History of Blues. Part-1

Blues is a music genre and musical form which originated in the Deep South of the United States around the 1860s by African-Americans from roots in African musical traditions, African-American work songs, and spirituals.

Blues incorporated spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, is characterized by the call-and-response pattern, the blues scale and specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues is the most common.

Blue notes (or “worried notes”), usually thirds, fifths or sevenths flattened in pitch are also an essential part of the sound. Blues shuffles or walking bass reinforce the trance-like rhythm and form a repetitive effect known as the groove.

It is generally accepted that the blues existed during the time of slavery, and this belief is shared by blues performers. As one of them said – “the blues have been developing for centuries, and they have been written for years and centuries – they have always been here.” However, there is no reliable evidence that the blues existed before the Civil War or even until the second half of the 19th century.

Blues Chord Progressions

Within the framework of slave songs, there were forms that could have a significant impact on the formation of the blues. These include the tradition of collective chanting without accompaniment, which can be traced back to African sources. The model of group working songs “sang – chorus” died out after the disappearance of plantations. However, it survived in the correctional houses of the South until the 50s.

In the post-reconstruction era, black workers in the South were either engaged in seasonal collective work (cutting reeds or picking cotton) or leasing small plots of land on credit, which meant the same system of slavery and was called tenant-shareholding. Work songs took more and more the form of single shouts or “hollers”, which were relatively free-form. Shouts of this type have been recorded in the savannas of West Africa, such as Senegal, where open field work is more common.

Early researchers noticed that “hollers” or “screamers” could pick up with other workers or be passed from one to another. Although most commonly associated with cotton farming, it was also heard among mule drivers, dock workers, rice and sugar workers.

It was “a long, loud, musical rise and fall of the cry, turning into falsetto.

Frederick Law Olmsted’a (1853)

This description is matched by examples recorded centuries later, some of them missing the words “Field Call” Annie Grace Horn Dodson (Folkways P417, 1950).

Others combine improvised lines expressing the performer’s thoughts with elaborate syllables and melody – as in “Levee Camp Holler” (Tradition 1020, 1947) performed by “Bama”, recorded at the Parchman Correctional Home in Mississippi.

Some street screams can also be seen as an urban form of holler, although they serve a different function, such as “Blackberry Woman”, Dora Biggen of New Orleans (Folkways FA 2659, 1954). Holler, close in feeling and expression to the blues, may have been his predecessor. The earliest hollers recordings date from the mid-30s of the 20th century, but some blues recordings such as “Mistreatin ‘Mama” (Black Patti 8052, 1927) by harmonica artist Jaybird Coleman can be traced back to this tradition.

The origins of these vocal traditions can be found in African practice, but it is still not clear if African elements are inherent in all American music. During the period of slavery, drumming was prohibited in some countries, while in others it was simply not encouraged. The West African peoples, including the Senegalese, were characterized by the use of “talking” drums as a form of communication. Their rebellious potential led to their being banned, however, apparently they were allowed in New Orleans. Numerous drum or flute orchestras have been recorded in Tennessee and northern Mississippi since the 1960s, and there is evidence that they existed much earlier. Although their recordings sound outwardly African, it seems that these ensembles have their origins in the instrumentation of military bands. The origins of drum rhythms and flute percussion can probably be found in “pats” rhythms played on various parts of the body with the palms of the hands or on reed pipes, typical of rural areas.

Drumming was outlawed, but stringed instruments were permitted and often encouraged. Savannah Africans, with their enduring traditions of stringing, were the majority of the black population of America. These largely professional musicians, who have also acted as tribal historians and public commentators, have played roles close to those that would allow them to be considered the forerunners of blues performers.

1900’s antique cigar box guitar, homemade box instrument

Single-string instruments, or “diddley bows”, were common in the south. Swift dances of Anglo-Scottish-Irish origin merged with African synchronicity and intonation at the end of the Civil War, and after the Liberation, the fusion of African and British elements manifested itself in the exchange of songwriting between blacks and whites. In the late 19th century, in the years of post-Reconstruction, segregation laws were the result of a bitter attitude of white southerners towards blacks. In a sense, this has forced black communities to cultivate their own identity, which has resulted in the flourishing of centuries of black music. This was the period when ceremonial music flourished in jazz, and plantation dances and round dances were shifted to the piano to become ragtime.

