By Cathy Richey, the Cathy Factor
When you think of the blues, you might think about misfortune,
betrayal and regret. You lose your job, you get the blues. Your mate
falls out of love with you, you get the blues. Your dog dies, you
get the blues.
While blues lyrics often deal with personal adversity, the music
itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is also about overcoming
hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration,
letting your hair down, and simply having fun. The best blues is
emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music
communicates more genuine emotion.
The blues has deep roots in American history, particularly
African-American history. The blues originated on Southern
plantations in the 19th Century. Its inventors were slaves,
ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves - African-American
sharecroppers who sang as they worked in the cotton and vegetable
It's generally accepted that the music evolved from African
spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife
and drum music, hymns, and country dance music.
The blues grew up in the Mississippi Delta just upriver from New
Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Blues and jazz have always
influenced each other, and they still interact in countless ways
Unlike jazz, the blues didn't spread out significantly from the
South to the Midwest until the 1930s and '40s. Once the Delta blues
made their way up the Mississippi to urban areas, the music evolved
into electrified Chicago blues, other regional blues styles, and
various jazz-blues hybrids. A decade or so later the blues gave
birth to rhythm 'n blues and rock 'n roll.
No single person invented the blues, but many people claimed to
have discovered the genre. For instance, minstrel show bandleader
W.C. Handy insisted that the blues were revealed to him in 1903 by a
street guitarist at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi.
During the middle to late 1800s, the Deep South was home to hundreds
of seminal bluesmen who helped to shape the music.
Unfortunately, much of this original music followed these
sharecroppers to their graves. But the legacy of these earliest
blues pioneers can still be heard in 1920s and '30s recordings from
Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and other Southern states.
This music is not very far removed from the field hollers and work
songs of the slaves and sharecroppers. Many of the earliest blues
musicians incorporated the blues into a wider repertoire that
included traditional folk songs, vaudeville music, and minstrel
Without getting too technical, most blues music is comprised of
12 bars. A specific series of notes is also utilized in the blues.
The individual parts of this scale are known as the blue notes.
When the country blues moved to the cities and other locales, it
took on various regional characteristics, the St. Louis blues, the
Memphis blues, the Louisiana blues, etc. Chicago bluesmen such as
John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters were the first to electrify the
blues and add drums and piano in the late 1940s.
Today there are different versions of the blues. Forms include:
- Traditional county blues - A general term that describes the
rural blues of the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont and other
- Jump blues - A danceable version of swing and blues and a
precursor to R&B. Jump blues was pioneered by Louis Jordan.
- Boogie-woogie - A piano-based blues popularized by Meade Lux
Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, and derived from
barrelhouse and ragtime.
- Chicago blues - Delta blues electrified.
- Cool blues- A sophisticated piano-based form that owes much
- West Coast blues - Popularized mainly by Texas musicians who
moved to California. West Coast blues is heavily influenced by
the swing beat.
- The Texas blues, Memphis blues, and St. Louis blues consist
of a wide variety of subgenres. Louisiana blues is characterized
by a swampy guitar or harmonica sound with lots of echo, while
Kansas City blues is jazz oriented - think Count Basie. There is
also the British blues, a rock-blues pioneered by John Mayall,
Peter Green and Eric Clapton. New Orleans blues is largely
piano-based, with the exception of some talented guitarists such
as Guitar Slim and Snooks Eaglin. And most people are familiar
with blues rock.
One of the best blues songs, (my opinion), is "The Thrill is
Gone" by B.B. King. Awesome guitar player, and that song was a
huge hit. Johnny Lang and the Kenny Wayne Shepherd band are
popular blues rock musicians today, and were inspired and
influenced by earlier bluesmen.