Guide to the Blues: 1900s – 2000s
I want to start off this video guide to the blues by saying I’m not anywhere close to being an expert in modern styles like blues and jazz. I haven’t spent as much time studying these genres, though I do enjoy them.
That being said, I’ve wanted to do a video guide to the Blues music for quite a while, so consider this video a simple starting point. I’ve also created a Spotify playlist to accompany this video if you’d like to dig deeper into the blues.
(link to the Spotify playlist)
This guide to the blues is meant to serve as a map – we’ll start from the origins of the blues and make our way to modern-day blues, exploring all the sub-genres within.
Let’s get started!
The first time published music ever used the word “blues” was in 1908 (Antonio Maggio’s “I Got the Blues”). Blues music likely went back to the late 1800s, but wasn’t documented so we don’t know for sure. The development of the blues coincides with the dissolution of slavery in America.
Famous blues tunes around this time include:
Hart Wand: Dallas Blues (1912)
W.C. Handy: The Memphis Blues (1912)
“Baby” F. Seals: Baby Seals’ Blues (1912)
Around this time, the first recording by an African American singer was in 1920 – Mamie Smith’s version of “Crazy Blues”.
Aside from Memphis, blues started popping up in Texas, Mississippi, and New Orleans around the turn of the century. Artists like Lead Belly and Henry Thomas were main players in this early blues style.
Guide to the Blues: Style
So what is the blues style?
Original blues is thought to be a blend of European harmonies and the African call-and-response tradition. It was also inspired from minstrel shows, spirituals and ragtime (which developed parallel to the blues).
Blues is the predecessor to many styles we know today, including country music and rock n’ roll. In the 1920s, blues music written by black people was called “race music”, and blues music written by white people was called “hillbilly music”, though they were essentially the same.
Some musical features of blues music can include any of the following:
“Blue” notes (like lowered 7ths and 3rds)
Chord patterns of 8, 10 or 12 bars (like the famous “12 bar blues” form)
AAB lyrical pattern
Blues in the 1920s-40s
W.C. Handy claimed to be the “Father of the Blues” – and he definitely helped popularize blues music. His style blended ragtime and jazz music, and he employed orchestras and bands to accompany singers.
By the 1920s, the success of Hardy as well as some talented women blues performers, helped break blues music into pop culture. Blues was being performed in Memphis bars, and record companies began to record it.
At this time, we had two main types of blues emerge. Country blues, which was often as simple as vocals and a banjo/guitar, was more improvisational in style. Urban blues were more polished.
Country blues at this time had some variations – Mississippi Delta blues used the slide guitar to accompany passionate vocals, and Piedmont blues echoed ragtime music, except on the acoustic guitar. Blues from Georgia also employed slide guitar.
The Memphis blues style featured more unusual instruments (like fiddle or washboard). Famous performer Memphis Minnie was known for being a guitar virtuoso, and Memphis Slim was a pianist with some swing style in his blues.
Urban blues tended to be more elaborate than country blues, simply because urban audiences tended to have higher standards.
In the 1920s, female urban singers were very popular, such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (the Mother of Blues), Bessie Smith, and Lucille Bogan. Lucille Hegamin became the second black woman to record blues, and these albums were purchased by people of all races.
These women brought lots to the blues genre – dramatic vocals (using things like shouts and moans), and more improvised and interesting melody lines.
Boogie woogie is a specific style that grew out of urban blues music in the 1930s and 1940s. This was a piano-heavy style, often featuring solo piano, but it would also be used to accompany singers and bands.
Boogie woogie used a specific type of bass line, with lots of embellishment and decoration in the right hand.
Big Band Blues
Another outcrop of urban blues was big band blues. This is exactly what it sounds like – groups of 10+ musicians featuring sax, lots of brass and percussion.
Jump blues grew out of boogie woogie and big band music. It used saxophone, brass and rhythm guitar, and the effect is very upbeat and jazzy. This music would go on to influence rock n’ roll.