However, it was also a period of stereotypical ragtime songs, in which blacks appeared as comical, deliberately naive, but at the same time immoral characters. Several hundred such songs were written, in which the subtext was built on the idioms of blacks with which they expressed ridicule or contempt. Tom Logan’s song “The Coon’s Trade Mark: a Watermelon, Razor, Chicken and A Coon” (1897) is typical of this genre. Other black authors also contributed to this genre – Ben Harney, Bert Logan, Cris Smith, Irving Jones. Some used genuine black idioms, while others, especially Jones, used artificial tricks to mimic stereotypes. Many of the phrases and musical elements of these songs, nurtured and fostered by the black folk tradition, have survived in the blues for decades.

Blacks borrowed Anglo-Scottish ballads and now extolled the exploits of black heroes in them. The earliest of them, probably, can be considered “Ballad Of John Henry”, which narrated about a dispute between a railwayman and a drill and was written in the 70s of the 19th century. But most scholars including Duncan and Brady, Stack O’Lee, John Hardy, and Po’Lasarus have been calculating this tradition since the early 20th century. It is most likely that the blues form was entrenched by the fusion of working song and the holler tradition with the instrumental music of the plantation and post-plantation era and European-oriented song structures widely adopted in the 19th century. Some of the popular black ballads such as “Railroad Bill” and “Frankie and Albert” featured a verse with a rhyming 3rd stanza as the chorus.

“See , see rider “,” Joe Turner Blues “,” Fare Thee Well Blues “are the earliest representatives of this type of songs.

It seems that this pattern became the basis of the blues structure, where the verse was replaced by a repeating line:

See, see rider, see what you have done
See, see rider, see what you have done
You’ve made me love you, now my man done come

The holler vocal form, not constrained by instruments, has become more formalized in the blues. 8-bar, 2-line blues were common, with four or five lines repeating. When the blues took on a certain form – the 3-line, the 12-bar stanza began to prevail. Inside it, many rhymed patterns were used, including AAA, ABC, ABB.

The form that followed the 12-bar sequence was also generally accepted, but consisted of a repeating verse: 1st after 4 measures, 2nd after 8. However, by the time the blues began to be recorded on records, the AAB form had become predominant.

… In the E-key, it consisted of 4 bars of the main key, two of which could be accompanied by a voice; The 4th bar fell on the dominant 7th; 2 measures per auxiliary measure, possibly accompanied by a voice, followed by 2 measures of the main key; 2 bars of the dominant 7th, accompanied by a rhymed line of the voice, and at the end – 2 bars of the main key. This sequence was followed in other keys, although blues guitarists preferred E or A, and jazz musicians preferred the key B. There are many variations, but this pattern is so widely known that the term “playing the blues” usually implies the use of this sequence.

Obviously, in the beginning, the blues were presented as a new song form, their names conveyed the indefinite meaning of the verses related to the topic. Previously collected samples became known as “Railroad Blues”, “Florida Blues” or “Atlanta Blues”, which often referred to relocation, or at least the intention to leave the house.

Mississippi John Hurt: Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor

Among other early examples such as “Make Me A Pallet On The Floor”, “See, See Rider”, many had an inherent directionality of expression that made the blues famous. But most of the early blues, though known only from the headline, are hardly narrative — they are more of a collection of poems than a sequence of ideas. As such, they were quickly absorbed and spread, and songwriters played an important role in this.

The repertoire of “songstors” – black American musicians of the post-Reconstruction period was distinguished by a great variety, it consisted of ballads, dance melodies, coon songs, ragtime and partially overlapped with the repertoire of white rural performers. Sometimes they were supported by performers on string instruments. Having chosen the guitar instead of the earlier banjos and violins, the second generation of “songsters” form a bridge between the traditions of older songs and the blues.

Some of these records have survived; one of them is “John Henry” (Vocalion 1094, 1927) by Henry Thomas from Texas (b. 1874 – d. ca. 1959), performed on two guitars and a flute. Perhaps this is one of the first recorded versions of this old song.

