Walkin’ Blues: A Brief History of The Blues

Feb 17, 2021

The Blues is one of the oldest forms of popular music that is not only still wildly popular today, it hasn’t changed much over the years either. Like every genre of music, it has been taken in a lot of different directions and into countless sub-genres along the way, but blues tracks are still easy to recognize after only a few seconds.

Generally, it’s thought that the blues first appeared in the United States among African-American communities near the end of the 18th-century. It started out as a combination of African and folk influences, with a liberal sprinkling of spirituals and even spoken-word. Sung primarily by slaves, and existing in a time before recording technology, the songs were passed on by word of mouth through the generations.

February is Black History Month, and this week we’re going to explore a prolific musical genre that was created and popularized by African-American artists and continues to remain incredibly influential to today: The Blues.

Back to Basics

The first blues recording is often credited as “The Memphis Blues,” composed by W.C. Handy and released in 1912. By the ‘20s and ‘30s, many more recordings had been made and the earliest blues artists began to materialize. Artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, and Tampa Red were some of the first to make blues a legitimate style of recorded music. These men added new techniques, like using a knife or the neck of a bottle to play slides on the strings (this particular innovation went on to become an important part of both contemporary blues and country music today).

What’s more, the guitar was the standout instrument in these early years of blues – something that was relatively new in music. What’s more, the fact that the guitar is the main – and often only – instrument in early blues is reflective of the fact that this genre arose from poorer communities. In fact, the vast majority of blues all the way up to the 1960s was and is performed by a single musician with a guitar, using only the instrument, his voice, and his body to create the music.

The classic blues chord structure is simple and easily recognizable: I – IV – V. This simple sequence has been reused an astonishing number of times over the years, in everything from Mississippi Delta blues, through rock n’ roll (a direct descendant of the blues), and later blues rock, and ever heavier styles of music.

Unlike jazz, which can delight with its speed and complexity, the blues is relatively simple, both musically and rhythmically. The fun part of making the blues your own is in how well you manage to sing, write lyrics, or play solos. Although solos weren’t a big part of early blues, they have taken on more prominence as the genre moved from the fields and streets to concert halls, and from acoustic to electric guitars. In fact, solos rose out of a fundamental issue that comes from playing a lot of blues structures: if you’re playing in E and using a provocative song structure, you’ve got to do something to liven things ups a bit. Solos were the answer.

Blues Spreads

Although the blues got its start near the end of the 1700s, it would take until the 1950s for it to become a band phenomenon. Cities like Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, and St. Louis all became big blues towns. Musicians like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Willie Dixon used slide guitars, harmonicas, and a rhythm section of bass and drums that would go on to become the basis for countless blues acts to come.

In the ‘60s, the blues scene began to appear in the UK, with artists like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. These artists picked up the cues from American guitarists and musicians and created their own version of the genre. Eventually, the blues would go on to inspire rock and roll, and through that, nearly all of the popular music of the 1960s on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Blues Piano

The guitar is an iconic and invaluable part of the blues, but, as the genre has evolved the guitar’s dominance over the blues has eased. Now, the keyboard gets a lot of attention too. Artists like Dr. John, Ray Charles, Albert Ammons, and Otis Spann all started their careers playing mostly blues music on either the piano or Hammond organ.

And with the introduction of the piano as a mainstream blues instrument, several classics in the genre embrace the piano. Check out “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles, or “Hey Bartender” by Floyd Dixon.

Unlike most famous blues guitarists, blues piano players almost always mix in some other styles and genres throughout their careers. In fact, an accomplished blues pianist would usually dabble with – or even completely embrace – jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, gospel, funk, or a combination of any of these and more.

Blues of Today

By the end of the 1980s, a more commercial version of the blues, arguably mixed a little with country, had emerged. Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of this style’s earliest and most prominent figures, injected rock and roll edge into his fast-paced guitar blues. Doing so won him an immense audience.

Since the 1990s, the core of blues hasn’t changed much, but then, it didn’t really change much since the 1700s. What is has done, like so many genres before it, is melded and adapted with other styles of music from around the world to create some truly interesting takes on an old idea.

Ultimately, the blues is a kind of universal musical language – which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given it’s possible to trace so many of today’s popular music back to the blues if you try hard enough. There’s something reassuring and familiar in its tempo, structure, and chord sequences. Whether it’s a busker on a street corner with a three-stringed guitar, or a musical genius thundering away at the keyboard, blues is a kind of music that has proven its remarkable popularity and staying power!

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