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Gibson.com - 10 Great Electric Blues Live Albums
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Russell Hall 

It’s not surprising that many of the greatest-ever blues albums were recorded in front of a live audience. As is the case with folk music, the blues springs from communal traditions, with the artist often feeding off vibes given off by those gathered around him. Many great blues-rock albums – most notably the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East – were likewise recorded in concert settings. For the purposes of the following list, however, we’ve stuck mostly to the electric blues in its purest form.

Muddy Waters: At Newport (1960)

For many music fans, this album served as a wondrous initiation to blues music recorded in a live setting. Backed by a sensational band that included Otis Spann, James Cotton, and Pat Hare, Waters imbues classics like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Tiger in Your Tank” with an energy that outstripped, by far, their studio counterparts.

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Rural Blues:
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Structure And Development In The Post-Civil War South

by Ethan Crosby

Goin' down this road and I'm feelin' bad, baby,
Goin' down this road feelin' so miserable and bad,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

I'm tired of eatin' your corn bread and beans, baby,
Tired of eatin' your corn bread and beans, right now,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

I'm goin' down this road and I'm feelin' bad, baby,
Goin' down this road feelin so low and bad,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

These two dollar shoes is killin' my feet, baby,
Two dollar shoes is killin' my feet right now,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

Take ten dollar shoes to fit my feet, baby,
Ten dollar shoe to fit my feet right now,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

I'm goin' down this road and I'm feelin' bad, baby,
Goin' down this road feelin' so miserable and sad,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

I'm goin' where the weather suits my clothes, baby,
Goin' where the weather suits my clothes tomorrow,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

I'm goin' where that chilly wind don't blow, baby,
Goin' where the chilly wind don't blow tomorrow,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

I'm goin' down this road and I'm feelin' bad, baby,
Goin' down this road feelin' so miserable and bad,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.1

 

America has produced many forms of music that are genuinely American, but none have had such far reaching appeal and influence then the blues. The blues formed the basis for rock n' roll and is still a thriving musical form in it's own right. The developed separately in three different regions of the postbellum South: the Mississippi Delta and eastern Texas at the turn of the century, and in the Piedmont ten years later. These rural blues were carried from the plantations and prison farms to urban areas such as Chicago and St. Louis and eventually became the blues of John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, B.B. King and others. The blues also spawned rhythm and blues, which in turn became rock n' roll. This paper will explain what the blues is and how it developed into what we know now.

 

Rural Blues

 

Structure

It is very difficult to nail down the exact origins of the blues; the structure of the blues is very specific and very unique. The twelve-bar, AAB pattern is not found in any other music during the time the blues originated. The blues uses only three chords, the I, IV and V chords. The I chord is a chord built on the first tone of a scale, so if we were in the key of F, the chord would be built on an F. The IV chord, also called the subdominant, is a chord built on the fourth tone of the scale, in our example, a B-flat. The V chord, the dominant chord, is built on the fifth tone of the scale, or a C. In twelve-bar blues, which is the most common, there are three sets of four bars (or measures, whichever term you prefer). The second four bars is a repetition of the first four bars, with a slight variation, and then the third bar is something new, which brings the pattern full circle and the cycle repeats. Lyrics might look like this:

 

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knee,
Went to the crossroad, fell down on my knee,
Asked the Lord above to have mercy, save poor Bob if you please.2

Chord progression would be as follows:

    |1 |2 |3 |4 | 
|I |I |I |I |

|5 |6 |7 |8 |
|IV|IV|I |I |

|9 |10|11|12|
|V |IV|I |I |
This simple pattern is easily modified to eleven, thirteen and fourteen bars. The simplicity is one of the reasons the blues is so popular: it's simple to follow and to learn, and there is a certain measure of predictability to it.

 

Origins

The blues first emerged as a distinct type of music in the late-1800s.3 Spirituals, worksongs, seculars, field hollers and arhoolies all had some form of influence on the blues. Early blues were a curious amalgam of African cross- rhythms and vocal techniques, Anglo-American melodies and thematic material from fables and folktales, and tales of personal experience on plantations and prison farms. After the war, blacks were still slaves to King Cotton, and many found themselves struggling to support themselves working on plantations well into the mid-twentieth century, or struggling to support themselves as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. The blues developed into a distinct form of folkmusic as a direct result of this. The emergence of the blues coincided with the worsening of the social and economic conditions for blacks in the South.

 

Griots And The Oral Tradition

The blues follow the west African tradition of the "griots." The griots were the libraries of their tribe. They held the history and the culture of their tribe, often in songs, and passed that knowledge on to their descendants.