Frank Stokes, a blacksmith from Memphis (born Tatuyler, Mississippi, 1883 – d. 1954), belonged to the same generation, and his song “You Shall” (Paramount 12576, 1927) may date from the beginning of the Civil War. Jim Jackson (Hernando, Mississippi, c. 1880 – d. Hernando, c. 1938) was younger than Stokes, played guitar simply, but was extremely popular for the songs: “He’s In The Jailhouse Now” (Vocalion 1146, 1928) and ” Traveling Man “(Victor 38517, 1928). Such songs were included in the repertoire of every “songster”, so this tradition was widespread.

The earliest “songster’s” recording belongs to Papa Charlie Jackson (b. New Orleans, c. 1885 – d. Chicago, 1935), who played the banjo, who, according to Paramount, was: “a witty, cheerful, kind-hearted man.” Jackson worked at fairs, horse races and traveling shows, and recorded more mundane versions of black folk songs, including “Shave ’em Dry” (Paramount 12264, 1927). He was from Louisiana, and high-voiced Lyke Jordan, a brilliant instrumentalist, from North Carolina. ; his Pick Poor Robin Clean (Victor 20957, 1927) is considered outstanding.

The breadth of the “songsters” repertoire is attested to by the recordings of artists such as Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Blake. Living in Avalon, Mississippi, farmer and railroad worker Hart (b. Teok, March 1894 – d. 3. 11. 1966) was never a professional; thus, along with the quality inherent in his music, it is also important that it adheres to old traditions. When he made his earliest recordings including “Frankie” (Okeh 8560, 1928), “Stack O’Lee Blues” (Okeh 8654, 1928), “Spike Driver Blues” (Okeh 8692, 1928) on themes from “John Henry” , they were already considered ancient melodies.

A light rhythm and fast fingers were typical for him, his guitar playing perfectly emphasized his soft voice and almost always whispered singing. Hart played exclusively at local celebrations, while other performers traveled extensively around the country. Arthur Blake (Blind Blake) (born? Jacksonville, Florida, c. 1895 – d. C. 1935) was known as a performer and guitarist in Florida, Georgia and the Eastern states. He toured a lot, performed in Tennessee and even Detroit.


Between 1926 and 1932, he recorded about 80 pieces including “instrumental” ones, one of which, “Blind Arthur’s Breakdown” (Paramount 12892, 1929), demonstrated his unparalleled technique. His game was heavily influenced by ragtime – it was light and smooth. Many of his songs were well suited for dancing, such as “Come On Boys Let’s Do That Messin ‘Around” (Paramount 12413, 1926); others, such as “He’s In Jailhouse Now” (Paramount 12565, 1927), came from the repertoire of medical shows.

Blake had a melancholic voice, well suited to blues playing, and was a big winner on “Search Warrant Blues” (Paramount 12737, 1928), or “Cold Hearted Mama Blues” (Paramount 12710, 1928) with their sensual accompaniment and solos. Many performers and early bluesmen of the South participated in “medical shows” – street performances put on by vendors of brand name drugs to attract buyers.

Similar to 19th century shows and often with blacks, the blues were presented as old songs in these shows. Wandering performers, forced to sing and play for “survival” by need, physical condition, or inclination, also helped spread the blues. They followed the example of the street churchmen, who at about the same time ensured the popularity of gospel music. The performer, who sang and played only the blues, began to supplant the “songsters”.

The latter sang versions of the songs they had written, or in their ballads focused on the legendary Negro heroes; blues performers in their songs sang about themselves and about those who shared their experiences. Many stanzas soon became traditional and, along with certain images, entered the template stock of phrases of every bluesman. In the songs bluesmen expressed their anxiety, frustration or humility.

Some blues contain descriptions of disasters or personal incidents; crime, gambling, alcohol and imprisonment have always been the leading themes. Some blues are gentle, but few express the essence of this feeling; a much larger number expresses a desire to move or flee by train or road to some better land. Many have aggressive sexuality. Also in the blues there is a lot that, consciously or subconsciously, blacks identify with their perception of relations with society.


By 1910, white collectors of black folk songs from various parts of the south were turning their attention to the blues. EC Perrow, Howard Odum in Mississippi, John A. Lomax and Willard Gates Thomas in Texas all found samples. The performers themselves called some of them the blues, but in general the blues were among the other collected song types of blacks.

