The Blues – a music of suffering and strength

The blues is a style of music that evolved in the Deep South in the late 1800s out of African American spirituals, work songs, and story songs.  It is strongly connected to the newly acquired freedom of African-Americans after the emancipation proclamation (1862). The lyrics of blues songs often express the suffering or pain felt by individuals while also often discussing the strength to keep moving forward.  There are two possible explanation for the term “blues” being used as a name for this style of music:

  1. the word “blues” refers to “the blue devils” which was a phrase used to describe sadness
  2. blue indigo was a plant used in West Africa to die the clothes of mourners after a loved one’s death.  This plant was widely grown on plantations throughout the south and its association with mourning was carried over into songs of African slaves who sang of their suffering.

Early blues were a popular form of music at “Juke Joints” which were black-owned, informal establishments where working class African-Americans went to listen to music, dance, gamble, and hang out with friends and neighbors.

Style and Structure
Traditional blues songs are built around a repetitive form that allows for vocal and instrumental improvisation (soloing).

  • Often 12 or 16 bars with specific chord progressions
  • Uses “blue” notes in melodies and solos which creates a distinctive dissonance against  the notes of the major scale.
  • Traditional blues lyrics often involve the repetition of one or more lines over the course of the chord progression with either instrumental solos in between the lines, over the entire progression, or both.
  • The blues is often associated either with a solo singer/guitarist (the “bluesman”) and sometimes a few other instruments (piano, harmonica, etc.) or by larger instrumental ensembles at dance halls and juke joints.
  • The blues eventually took on many different regional styles that reflected the time and place of blues performers.
    • Delta blues, Piedmont blues, Texas blues, Chicago blues, West Coast Blues, Country blues, Electric blues, blues-rock, etc.
  • The blues has played a major role in influencing other styles of music including jazz, country, rhythm and blues (R&B), and rock and roll.

Delta Blues

Delta blues is one of the earliest forms of blues music that originated in the Mississippi Delta – a large area between Mississippi and Arkansas known for fertile soil and poverty.   Although delta blues were not recorded until the 1930s, some form of delta blues existed at the turn of the 20th century (late 1800s into the early 1900s).  The main instruments used in Delta blues are the harmonica, guitar, and the cigar box guitar – a 2-4 stringed instrument that uses a cigar box as a resonator.  This instrument could be built cheaply and was played by many of the working poor in the Mississippi delta.  Often, the guitar in delta blues is played using a bottleneck slide which was a tubular piece of glass cut from the top of a bottle and used to slide up and down the strings.  Singing is also a major part of Delta Blues with vocals ranging from fiery passion to soulful introspection.

Freddie Spruell – believed to be first Delta blues musician recorded with his song “Milk Cow Blues” (1926).Martin&weaver

Robert Johnson – thought to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for the mastery of the blues.  Major influence on modern blues-rock musicians.  “Sweet Home Chicago” (1936)


Big Joe Williams – known for playing a nine string guitar and playing the festival circuit all over the world. “Baby Please Don’t Go” (1941).


Piedmont Blues

Piedmont blues is a type of blues from the Piedmont Plateau region on the East Coast between Virginia and Georgia that typically refers to a style of playing the guitar.  The Piedmont fingerstyle uses the thumb to play an alternating bass line while the 1st and sometimes 2nd finger play a melody on the higher strings.  Here’s a great video showing the classic Piedmont fingerstyle guitar playing by the late great Piedmont blueswoman Etta Baker:

Piedmont blues has a sound that is directly related to Ragtime music.  Ragtime is an upbeat genre of popular music the was most listened to from around 1895-1918.  It served as an uplifting contrast to the blues music of the time and it was often played in restaurants and clubs as dance music.

As ragtime was falling out of fashion and blues continued to be popular, piedmont guitarists combined some  of the elements of Ragtime into the blues.  Piedmont blues often have a similar sound on the guitar to Ragtime tunes played on the piano – both Piedmont Blues and Ragtime have syncopated melodies where the rhythms of the melody fall in between the beats rather than on the beats.


Piedmont Blues spread throughout the  Piedmont region of the United states as the technology of recording became more available and artists began recording and selling records.  This style of the  blues were nationally popular for about 20 years from the early 1920s to the late 1940s and continued to be played throughout the late 1950s at Folk festivals in the United States as well as certain blues guitarists to this day.

Blind Blake – “He’s in the Jailhouse Now”


Blind Boy Fuller – “Step it Up and Go”


Urban and Jump Blues

The blues played in cities was often more elaborate than in smaller communities because the performers had to adapt to a larger and more varied audience.  Urban Blues performers were often trying to make distinctions between themselves and the “down home” country stereotypes that some people had of the blues as a genre of music.  Often Urban Blues bands featured a greater variety of instruments including a horn section.  Female blues singers were popular in urban blues venues especially during the 1920s including Ma Rainey (the “Mother of the Blues”) and Bessie Smith (the “Empress of the Blues”).

Ma Rainey – “Bo-Wievil Blues”


Bessie Smith – “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”


Throughout the 1940s, Jump Blues was very popular in many cities. This style of blues evolved out of the “big bands” of the 20s and 30s which were large groups made up of a rhythm section (guitar, piano, drums, and bass), a horn section (saxophones, trombones, trumpets, etc.) and sometimes a singer.  While big bands played both blues and jazz, Jump Blues focused on playing a faster more driving style of blues that was meant to get people up and dancing.  This style often combined a “boogie-woogie” rhythm with playful, humorous lyrics and comments from the singer.  Boogie-woogie rhythms come from a style of music under the same name that often featured a piano playing a distinctive rhythmic bass line that outlined the chords of the song.


“Pinetop’s Boogie-Woogie”

Louis Jordan was one of the pioneers of jump blues as the bandleader of his group the Tympany Five.  Jordan was a singer and saxophonist who had a magnetic, energetic, and sometimes comic stage presence.  Known as the “King of the Jukebox,” Jordan was a “crossover” group that was popular with people of all races during a segregated time in the US.

Louis Jordan – “Jumpin at the Jubilee” and “Deacon Jones”


Electric Blues

Electric blues emerged in the 1930s but really took shape in Chicago during the 1940s.  Electric blues are characterized by the amplification of the the guitar, bass, drums, and sometimes harmonica.  During the 1930s, T-Bone Walker became the first star of early electric blues combining elements of the blues and jazz and featuring the electric guitar as the lead instrument.  His sound influenced many of the electric blues musicians who would refine the electric blues style during the late 1940s.  In 1942 he released the song “Mean Old World” which introduced the public to his distinctive sound.

T- Bone Walker – “Mean Old World”


During the late 1940s, Chicago became the center of a new sound developing in electric blues. This new sound was largely influenced by the Delta Blues played in Mississippi due to the large number of musicians who migrated to Chicago from Mississippi and was solidified by musicians like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.  Muddy Waters combined a strong electric rhythm section (guitar, bass, and drums) with the Delta Blues style and with the lead instruments trading improvised solos.  Some of his famous songs like “I Can’t Be Satisfied” don’t feature the harmonica but are great examples of electric slide blues guitar.

Muddy Waters – “I Can’t be Satisfied”


Another musician who helped to solidify the electric Chicago blues sound was Howlin’ Wolf whose booming voice, dominating physical presence and guitar/harmonica playing pushed him to the front of the Chicago blues scene.

Howlin’ Wolf – “Smokestack Lightning”