The African-American songsters who synthesized the blues from earlier genres of black folk music were descendants of the griots, carrying forward the historical and cultural legacy of their people even while they were setting a new agenda for political discourse and action. (3, p. 8)

These new griots helped to continue the oral tradition. Through their songs, they often expressed discontent with their situation and their hope for change.

 

Spirituals

 

They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.4

Spirituals are what Du Bois called "the Sorrow Songs." They were one way the slaves expressed their discontent and maintained hope in the face of hardship. They often used biblical motifs and characters, and spoke of redemption and hope of eventual triumph and freedom. They were one of the most important parts of the black oral tradition. Many of these sorrow songs contained a lyrical pattern very similar to that of the blues: often an AAB or AAAB pattern:

 

No more driver call me
No more driver call
No more driver call me
Many thousand die!
(3, p. 10)

Many of the spirituals also expressed some form of hope for freedom or relief from tribulation, usually by the hand of God. The slaves gained freedom from slavery, they were given a new set of chains, in the form of racial segregation, sharecropping and tenant farming. As times changed, so did the music, and the blues was one of the forms of music that emerged as the result of this.

 

Seculars

 

The big bee flies high,
The little bee makes the honey.
The black folks make the cotton
And the white folk gets the money
(3, p. 12)

Seculars served many purposes for blacks before, during and after the Civil War. They often glorified exploits of the slaves in spite of their white masters; they sang of chicken stealing and escape, often right under the nose of the authorities. They also complained about the status of the slaves as second class citizens and the hardships they had to endure as slaves; this they shared with many of the spirituals. Frederick Douglass recorded this song in his autobiography:

 

We raise the wheat,
Dey gib us de corn.
We bake de bread,
Dey gib us de crust.
We sif' de meal,
Dey gib us de huss.
We peel de meat,
Dey gib us de skin
And dat's de way
Dey take us in.
We skim de pot,
Sey gib us de liquor
And say dat's good enough for nigger.
Walk over, walk over,
Your butter and fat.
Poor nigger, you can't git over dat,
Walk over5

 

Field Hollers And Arhoolies

 

I'll tell you where the blues began. Back there working on them cotton farms, working hard and the man won't pay 'em, so the started singin', "Ohhh, I'm leavin' he one of these days and it won't be long." See, what's happenin' is givin' them the blues. "You gonna look for me one of these mornings and I'll be gone, ohhh yeah!" -- Sonny Terry (3, p. 18)

Field hollers and arhoolies began in the fields as musical exclamations that expressed the mood of the singer, and they eventually grew into longer phrases and verse. Few recordings of these exist, so we have to accept the testimony of the old bluesmen, such as Sonny Terry and Son House, as to their nature:

 

All I can say is that when I was boy we was always singing in the fields. Not real singing, you know, just hollering. But we made up our songs about things that were happening to us at the time, and I think that's where the blues started. -- Son House (3, p. 18)

The vocal techniques of these were very unique and they formed the basis for early blues vocals.

 

Worksongs

 

Born on a day when the sun didn't shine.
Picked up my shovel and I went to the mine.
Loaded sixteen tons o' number nine coal,
And the straw boss said well bless my soul.

Load sixteen tons, what do ya get,
Another day older and a deeper debt.
St. Peter don't you call me, cuz I can't go.
I owe my soul to the company sto'
(Traditional)

Another tradition that the slaves brought with them from Africa was that of worksongs. Worksongs were used to coordinate labor in the fields and homes in western Africa, and this tradition was continued in America. The rhythms of the songs necessarily reflected the rhythms of the repetitive labor, and these cross-rhythms found their way into the blues. Big Bill Broonzy and Huddie Ledbetter both recorded versions of a song called "Take This Hammer," and on one of his albums, Broonzy talks about where the song came from:

 

This is one of the songs that a friend of mine wrote back in the Twenties. "Course he recorded it in the Twenties but we'd been singin' this thing all up and down the levee camps and the street camps and the road camps and different places. The guy was named Huddie Leadbelly...The title of this is "Take This Old Hammer."6

The lyrics go like this:
Take this old hammer, take it to the captain,
Take this old hammer, man take it to the captain,
Tell him I'm goin', tell him I'm gone.

If he asks you, was I runnin',
If he asks you, was I runnin',
Tell him I was flyin', man tell him I was flyin'.

Take this old hammer, take it to the captain,
Take this old hammer, man take it to the captain,
Tell him I'm goin', tell him I'm gone.7

The form of the lyrics is the same as that of the blues and the theme is one that is constant in early rural blues: the man has become fed up with poor working conditions and runs away.

