A Brief History Of The Blues Essay

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Joseph Machlis says that the bluesis a native American musical and verse form, with no direct European andAfrican antecedents of which we know. (p. 578) In other words, it is ablending of both traditions.
Something special and entirely different fromeither of its parent traditions. (Although Alan Lomax cites some examplesof very similar songs having been found in Northwest Africa, particularlyamong the Wolof and Watusi. p. 233)The word ‘blue’ has been associatedwith the idea of melancholia or depression since the Elizabethan era. TheAmerican writer, Washington Irving is credited with coining the term ‘theblues,’ as it is now defined, in 1807.
(Tanner 40) The earlier (almostentirely Negro) history of the blues musical tradition is traced throughoral tradition as far back as the 1860s. (Kennedy 79)When African and European music firstbegan to merge to create what eventually became the blues, the slaves sangsongs filled with words telling of their extreme suffering and privation. (Tanner 36) One of the many responses to their oppressive environment resultedin the field holler. The field holler gave rise to the spiritual, and theblues, “notable among all human works of art for their profound despair. . .
They gave voice to the mood of alienation and anomie that prevailedin the construction camps of the South,” for it was in the MississippiDelta that blacks were often forcibly conscripted to work on the leveeand land-clearing crews, where they were often abused and then tossed asideor worked to death. (Lomax 233)Alan Lomax states that the bluestradition was considered to be a masculine discipline (although some ofthe first blues songs heard by whites were sung by ‘lady’ blues singerslike Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith) and not many black women were to befound singing the blues in the juke-joints. The Southern prisons also contributedconsiderably to the blues tradition through work songs and the songs ofdeath row and murder, prostitutes, the warden, the hot sun, and a hundredother privations. (Lomax) The prison road crews and work gangs where weremany bluesmen found their songs, and where many other blacks simply becamefamiliar with the same songs. Following the Civil War (accordingto Rolling Stone), the blues arose as “a distillate of the African musicbrought over by slaves.
Field hollers, ballads, church music and rhythmicdance tunes called jump-ups evolved into a music for a singer who wouldengage in call-and-response with his guitar. He would sing a line, andthe guitar would answer it. ” (RSR&RE 53) The guitar did not enjoywidespread popularity with blues musicians until about the turn of thecentury. Until then, the banjo was the primary blues instrument. ) By the1890’s the blues were sung in many of the rural areas of the South.
(Kamien518) And by 1910, the word ‘blues’ as applied to the musical traditionwas in fairly common use. (Tanner 40)Some ‘bluesologists’ claim (ratherdubiously), that the first blues song that was ever written down was ‘DallasBlues,’ published in 1912 by Hart Wand, a white violinist from OklahomaCity. (Tanner 40) The blues form was first popularized about 1911-14 bythe black composer W. C.
Handy (1873-1958). However, the poetic and musicalform of the blues first crystallized around 1910 and gained popularitythrough the publication of Handy’s “Memphis Blues” (1912) and “St. LouisBlues” (1914). (Kamien 518) Instrumental blues had been recorded as earlyas 1913. Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, ‘Crazy Blues’in 1920. (Priestly 9) Priestly claims that while the widespread popularityof the blues had a vital influence on subsequent jazz, it was the “initialpopularity of jazz which had made possible the recording of blues in thefirst place, and thus made possible the absorption of blues into both jazzas well as the mainstream of pop music.
” (Priestly 10)American troops brought the blueshome with them following the First World War. They did not, of course,learn them from Europeans, but from Southern whites who had been exposedto the blues. At this time, the U. S. Army was still segregated. Duringthe twenties, the blues became a national craze.
Records by leading bluessingers like Bessie Smith and later, in the thirties, Billie Holiday, soldin the millions. The twenties also saw the blues become a musical formmore widely used by jazz instrumentalists as well as blues singers. (Kamien518)During the decades of the thirtiesand forties, the blues spread northward with the migration of many blacksfrom the South and entered into the repertoire of big-band jazz. The bluesalso became electrified with the introduction of the amplified guitar. In some Northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, during the later fortiesand early fifties, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’Wolf, and Elmore James among others, played what was basically MississippiDelta blues, backed by bass, drums, piano and occasionally harmonica, andbegan scoring national hits with blues songs. At about the same time, T-BoneWalker in Houston and B.