Guide to the blues: Blues in the 1950s
After World War II, African Americans (and Americans in general) had more money and began moving all across the country (instead of being mainly concentrated in the south). Another effect of African Americans becoming wealthier was that the music industry started to become more diverse. So-called “race records” were replaced with the term “rhythm and blues”.
This is also where we start to see the use of electric instruments, leading to the sub-genre electric blues.
Electric blues was popular in Chicago, Memphis, Detroit and St. Louis. In addition to using electric guitars, they also used bass (first the double bass, later the electric bass), drums, and a harmonica put through an amplifier.
Blues music coming from Chicago at this time (the late 1940s) was heavily inspired by Delta blues (since many performers were originally from the Mississippi area and moved to Chicago).
Muddy Waters and Elmore James were especially known for using slide guitar (and Muddy Waters is, of course, famous for his gravelly voice).
Evolution of Chicago blues
In the 1950s, Chicago blues evolved in the hands of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry into something more upbeat and enthusiastic. Blues started moving away from the sad melancholy of past blues.
English electric blues
When Muddy Waters toured England, he ignited a love of electric blues in his audience. This would then go on to influence musicians in the British Invasion, such as the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds.
West side sound
Back in America in the late 1950s, Chicago blues continued to evolve. This new “west side sound” featured expressive guitar solos and a strong backing rhythm.
In the late 1950s, a sub-genre called swamp blues developed near Baton Rouge. This style was largely influenced by Jimmy Reed of the earlier Chicago blues style. Swamp blues is a little slower and simpler
Guide to the Blues: 1960s-70s
By the 60s and 70s, rock and roll and soul music were mainstream. Because of this, the development of “true” blues music began to branch out more and more.
Blues and rock
This is the era we got BB King, who is known for his sophisticated guitar solos and use of vibrato. This music also differed from Chicago blues in that it used more brass and sax again (as opposed to slide guitar and harmonica).
Because of the Civil Rights Movement, Americans developed a new-found interest in traditional blues, and this led to a lot of republishing of older records by guys like Skip James. It also led to performers bringing this older, acoustic style into their newer blues music.
Across the pond, British blues were taking off and evolving in the hands of famous bands like the Rolling Stones and Cream. These groups not only incorporated blues into their styles, but they also covered old blues songs in the Delta and Chicago style.
American blues rock
These British musicians from the early 1960s influenced American performers like the Doors and Jefferson Airplane. These were the famous musicians who went on to influence modern rock music as we know it today.
Once we hit the 1970s, a new sub-genre of blues emerged – the Texas rock-blues. This style was heavily influenced by British rock-blues. These up-and-comers would really hit the spotlight in the 1980s.
Guide to the blues: 1980s and onward
In the deep south in the 1980s, interest in the blues reemerged. This sub-genre, soul blues, is more well-known among African American audiences compared to white audiences.
In the 1980s, Texas-based Stevie Ray Vaughan exploded in popularity. John Lee Hooker continued to stay relevant with an album in 1989 with an album called The Healer. Eric Clapton of Cream continued to cover blues tunes and write in a blues style.
But the problem with the 80s and 90s was a movement away from live and improvised performances, toward digital multitrack recording and more “rehearsed” recordings. This meant that blues music, by its nature, began to fade away, echoing in its modern offspring like rock n’ roll and country music.
That’s not to say that blues is dead. Lots of modern-day blues musicians still exist. Especially nowadays, people have access to all kinds of music because of the internet, so niche genres can have really devoted followings.
Alternative rock blues
There are also some alternative rock musicians whose blues influence can be clearly felt.
That’s all for today’s video guide to the blues! Be sure to check out the Spotify playlist to hear the tunes we talked about in today’s video.
In the future, I hope to go more in-depth on some of these sub-genres. But for now, enjoy your own blues explorations!