The term, "the blues," is in itself interesting. "Blue devils" were referred to as causing discontent and restlessness (3). The idiom is apparently of English descent. It evolved into term for a type of feeling (i.e. being blue, having the blues), and it further evolved into the name for the type of music.

 

Regional Development

After the end of the Civil War, the South was forced to abandon slavery, but did not abandon the plantation economy. The plantations still existed, and blacks still provided the labor, but now it was through a system of share-cropping and tenant farming. Blacks gave up large shares of their crops to the white landowners for use of field, tools and clothing, and they often ended up owing more to the landholders than they produced (2, p. 25). After the Civil War, blacks were still in a feudal economy with King Cotton at the top.

For the many blacks who found themselves in perpetual debt to white landowners, the only way out was to move away. Most black families moved every two to three years to escape debt (3). The idea of personal mobility is a theme that runs through many blues songs. Personal mobility was equated with individual freedom and the hope of better working conditions in new places.

Because of the intense poverty, these people were forced to create their own entertainment, and the blues was one form of that.

 

Mississippi Delta Blues

 

Development

 

Lord, that 61 highway, is the longest road I know,
61 highway, baby longest road I know,
It run from New York City, to the Gulf of Mexico.

I started school one Monday morning, Lord I throw'd my books away.
I started school one Monday morning, Lord I throw'd my books away.
Wrote a note to my teacher, Lord I'm gonna try 61 today.8

The homeland of the Delta blues stretched from Vicksburg, Mississippi in the south to Memphis, Tennessee in the north and from central Mississippi in the east to the Ozark plateau of Arkansas in the west. This land was previously uninhabited, but in the 1840s, white planters began to move into the Delta, and they brought their slaves with them. Cotton grew well in the fertile soil of the Delta, and the lumber industry boomed as well. After the slaves were freed, blacks continued to move into the region to work on the plantations, and this influx continued until World War I, when blacks outnumbered whites four to one (3).

The early Delta blues were closely akin to work songs and field hollers. The labor was hard, and workers sang the blues to make themselves feel better and to work their brain as they worked their bodies.

The first notation of Delta blues lyrics was made in 1903 by Charles Peabody, a white archaeologist who had hired a team of blacks as diggers at a site near Stovall, Mississippi (3, p. 27). Peabody wrote down some of the lyrics of the songs he heard, many of which were improvised on the spot. Howard Odum, a folklorist, traveled throughout the Delta on a field trip at the same time. More than half of the songs he heard and noted were blues.

The blues began in the fields, but when instruments were added, it quickly moved to recreational gatherings, such as picnics, barbecues and saturday night dances9. The guitar, harmonica and sometimes the piano began to replace the banjo and fiddle as the instruments of choice among black musicians. The rhythms of the blues made it excellent for dancing, and the music was easily followed. Square dancing became outmoded, in lieu of couple dancing and other forms.

The tradition of the saturday night dances originated during slavery. The slaves worked six days a week, and the only time allotted for recreation was Saturday nights (9, p. 20). Many slaveholders allowed their slaves to hold dances on the plantation or attend them at nearby plantations. After emancipation, this tradition continued.

The bluesmen who taught themselves to play their own instruments were the most musically innovative. They brought new music and new techniques to old instruments like the guitar. Many of these early bluesmen started out on homemade, one-stringed instruments that were made by attaching a taut wire to a house or barn (9). The player then plucked out a rhythmic pattern with one hand while sliding a glass bottle along the wire to control tone. This slider technique was easily transferred to the guitar.

The slider technique has become synonymous with early Delta blues. Guitarists would slide a rock, a bottle-neck or a knife along the strings. Using a slider, the guitar could approximate the tones of the human voice; it also allowed the guitarist to pluck out the rhythm on the bass strings while playing a melody on the treble strings.

Delta blues strike the ear as being stripped down to the essentials. There is very little ornamentation and the vocals are often harsh and raspy, like field hollers. The songs are generally very serious in nature. The instruments often have a powerful, driving rhythm that accelerates as the song progresses.

 

Culmination

 

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knee,
Went to the crossroad, fell down on my knee,
Asked the Lord above to have mercy, save poor Bob if you please.10

The first blues artists in the Delta were part-time musicians. They worked as field hands on cotton farms in the daytime, and played the blues for tips and drinks at parties, picnics and dances. The moonlighting that these men did kept the blues closely tied to the farm community and the hardships that went with it. As artists' followings grew, many of them recorded their songs for money and managed to be come independent from farm salary (3).

