Another major hit of hers is I got what it takes, a classic. Even into her 70’s she continues to be an active musician.
Elmore James – The King of the Slide Guitar
Slide guitar is tough, but not for Delta blues musician Elmore James. He made a major impact with his style.
Robert Johnson – The King of the Delta Blues
An early blues musician, Robert Johnson played the delta blues, specializing in folk style. While recording quality may not be the best, this artist’s voice and sound are fabulous nonetheless.
Willie Dixon was a powerful influence on the Chicago blues. He was a writer, bass player and producer, having penned a lot of music for other blues artists of note, like Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Doors, the Kinks, etc. Willie was also the staff producer for Chess Records and has the credit for composing most of the blues hits in the 50’s and 60’s. Blues fans are excited by Back Door Man and Spoonful – huge hits.
A Mississippi bluesman, Wolf migrated to Chicago and was an influential artist. He had a unique blues shouting style.
Bo connected the blues, boogie and rock and roll and did it with his trademark square guitar. He has given the world many great recordings. He was highly influenced by Muddy Waters and was a great song writer and singer. Bo is also considered one of the Fathers of Rock and Roll. Listen to Before You Accuse Me, Dearest Darling and Pretty Thing.
Charlie is one among the earliest blues guitarists and singers. Along with Willie Brown he has set the benchmark for blues players that followed. His work includes Pony Blues, Oh Death etc.
Eddie James "Son" House
Eddie gave Mississippi Delta blues a definite sound by refining the slide style of acoustic guitar. His classics are Preachin the Blues and Rochester Blues and he was an amazingly eclectic blues musician. This guy is a master, just listen to Grinnin In Your Face.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
No talk of blues music is valid without the mention of Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of the gods of guitar. He is immortal through his music, even though he passed away at the young age of thirty five. Rolling Stone magazine lists Stevie as no.7 on their top 100 guitarists of all time.
Thousands of fans love Etta, who mesmerizes her fans at 69 years.
Young Johnny Lang
Lang debuted when he was a teenager and produced sounds such as Wander this world, proving that he is a mature blues musician even at a young age.
If you have heard Eric Clapton play After Midnight, then you have to love J. J. Cale who masterminded the piece. Other masterpieces are Cocaine, also by Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Call me the breeze and his own Crazy Mama.
Other notable names are Johnny Winter for his Johnny B Goode, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Ray Charles, and many others who are all pure artists who loved what they did. There is one thing you can say about the blues – as long as people experience emotions, blues music shall live.