The new term attracted a variety of songwriters, notably WC Handy, the black band leader who had heard the blues performed by a Mississippi folk guitarist back in 1903. “The Memphis Blues” WC Handy was published in 1915, and the black singer Leroy “Lasses” White, published his “Nigger Blues” (1912) in 1913.

He was one of the first to compose in 12 bar form. White performer George O’Connor, one of the few who used the new and for that time rare blues form, recorded this song (Columbia A2064) in 1916. The song “Baby Seals Blues” by Baby F. Seals and ragtime pianist Artie Matthews (1912), Kansas City Blues (1914) by Euday Bowman and Hooking Cow Blues (1917) by Douglas Williams, despite the use of chorus and verse structure, contributed to the popularization of the blues among the white audience.

Published blues were supposed to be performed largely as written. This included compositions that sometimes used elements of blues tone or structure, including “Dallas Blues” by Hart Wand and Lloyd Garrett (1912), the first 12-bar blues to be published.

Many of the published pieces, while introducing a wide audience to the sounds of the blues, had little to do with the latter. However, they were a convenient form of expression for jazz improvisation, and this connection with jazz contributed to the notion that the blues arose out of jazz. The significance of published blues for the spread of blues among blacks has not yet been clarified. Few bluesmen could read sheet music, and the published blues could most likely be intended for jazz performers. Nevertheless, the colloquial use of the blues language was influenced by the folk tradition, or the early song forms from which both folk blues and written blues may have partially originated.

Country bluesmen did not often play composed blues: the rare exceptions include Jim Jackson’s recordings “St. Louis Blues” and “Hesitation Blues” (Vocalion 1477, 1930). Of the blues reproduced by publishing companies, only a small number appeared on paper, so it is unlikely that music on paper had an impact on the spread of blues in the South. More important were the recordings of the cabaret and stage performers: black singers, whose blues were often compositions written by black music composers.

Among them were “Crazy Blues” (1920) by Perry Bradford, “Arkansas Blues” (1921) by Anton Lad and Spencer Williams, “John Home Blues” (1922) by Albert Hunter and Lovie Austin, “Gulf Coast Blues “(1923) Clarence Williams. Similar blues songs probably influenced the village performers, whose images and phrases they reworked into their own compositions, although even the hugely popular “Crazy Blues”, recorded by Mamie Smith in 1920, was never recorded by southern blues performers, and most likely not performed by them.

Mamie Smith was not the first black artist to make her own record, but she was the first to sell her records to black buyers. In her youth, Mamie Smith (born Cincinnati, 05/26/1883 – d. New York, ca. 09/16/1946) toured as a dancer with Tutt-Whitney’s Smart Set Company, she was also the lead singer in clubs and theaters in Harlem before World War 1. “Crazy Blues” (Okeh 4169, 1920) was a huge success, which ensured the popularity of Mamie and the luck of her advertising agent Perry Bradford, and opened the way for recordings of black singers.

Other record companies were quick to respond to the success of Mamie Smith and Okeh, and armed with singers Edith Wilson, Rosa Henderson, Lucille Hegamin, Viola McCoy, began releasing phonograph recordings intended specifically for black audiences. Such records, called “racial” (a term suggested by Ralph Peer of Okeh), were grouped into number sequences. Okeh began its 8,000 series in 1921; among other racial series came the 12-thousanders of Paramount (since 1922), the 14-thousanders of Columbia (since 1923), the thousanders of Vacalions (since 1926), the 21-thousanders and 38-thousanders of Victor. Many smaller companies also published their own racial records, and by 1927 there were about 500 such records published annually. With the onset of the Depression, record sales declined and many concerns closed. But in 1933, Victor’s “Bluebird” subsidiary continued to publish them, competing with ARC (American Recording Corporation) firms. In 1934, the American subsidiary of the British company Decca began producing a successful 7000 racial series.
Although jazz recordings were also released in racial series, vocalists with instrumental accompaniment predominated. Between 1921 and 1925, these were predominantly spiritual and gospel quartets and female performers of the “classical” blues. Most of these women were professional touring under the auspices of TOBA (Engaged by the Theater Owners Association), which managed the black artists.

— History of Blues Music: Part 1 —

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