In addition to cotton plantations, Delta had a large and notorious contract levee labor system. Levees were the sole defense from flooding in the river valley, and the blacks provided the labor for building and maintaining of them. Labor contractors hired a labor force, predominantly black, and the laborers lived on the levee site (3). The laborers found themselves in a situation much like that of the sharecroppers and tenant farmers. All food, clothing and entertainment was provided by the contractor at exorbitant prices. They often ended up owing the contractor money. The labor contractors hired bluesmen to perform on the weekends. Many performers who later gained fame outside of the Delta worked as weekend entertainers for levee workers.

In the twenties, the terrible living and working conditions caused the beginnings of a migration from the Delta. In the forefront of this migration were many of Mississippi's finest blues musicians, whose music often encouraged the exodus. Henry Sloan, Joe Hicks, Frank Stokes, Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon, Jim Jackson, J.D. Short, Big Joe Williams, and Big Bill Broonzy all had abandoned the state for points north by the 1920s. (3, p. 54)

 

East Texas Blues

 

If you ever go to Memphis,
Man, you better walk right,
Cause the police'll arrest you,
And he'll carry you down.
Take you down to the station,
With a gun in his hand,
And the judge will tell you,
You been a naughty man.

Let the Midnight Special
Shine her light on me,
Let the Midnight Special
Shine her everlovin' light on me.11

The cotton belt in Texas has an area of about 300 square miles. It is rimmed by Houston, Austin and Dallas, and is cut by the Trinity and Brazos rivers. Slaves were moved into this area during the war to avoid the Emancipation Proclamation (3, p. 56). After the war, Texas also maintained its plantation economy, and in addition, Texas had a large and infamous prison farm system. Gangs of prisoners, predominantly black, were leased to white landowners. This system helped to keep the tradition of the worksong alive.

Worksongs were the largest influence on East Texas blues, both on the repertoire of early bluesmen and the vocal styles. The vocals are much breathier than Delta blues, they are less raspy. The songs are also less dependant on traditional lyrics. The guitar or piano is often played percussively. Many artists feature a steady, thumping groundbeat in the lower strings. The treble strings play an insistent short phrase after each vocal line, that is responsorial, and often rhythmically free.

Gates Thomas was the first to note a blues song in Texas. In 1890, he wrote down the lyrics to a song called "Nobody There," which features lyrics similar to the traditional AAB pattern:

 

That you nigger man, knockin, at my door?
Hear me tell you nigger man,
Nobody there no more.
(3, p. 64)

After the turn of the century, Thomas noted the lyrics to several other songs that are now recognized as being blues classics.

Texas was rather isolated from the entertainment industry, so styles and repertoires were able to mature without commercial influences. In 1925, Blind Lemon Jefferson became "the first southern self-accompanied folk blues artist to succeed commercially on records, and his success can be said to have opened the door to all the others who followed in the next few years."12 Jefferson sold albums throughout the south. He was born blind, and turned to the blues as the only means of self-sufficience for a black man in the south.

 

East Coast Piedmont Blues

The Piedmont stretches from Atlanta, Georgia to Richmond, Virginia. It is bordered on the east and west by the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic coastal lowlands. Tobacco and Cotton were the key crops of this region. Many blues artists from this region sang of "pickin' low cotton" (3). Because the Piedmont was one of the first areas to be settled and cultivated, the soil had become depleted by the early twentieth century. The economies of this area were based on either cotton or tobacco, and this one-crop economy led to further depletion of the soil. Crops grown in this depleted soil were much smaller than those grown in the fertile soil to the west.

Because of the drop in crop production, a move was made to create a "New South" through industrialization. White farmers, whose farms were failing, were taking the jobs in the factories, and the blacks were left out. The blues were a collective response to the racism and oppression felt in the region.

The Blues arose as a distinct form of folk music much later in the Piedmont than in the rest of the South. One hypothesis for this slow development sites the strong anglican folk tradition. Because of the rigid segregation in the region, this hypothesis is suspect. Samuel Charters suggests a different reason (3, 81). He believes that the rigid African folk tradition slowed the emergence of the blues. The folk tradition was very well established in the black community, and it simply would not change. Heavy racial antagonism served to strengthen resistance.

When the blues did begin to emerge it was based on the folk tradition. Techniques that had been used on the banjo were transferred to the guitar. The Piedmont was much less isolated than the Delta or Texas because of the proximity to the population centers of the North. Musicians took folk traditions and fused them with other types of popular music. One of these new types of music was ragtime, which put African-style crossrhytms underneath European melodies, creating a new type of music. Ragtime became a large part of Piedmont blues.

