Blues and Country Blues

Some essential notes

The Blues evolved in the early 20th century in the Southern United States from a mixture of African and European musical traditions and styles. African slaves had brought with them a great variety of musical styles depending on their place of origin.  What they all shared was a strong sense of rhythm and the use of blue notes in their singing. Soon they were confronted with the music of immigrants from Europe and their descendants such as waltzes, polka, folk music of all different kinds as well as classical music. Afro-Americans absorbed much of the European tradition and these elements together with their own background helped shape what was to be called the Blues.

Historically, the popularity of blues coincides with the rise of the commercial recording industry, the introduction of "race" records aimed at black record-buyers after 1920, and the emigration of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North. Many of the earliest black American recording stars were blues singers. The first blues songs to be recorded, often called "classic blues," were jazz-influenced songs in a vaudeville style, sung by the great blueswomen: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and others. These singers were often accompanied by pianists, guitarists, or even small jazz combos.

The Country Blues, also known as Traditional Blues or Folk Blues, it is considered an early form of the genre. It was first recorded in the mid-1920s. There are several regional styles of country blues, including among others Delta blues from the Mississippi Delta, Texas blues, and Piedmont blues from the Southeast. Country blues was usually recorded by a single male singer (sometimes female), self-accompanied on the guitar or piano, with perhaps an accompanying harmonica or simple percussion. Many of these musicians had bright, piercing voices.  For instance, in his first recordings, Blind Willie McTell sounded almost like a woman and quite different from what in later years and until today has often been termed a “typical” blues voice.
Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Papa Charlie Jackson, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie were among the most famos Country Blues artists.  Lonnie Johnson from New Orleans had a special status.
Although he made numerous recordings in a typical Country Blues style, he was equally at home in Jazz and was considered by many to be the greatest guitar virtuoso of his time.

Beginning in the 1930s, blues musicians fell under the influence of urban culture, including popular music and jazz. Combos incorporating piano, guitar, and percussion developed, although the country, "downhome" origins of the musicians were still evident in the music. Major musicians of the 1930s included Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Little Brother Montgomery, Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, Lonnie Johnson and Memphis Minnie.

After World War II, the use of electrified instruments became inevitable. During the 1940s, some blues bands even incorporated saxophones, although the preference was for amplified harmonicas, especially in Chicago, a predominant center of blues recording in the 1950s. Blues from this period is often called "urban blues", "electric blues," or simply "Chicago blues." Important urban blues musicians included Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, and B. B. King.

Most blues descriptions in literature are referring to the familiar three-line AAB verse form and a characteristic use of the familiar blues chord progression. However there have been at least as many blues songs that do not follow this 12-bar form. Like Champion Jack Dupree used to say: "The only bars I know are the ones where I can drink…" or a quote from Lightnin’ Hopkins: "Lightnin’ changes (chords/harmonies) when HE wants to change…". Listen to Blind Lemon, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Bill, Leroy Carr, Homesick James, John Lee Hooker, Robert Pete Williams, Frank Stokes, Blind Willie McTell etc. and you will find countless examples for one chord blues, 8-bar, 16-bar and other song forms.

It seems that there are as many attempts to define Blues music as there are musicians, fans, musicologists and other experts. It may be viewed from it’s historical or social background, from a purely technical point or from a highly personal one. What makes up the Blues seems to be a mixture of style, lyrics, sound, emotional content.

Blues is an African-American music that transverses a wide range of emotions and musical styles. "Feeling blue" is expressed in songs whose verses lament injustice or express longing for a better life and lost loves, jobs, and money. But blues is also a raucous dance music that celebrates pleasure and success.

Central to the idea of blues performance is the concept that, by performing or listening to the blues one is able to overcome sadness and lose the blues.

Blues remains with us in contemporary American culture, and as a traditional musical form it has been subjected to countless revivals and reinterpretations. Its current practitioners often integrate the sounds and instrumental pyrotechnics of rock music and the sheen of urban soul; but the twelve-bar form, variations on the blues chord progression, and emotive lyrical content remain relatively unchanged.

"Blues is a natural fact, is something that a fellow lives. If you don’t live it, you don’t have it…..Young people have forgotten to cry the blues. Now they talk and get lawyers and things." (Big Bill Broonzy)

"The blues is in my blood, you know? I can’t play, can’t sing nothin’ else. And I don’t want to,’ cause the blues is for me. It’s like a shoe, take a number seven shoe you sure can’t wear a size four. You wear the one that fits. The blues fit me." (Muddy Waters in "Jazz Monthly", Jan 1959. Quoted in "Blues Off The Record". Ibid. p.261.)

"Everybody who don’t have the Blues has got a hole in his soul" (James " Yank " Rachell)

main source: Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, Chicago  used by permission