Where did blues come from musically? What are the roots of the music? Is it still the same? Were there different eras of sound? Did the performers just follow trends? Was the term blues originally a buzz word for the music much as rock would later become or for that matter alternative or grunge? Was it a term meant to describe the sound of the music? If so how come Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson and T-Bone Walker really sound nothing alike? All recorded within 20 years of each other and yet sounded very different.
Blue has been associated with sadness since the 16th century. The blues is short for blue devils, which were demons believed to cause depression and have been referred to since 1616. The phrase “the blues” has been with us since 1741.
I think it would be fair to say that, musically, blues was derived from the old folk songs, African music, rags, jazz, gospel, work songs and hollers, the travelling minstrel shows and vaudeville, and even Hawaiian music. Which was the truest influence is hard to say and in the course of this article may prove to be unimportant.
The music called blues today is quite different than what they called blues back at the dawn of the music. Even the old songs that are redone today bare no real allegiance to the original versions. In reality, when you look back where blues started and where blues is today it has very few similarities. Occasionally you will get a throw back to the delta sound or the even earlier sounds of the blues women of the 1920’s but it is just that – a throwback.
Personally, and this may get some opposition or discussion, I believe that the term blues had come to mean whatever they wanted it to at the time it was used. A sales term if you will, in which the record companies felt they could sell more copies by calling something blues. The blues women of the 20’s were a very hot commodity; selling millions of records. So tagging blues onto the new uncategorised music being recorded from the delta would help it sell.
Which is the original blues? The blues women of the 20’s? The Delta sound that was prominent on record in the 1930’s? Or was it something even earlier? Could there have been two or three different strains that became associated? Was it a marriage of convenience? Was the first blues from the musician that WC Handy heard on the platform of the Tutwiler train station that night in 1903 or the singer that Ma Rainey heard in 1902? Of course it was neither of these. The music did not come out of a vacuum. Handy’s style borrowed heavily from ragtime and jazz and yet what he heard at the station was probably some very primitive style slide guitar which at the time was quite often referred to as Hawaiian guitar. How was what Handy played called blues and yet it bore no resemblance to it’s inspiration? Ma Rainey was more closely aligned with the minstrel shows and vaudeville and the pop singers of the day. These are 3 very distinct sounds with very different sources and yet all are called blues.
The first published blues songs, such as Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”, bore no real similarity to the music being played in the delta at that time. It was a blues because it had blues in the title. Listening to it reminds me more of Dixieland than it does anything else. The next wave of blues was the pioneering blues women of the 1920’s who in my mind came closer to the pop strains of the time and reached white audiences too which the delta singers of the 1930’s didn’t in any significant way. This was probably because Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson had very little in common at all.
Race records, as they were called, saved the recording industry in the 1920’s and it was the blues women, such as Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and Rainey, that led the way scoring huge sales of the singles that they released. So it would have been in the best interest of the record companies to call the delta style music blues or country blues too. The use of the term blues may have been a marketing ploy. The name brand of blues attributed to the female singers of the 1920’s was being applied to this brand of music. The term covered two fairly distinct sounds. In fairness, most people would say that the delta blues was the purest and most probably earliest form of the blues and rightfully should have been called blues but then you have to ask how you could call most of the music that was produced by the blues women of the 1920’s blues.
When alternative music became known it originally had a feel or a sound to it that was fairly understood but as that genre became more popular suddenly everything was alternative and most people had no idea what they were listening to genre-wise. It was the same when grunge became hot, suddenly any band from Seattle was called grunge whether they were pop or punk or anything in between. It was all due to marketing and didn’t adhere to any musical qualities. I think blues has had a similar evolution. Blues was a catch-all name for any race record before the 60’s that wasn’t jazz, gospel or easily categorised as something else.
If we look at the different eras of the music they are all quite different. Ma Rainey sang in vaudeville and travelling minstrel shows in the very early 1900’s. Considered the Mother of the blues she sang mainly old rags and pop songs of the day. WC Handy who is considered the father of the blues sounds nothing like the delta musicians. The Delta musicians really don’t sound that much like the Chicago blues musicians of the 50’s and 60’s.
The next great revival of the blues happened in the late 60’s with the British invasion bands like the Stones, Yardbirds and the Animals etc. These guys while basically rehashing, or downright stealing in the case of Led Zeppelin, the sounds of 1950’s Chicago but in a heavily amplified way. However, now it was called rock. Have a look and see if you find the Janis Joplin or Led Zeppelin in the blues bins in your local CD store. The term blues had been passed over in favour of a trendier one called rock. Black musicians were now making soul records and r&b records. The term blues was not selling anymore and was no longer in vogue.
In the 80’s when Stevie Ray Vaughan (SRV) arrived it was now called blues rock. We had a new sub genre. Having the term blues in the category gave the artist that authenticity and credibility that they wanted but also had rock in it to sell more records. While SRV definitely could play the blues he was more often than not in rock territory.
Nowdays many artists are tagged with blues as a descriptor of their music when in fact they play very little. Gary Moore and Beth Hart are two. While both are prodigiously talented and among some of my favourite artists to listen too they play mainly rock. Or is it blues? After all we can just change the tag to whatever the trend of the day is, can’t we? This in no way is an insult to any of these musicians. They are all great in their own way but I have a hard time calling some of them blues based on the sounds of the delta or 1950’s Chicago.
To me blues has a feel. I think I know it when I hear it but I also believe that anyone who loves blues would say the same thing and we may end up with different results. Blues is a feeling and it may be a personal one that each of us hears slightly differently. Thus the application of the tag blues may be irrelevant. We know it when we hear it. One thing I know is that Nickelback is not blues. However I get the blues when forced to listen to them. 🙂
So in the end, what is that common thread that runs from Ma Rainey or WC Handy to Joe Bonamassa? Is there one? Does it matter? I have my opinions and would be interested to read some of yours. Don’t be shy. Use the comment link.