Another part of the spread of the blues were medicine shows. Many black musicians found employment as entertainers to draw people to medicine shows, where men tried to sell "medicine" to the crowds. These shows helped to disseminate the new music styles much more quickly.

Family ties were also important. In areas such as southwestern Virginia, many musicians learned from members of their family. Families often played together in bands.

Durham, North Carolina was one of the focal points of the tobacco industry and became a focal point of the Piedmont blues. The Duke family set up their tobacco factories in Durham and employed black workers with higher wages. The result was a great influx of black workers who brought the blues with them. Many musicians worked in the factories in the day and performed for tips on the streets at night. This also aided the development and dissemination of the blues. The large blues tradition is also the reason for the name of the Duke University "Blue Devils."

The Piedmont blues is a very different form of music than that of the Delta or Texas. Ragtime stylings form the basis along with techniques transferred from the banjo. Musicians used their thumb to strum down low while finger-picking the melody higher up on the neck of the instrument.

Ultimately, the things that made the Piedmont blues so unique are the same elements that caused it to die out. The blues began to change when it was moved to the city. Delta and Texas blues styles were easily transferred to the electric guitar, and the blues took off from there. Unfortunately, the Piedmont blues did not adapt well to the electric guitar; the ragtime rhythms and finger picked runs did not sound good when amplified. Also, blues began to fall into a national pattern. The American Federation of Musicians banned new commercial recordings from August of 1942 until September of 1943.13 Two of the larger record labels, Victor and Columbia, lost their preeminence because they refused to pay royalties to the AFM. The smaller labels that sprang up to fill the gap focused more on gospels and rhythm and blues, which is very different. Urban centers became the repositories of the blues, and the Piedmont was left out. Eventually, Piedmont blues fell into obscurity.

 

Conclusions

 

No food on my table, no shoes to go on my feet,
No food on my table and no shoes to go on my feet,
My children cry for mercy, Lord they ain't got no place to
call their own.14

The blues arose both as a form of social protest and as a means of expression. The music is very personal both to the artists and the listeners. As blacks migrated to find jobs in more tolerant northern factories, they took the blues with them and began the process that gave us urban blues, rock 'n roll and rap.

The blues is one of the few forms of American music that has stayed with us since its inception a century ago. The blues began in the south and moved to the cities of the north, and today, the blues still come to mind when people speak of Chicago and St. Louis. Every year, thousands of people attend blues festivals all over the country. The blues is still alive and well in America.

 

Endnotes

1. Big Bill Broonzy, "I'm Goin' Down the Road," on Black Brown & White, Storyville Records

2. Robert Johnson, "Crossroad Blues," on Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues, Columbia CL 30034

3. William Barlow, "Looking Up at Down: the Emergence of Blue Culture, Philadelphia: Temple University Press (1989). Further references to this work will be made parenthetically within the text.

4. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, New York: Bantam Books (1989), p. 179-180. Further references to this work will be made parenthetically within the text.

5. Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself, New York: Pathway (1941), pp. 146-147

6. Big Bill Broonzy, on Black, Brown & White

7. Big Bill Broonzy, "Take This Hammer," ibid.

8. Fred MacDowell, "Highway 61," from Fred MacDowell: Mississippi Delta Blues, Arhoolie CD 304

9. Samuel Charters, "Workin' on the Building: Roots and Influences," from Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians, Lawrence Cohn ed., New York: Abbeville Press (1993), p. 16. Further references to this article will be made parenthetically within the text.

10. Robert Johnson, "Crossroad Blues," from Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, Sony/Legacy 46222

11. This is a traditional work song. The Midnight Special was a train that left Houston at midnight, bound for points west. The train ran past the Sugarland prison farm, and the light at the front of the train became a symbol for freedom and mobility to blacks in East Texas.

12. David Evans, "Goin' Up the Country: Blues in Texas and the Deep South," from Nothing But the Blues, ibid. Further references to this article will be made parenthetically within the text.

13. Bruce Basin, "Trucking' My Blues Away: East Coast Piedmont Styles," from Nothing But the Blues, ibid.

14. John Lee Hooker, "No Shoes," from Travelin', Vee Jay 81023

 

 
The Crossroads
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by Daniel Leary

Mythic Narrative, 1st Variation:

Story of the bluesman, the Devil, and the deal at the crossroads, as retold in Stephen Davis's Hammer of the Gods.

In the delta of the Mississippi River, where Robert Johnson was born, they said that if an aspiring bluesman waited by the side of a deserted country crossroads in the dark of a moonless night, then Satan himself might come and tune his guitar, sealing a pact for the bluesman's soul and guaranteeing a lifetime of easy money, women, and fame. They said that Robert Johnson must have waited by the crossroads and gotten his guitar fine-tuned.