B. King in Memphis were pioneering a style of guitarplaying that combined jazz technique with the blues tonality and repertoire. (RSR;RE 53)In the early nineteen-sixties, theurban bluesmen were “discovered” by young white American and European musicians. Many of these blues-based bands like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, theRolling Stones, the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, CannedHeat, and Fleetwood Mac, brought the blues to young white audiences, somethingthe black blues artists had been unable to do in America except throughthe purloined white cross-over covers of black rhythm and blues songs. Since the sixties, rock has undergone several blues revivals.
Some rockguitarists, such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Eddie VanHalen have used the blues as a foundation for offshoot styles. While theoriginators like John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins and B. B. King–and theirheirs 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 Crayand the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others, as well as gracing the bluestradition with their incredible technicality, have drawn a new generationlisteners to the blues. There are a number of differentideas as to what the blues really are: a scale structure, a note out oftune or out of key, a chord structure; a philosophy? The blues is a formof Afro-American origin in which a modal melody has been harmonized withWestern tonal chords.
(Salzman 18) In other words, we had to fit it intoour musical system somehow. But, the problem was that the blues weren’tsung according to the European ideas of even tempered pitch, but with amuch freer use of bent pitches and otherwise emotionally inflected vocalsounds. (Machlis 578) These ‘bent’pitches are known as ‘blue notes’. The ‘blue notes’ or blue tonalitiesare one of the defining characteristics of the blues.
Tanner’s opinionis that these tonalities resulted from the West Africans’ search for comparativetones not included in their pentatonic scale. He claims that the West Africanscale has neither the third or seventh tone nor the flat third or flatseventh. “Because of this, in the attempt to imitate either of these tonesthe pitch was sounded approximately midway between the minor AND majorthird, fifth, or seventh. . . .
. , causing what is called a blue tonality. ” (Tanner37) When the copyists attempted to write down the music, they came up withthe so-called “blues scale,” in which the third, the seventh, and sometimesthe fifth scale-degrees were lowered a half step, producing a scale resemblingthe minor scale. (Machlis 578) There are many nuances of melody and rhythmin the blues that are difficult, if not impossible to write in conventionalnotation.
(Salzman 18) But the blue notes are not really minor notes ina major context. In practice they may come almost anywhere. (Machlis 578)Before the field cry, with its bendingof notes, it had not occurred to musicians to explore the area of the bluetonalities on their instruments. (Tanner 38) The early blues singers wouldsing these “bent” notes, microtonal shadings, or “blue” notes, and theearly instrumentalists attempted to duplicate them. (Kamien 520) By themid-twenties, instrumental blues were common, and “playing the blues” forthe instrumentalist could mean extemporizing a melody within a blues chordsequence.
Brass, reed, and string instrumentalists, in particular, wereable to produce many of the vocal sounds of the blues singers. (Machlis578-9)Blues lyrics contain some of themost fantastically penetrating autobiographical and revealing statementsin the Western musical tradition. For instance, the complexity of ideasimplicit in Robert Johnson’s ‘Come In My Kitchen,’ such as a barely concealeddesire, loneliness, and tenderness, and much more:You better come in my kitchen, It’sgonna be rainin’ outdoors. Blues lyrics are often intenselypersonal, frequently contain sexual references and often deal with thepain of betrayal, desertion, and unrequited love (Kamien 519) or with unhappysituations such as being jobless, hungry, broke, away from home, lonely,or downhearted because of an unfaithful lover. (Tanner 39)The early blues were very irregularrhythmically and usually followed speech patterns, as can be heard in therecordings made in the twenties and thirties by the legendary bluesmenCharley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkinsamong others. (RSR;RE 53) The meter of the blues is usually writtenin iambic pentameter.