Mythic Narrative, 2nd Variation:

Cross Road Blues, as recorded by Robert Johnson, Friday, November 27, 1936, San Antonio, Texas.
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A Brief History of the Blues
Istorijos - Bliuzo istorija
by Robert M. Baker

Joseph Machlis says that the blues is a native American musical and verse form, with no direct European and African antecedents of which we know. (p. 578) In other words, it is a blending of both traditions. Something special and entirely different from either of its parent traditions. (Although Alan Lomax cites some examples of very similar songs having been found in Northwest Africa, particularly among the Wolof and Watusi. p. 233)

The word 'blue' has been associated with the idea of melancholia or depression since the Elizabethan era. The American writer, Washington Irving is credited with coining the term 'the blues,' as it is now defined, in 1807. (Tanner 40) The earlier (almost entirely Negro) history of the blues musical tradition is traced through oral tradition as far back as the 1860s. (Kennedy 79)

When African and European music first began to merge to create what eventually became the blues, the slaves sang songs filled with words telling of their extreme suffering and privation. (Tanner 36) One of the many responses to their oppressive environment resulted in the field holler. The field holler gave rise to the spiritual, and the blues, "notable among all human works of art for their profound despair . . . They gave voice to the mood of alienation and anomie that prevailed in the construction camps of the South," for it was in the Mississippi Delta that blacks were often forcibly conscripted to work on the levee and land-clearing crews, where they were often abused and then tossed aside or worked to death. (Lomax 233)

Alan Lomax states that the blues tradition was considered to be a masculine discipline (although some of the first blues songs heard by whites were sung by 'lady' blues singers like Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith) and not many black women were to be found singing the blues in the juke-joints. The Southern prisons also contributed considerably to the blues tradition through work songs and the songs of death row and murder, prostitutes, the warden, the hot sun, and a hundred other privations. (Lomax) The prison road crews and work gangs where were many bluesmen found their songs, and where many other blacks simply became familiar with the same songs.

Following the Civil War (according to Rolling Stone), the blues arose as "a distillate of the African music brought over by slaves. Field hollers, ballads, church music and rhythmic dance tunes called jump-ups evolved into a music for a singer who would engage in call-and-response with his guitar. He would sing a line, and the guitar would answer it." (RSR&RE 53) (author's note: I've seen somewhere, that the guitar did not enjoy widespread popularity with blues musicians until about the turn of the century. Until then, the banjo was the primary blues instrument.) By the 1890s the blues were sung in many of the rural areas of the South. (Kamien 518) And by 1910, the word 'blues' as applied to the musical tradition was in fairly common use. (Tanner 40)

Some 'bluesologists' claim (rather dubiously), that the first blues song that was ever written down was 'Dallas Blues,' published in 1912 by Hart Wand, a white violinist from Oklahoma City. (Tanner 40) The blues form was first popularized about 1911-14 by the black composer W.C. Handy (1873-1958). However, the poetic and musical form of the blues first crystallized around 1910 and gained popularity through the publication of Handy's "Memphis Blues" (1912) and "St. Louis Blues" (1914). (Kamien 518) Instrumental blues had been recorded as early as 1913. Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, 'Crazy Blues' in 1920. (Priestly 9) Priestly claims that while the widespread popularity of the blues had a vital influence on subsequent jazz, it was the "initial popularity of jazz which had made possible the recording of blues in the first place, and thus made possible the absorption of blues into both jazz as well as the mainstream of pop music." (Priestly 10)

American troops brought the blues home with them following the First World War. They did not, of course, learn them from Europeans, but from Southern whites who had been exposed to the blues. At this time, the U.S. Army was still segregated. During the twenties, the blues became a national craze. Records by leading blues singers like Bessie Smith and later, in the thirties, Billie Holiday, sold in the millions. The twenties also saw the blues become a musical form more widely used by jazz instrumentalists as well as blues singers. (Kamien 518)

During the decades of the thirties and forties, the blues spread northward with the migration of many blacks from the South and entered into the repertoire of big-band jazz. The blues also became electrified with the introduction of the amplified guitar. In some Northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, during the later forties and early fifties, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and Elmore James among others, played what was basically Mississippi Delta blues, backed by bass, drums, piano and occasionally harmonica, and began scoring national hits with blues songs. At about the same time, T-Bone Walker in Houston and B.B. King in Memphis were pioneering a style of guitar playing that combined jazz technique with the blues tonality and repertoire. (RSR&RE 53)

In the early nineteen-sixties, the urban bluesmen were "discovered" by young white American and European musicians. Many of these blues-based bands like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream, Canned Heat, and Fleetwood Mac, brought the blues to young white audiences, something the black blues artists had been unable to do in America except through the purloined white cross-over covers of black rhythm and blues songs. Since the sixties, rock has undergone several blues revivals. Some rock guitarists, such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Eddie Van Halen have used the blues as a foundation for offshoot styles. While the originators like John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins and B.B. King--and their heirs Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and later Eric Clapton and the late Roy Buchanan, among many others, continued to make fantastic music in the blues tradition. (RSR&RE 53) The latest generation of blues players like Robert Cray and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others, as well as gracing the blues tradition with their incredible technicality, have drawn a new generation listeners to the blues.

 

The Blue Tonalities And What Defines The Blues

There are a number of different ideas as to what the blues really are: a scale structure, a note out of tune or out of key, a chord structure; a philosophy? The blues is a form of Afro-American origin in which a modal melody has been harmonized with Western tonal chords. (Salzman 18) In other words, we had to fit it into our musical system somehow. But, the problem was that the blues weren't sung according to the European ideas of even tempered pitch, but with a much freer use of bent pitches and otherwise emotionally inflected vocal sounds. (Machlis 578) These 'bent'pitches are known as 'blue notes'.

The 'blue notes' or blue tonalities are one of the defining characteristics of the blues. Tanner's opinion is that these tonalities resulted from the West Africans' search for comparative tones not included in their pentatonic scale. He claims that the West African scale has neither the third or seventh tone nor the flat third or flat seventh. "Because of this, in the attempt to imitate either of these tones the pitch was sounded approximately midway between [the minor AND major third, fifth, or seventh], causing what is called a blue tonality." (Tanner 37) When the copyists attempted to write down the music, they came up with the so-called "blues scale," in which the third, the seventh, and sometimes the fifth scale-degrees were lowered a half step, producing a scale resembling the minor scale. (Machlis 578) There are many nuances of melody and rhythm in the blues that are difficult, if not impossible to write in conventional notation. (Salzman 18) But the blue notes are not really minor notes in a major context. In practice they may come almost anywhere. (Machlis 578)

Before the field cry, with its bending of notes, it had not occurred to musicians to explore the area of the blue tonalities on their instruments. (Tanner 38) The early blues singers would sing these "bent" notes, microtonal shadings, or "blue" notes, and the early instrumentalists attempted to duplicate them. (Kamien 520) By the mid-twenties, instrumental blues were common, and "playing the blues" for the instrumentalist could mean extemporizing a melody within a blues chord sequence. Brass, reed, and string instrumentalists, in particular, were able to produce many of the vocal sounds of the blues singers. (Machlis 578-9)

 

Blues Lyrics

Blues lyrics contain some of the most fantastically penetrating autobiographical and revealing statements in the Western musical tradition. For instance, the complexity of ideas implicit in Robert Johnson's 'Come In My Kitchen,' such as a barely concealed desire, loneliness, and tenderness, and much more:

 

You better come in my kitchen, It's gonna be rainin' outdoors.
Blues lyrics are often intensely personal, frequently contain sexual references and often deal with the pain of betrayal, desertion, and unrequited love (Kamien 519) or with unhappy situations such as being jobless, hungry, broke, away from home, lonely, or downhearted because of an unfaithful lover. (Tanner 39)

The early blues were very irregular rhythmically and usually followed speech patterns, as can be heard in the recordings made in the twenties and thirties by the legendary bluesmen Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson and Lightnin' Hopkins among others. (RSR&RE 53) The meter of the blues is usually written in iambic pentameter. The first line is generally repeated and third line is different from the first two. (Tanner 38) The repetition of the first line serves a purpose as it gives the singer some time to come up with a third line. Often the lyrics of a blues song do not seem to fit the music, but a good blues singer will accent certain syllables and eliminate others so that everything falls nicely into place. (Tanner 38)

The structure of blues lyrics usually consists of several three-line verses. The first line is sung and then repeated to roughly the same melodic phrase (perhaps the same phrase played diatonically a perfect fourth away), the third line has a different melodic phrase:

 

I'm going to leave baby, ain't going to say goodbye. I'm going to leave baby, ain't going to say goodbye. But I'll write you and tell you the reason why. (Kamien 519)

 

Construction Of The Blues

Most blues researchers claim that the very early blues were patterned after English ballads and often had eight, ten, or sixteen bars. (Tanner 36) The blues now consists of a definite progression of harmonies usually consisting of eight, twelve or sixteen measures, though the twelve bar blues are, by far, the most common.