The first line is generally repeated and third lineis different from the first two. (Tanner 38) The repetition of the firstline serves a purpose as it gives the singer some time to come up witha 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 othersso that everything falls nicely into place. (Tanner 38)The structure of blues lyrics usuallyconsists of several three-line verses.
The first line is sung and thenrepeated to roughly the same melodic phrase (perhaps the same phrase playeddiatonically a perfect fourth away), the third line has a different melodicphrase:I’m going to leave baby, ain’t goingto say goodbye. I’m going to leave baby, ain’t going to say goodbye. ButI’ll write you and tell you the reason why. (Kamien 519)Most blues researchers claim thatthe very early blues were patterned after English ballads and often hadeight, ten, or sixteen bars. (Tanner 36) The blues now consists of a definiteprogression of harmonies usually consisting of eight, twelve or sixteenmeasures, 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 barsof tonic, two of subdominant, two of tonic, two of dominant, and two oftonic. Or, alternatively, I,I,I,I,IV,IV,I,I,V,V,I,I. Each roman numeralindicates a chord built on a specific tone in the major scale. Due to theinfluence of rock and roll, the tenth chord has been changed to IV. Thisalteration is now considered standard.
(Tanner 37) In practice, variousintermediate chords, and even some substitute chord patterns, have beenused in blues progressions, at least since the nineteen-twenties. (Machlis578) Some purists feel that any variations or embellishments of the basicblues pattern changes its quality or validity as a blues song. For instance,if the basic blues chord progression is not used, then the music beingplayed is not the blues. Therefore, these purists maintain that many melodieswith the word “blues” in the title, and which are often spoken of as beingthe blues, are not the blues because their melodies lack this particularbasic blues harmonic construction.
(Tanner 37) I believe this viewpointto be a bit wide of the mark, because it places a greater emphasis on bluesharmony than melody. The principal blues melodies are,in fact, holler cadences, set to a steady beat and thus turned into dancemusic and confined to a three-verse rhymed stanza of twelve to sixteenbars. (Lomax 275) The singer can either repeat the same basic melody foreach stanza or improvise a new melody to reflect the changing mood of thelyrics. (Kamien 519) Blues rhythm is also very flexible. Performers oftensing “around” the beat, accenting notes either a little before or behindthe beat.
(Kamien)Jazz instrumentalists frequentlyuse the chord progression of the twelve-bar blues as a basis for extendedimprovisations. The twelve or sixteen bar pattern is repeated while newmelodies are improvised over it by the soloists. As with the Baroque bassocontinuo,the repeated chord progression provides a foundation for the free flowof such improvised melodic lines. (Kamien 520)One of the problems regarding definingwhat the blues are is the variety of authoritative opinions. The bluesis neither an era in the chronological development of jazz, nor is it actuallya 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 flattedthirds, fifths, and sevenths applied to a major scale forming a pentatonicscale; some maintain that they are microtones; and some believe that theyare the third, or fifth, or seventh tones sounded simultaneously with theflatted third, or fifth, or seventh tones respectively minor second intervals).
Others feel that the song form (twelve bars, one-four-five) is the definingfeature 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 widersociological view that the blues are an entire musical tradition rootedin the black experience of the post-war South. Whatever one may think ofthe social implications of the blues, whether expressing the American orblack experience in microcosm, it was their “strong autobiographical nature,their intense personal passion, chaos and loneliness, executed so vibrantlythat it captured the imagination of modern musicians” and the general publicas well.
(Shapiro 13)Kamien, Michael. _Music: An Appreciation_. 3d Ed. N. Y. : McGraw Hill, 1984.
; Kennedy, Michael. _The Concise OxfordDictionary of Music_. N. Y.
: 1980. ; Lomax, Alan. _The Land Where the BluesBegan_. N. Y.
: Pantheon Books, 1993. ; Pareles, Jon and Patricia Romanowski,eds. _The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll_. N.
Y. : Rolling StonePress, 1983. ; Priestly, Brian. _Jazz On Record: A History_. N. Y.
: BillboardBooks, 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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