The 12 bar blues harmonic progression (the one-four-five) is most often agreed to be the following: four bars of tonic, two of subdominant, two of tonic, two of dominant, and two of tonic. Or, alternatively, I,I,I,I,IV,IV,I,I,V,V,I,I. Each roman numeral indicates a chord built on a specific tone in the major scale. Due to the influence of rock and roll, the tenth chord has been changed to IV. This alteration is now considered standard. (Tanner 37) In practice, various intermediate chords, and even some substitute chord patterns, have been used in blues progressions, at least since the nineteen-twenties. (Machlis 578) Some purists feel that any variations or embellishments of the basic blues pattern changes its quality or validity as a blues song. For instance, if the basic blues chord progression is not used, then the music being played is not the blues. Therefore, these purists maintain that many melodies with the word "blues" in the title, and which are often spoken of as being the blues, are not the blues because their melodies lack this particular basic blues harmonic construction. (Tanner 37) I believe this viewpoint to be a bit wide of the mark, because it places a greater emphasis on blues harmony than melody.

The principal blues melodies are, in fact, holler cadences, set to a steady beat and thus turned into dance music and confined to a three-verse rhymed stanza of twelve to sixteen bars. (Lomax 275) The singer can either repeat the same basic melody for each stanza or improvise a new melody to reflect the changing mood of the lyrics. (Kamien 519) Blues rhythm is also very flexible. Performers often sing "around" the beat, accenting notes either a little before or behind the beat. (Kamien)

Jazz instrumentalists frequently use the chord progression of the twelve-bar blues as a basis for extended improvisations. The twelve or sixteen bar pattern is repeated while new melodies are improvised over it by the soloists. As with the Baroque bassocontinuo, the repeated chord progression provides a foundation for the free flow of such improvised melodic lines. (Kamien 520)

 

Conclusion

One of the problems regarding defining what the blues are is the variety of authoritative opinions. The blues is neither an era in the chronological development of jazz, nor is it actually a particular style of playing or singing jazz. (Tanner 35) Some maintain (mostly musicologists) that the blues are defined by the use of blue notes (and on this point they also differ - some say that they are simply flatted thirds, fifths, and sevenths applied to a major scale [forming a pentatonic scale]; some maintain that they are microtones; and some believe that they are the third, or fifth, or seventh tones sounded simultaneously with the flatted third, or fifth, or seventh tones respectively [minor second intervals]). Others feel that the song form (twelve bars, one-four-five) is the defining feature of the blues. Some feel that the blues is a way to approach music, a philosophy, in a manner of speaking. And still others hold a much wider sociological view that the blues are an entire musical tradition rooted in the black experience of the post-war South. Whatever one may think of the social implications of the blues, whether expressing the American or black experience in microcosm, it was their "strong autobiographical nature, their intense personal passion, chaos and loneliness, executed so vibrantly that it captured the imagination of modern musicians" and the general public as well. (Shapiro 13)

 

Works Cited

Kamien, Michael. _Music: An Appreciation_. 3d Ed. N.Y.: McGraw Hill, 1984.; Kennedy, Michael. _The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music_. N.Y.: 1980.; Lomax, Alan. _The Land Where the Blues Began_. N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 1993.; Pareles, Jon and Patricia Romanowski, eds. _The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll_.N.Y.: Rolling Stone Press, 1983.; Priestly, Brian. _Jazz On Record: A History_. N.Y.: Billboard Books, 1991.; Salzman, Eric and Michael Sahl. _Making Changes_. N.Y.: G. Schirmer, 1977.; Shapiro, Harry. _Eric Clapton: Lost in the Blues_. N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1992.; Tanner, Paul and Maurice Gerow. _A Study of Jazz_. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown Publishers, 1984.
 
A Short Blues History
Istorijos - Bliuzo istorija
bluescrossroads.jpg (136346 bytes)The Crossroads
The origins of blues is not unlike the origins of life. For many years it was recorded only by memory, and relayed only live, and in person. The Blues were born in the North Mississippi Delta following the Civil War. Influenced by African roots, field hollers, ballads, church music and rhythmic dance tunes called jump-ups evolved into a music for a singer who would engage in call-and-response with his guitar. He would sing a line, and the guitar would answer.

From the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, and the platform of the Clarksdale Railway Station, the blues headed north to Beale Street in Memphis. The blues have strongly influenced almost all popular music including jazz, country, and rock and roll and continues to help shape music worldwide

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