The History of Blues Music: An Overview

The History of Blues Music: An Overview
By Jessica McElrath

Because of its personalized form, the popularity of blues music among blacks marked a unique period in the history of secular African American song. Prior to the emergence of the blues sometime in the 1890s, solo music was atypical. Such individualized song had never been the main ingredient of black music. Prior songs consisted of field hollers, which served as a means of communication among plantation workers, and work songs, which were used by slaves to keep time with a task. While field hollers and work songs had elements of personalized song, they had never truly developed as solo songs.

Despite the blues uniqueness from hollers and songs, it was forged from the same musical repertory and traditions. The call and response form of expression remained, but instead of incorporating a response from another participant, the blues singer responded to himself or herself. Thus, it was not created from a new type of music, but from a new perception about oneself.

Blues music reflected the new status of blacks. Slaves newly acquired freedom, Booker T. Washington’s teachings, and the Horatio Alger model, which asserted that the individual molds his own destiny, influenced this form of personalized music. According to historian Lawrence Levine, "there was a direct relationship between the national ideological emphasis upon the individual, the popularity of Booker T. Washington's teachings, and the rise of the blues. Psychologically, socially, and economically, Negroes were being acculturated in a way that would have been impossible during slavery, and it is hardly surprising that their secular music reflected this as much as their religious music did." (Levine, Lawrence W., Black Culture and Black Consciousness) As a consequence, it was the emphasis on the individual that influenced the blues personalized form of song.

The Emergence of the Blues
The blues was first sung by men at leisure and was called the folk blues. W.C. Handy, a composer, musician, and bandleader of the Mahara Minstrels, came across the blues in a Tutwiler, Mississippi train station in 1903. According to Handy, while he was waiting for the train he heard the unforgettable sound of a man running a knife against the strings of his guitar while he sang, “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog.” Handy was struck by the music, and never forgot it. Not long after, in 1912 Handy published “Memphis Blues,” making him the third person in a few months to publish a song with the name “blues.”

The first recording of the blues was in 1895. George W. Johnson's "Laughing Song" was the first blues song recorded. Thereafter, blues songs began to appear in music rolls. The 1906 series of Music for the Aedian Grand, listed one blues title among the forty-nine music rolls.

The Rising Popularity of the Blues
As folk singers migrated north in the early 20th century, they brought the blues with them. Joining them from New Orleans were “black-butt” pianists who played in honky-tonks; Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas gave way to the “Fast Western” pianists who sang as they played, imitating the sounds of southern guitarists. Country singers joined the New Orleans and “Fast Western” pianists’ migration, and brought their style to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and New York, where the classic blues singers united with these musicians and introduced their blues style in clubs, theaters, and dance halls. Classic blues singers brought a professional quality to it, and constructed the foundation for the classic blues.

The Classic Blues Era
The classic blues style, the style that was popularized by female singers, was popular among newly arrived blacks in the cities. The migration of many blacks to the cities gave them a new freedom from the church and community that had not been experienced in rural areas. Blacks demanded entertainment, and black theaters, dance halls, and clubs were opened. Women stopped singing in their churches and schools, and began to perform in theaters, clubs, dance halls, and vaudeville shows.

The blues entered the forefront in 1920, when Mamie Smith's recording of "Crazy Blues" became popular and opened the doors to other classic blues singers. The record was priced at one dollar and sold 75,000 copies the first month of release.

The market for the recorded blues was almost entirely black during the 1920s and 1930s, and the records became known as "race records." Record companies advertised exclusively to blacks and only black stores sold the records. As a result of Smith's success, record companies seized the opportunity to make a profit in the new market. Companies searched for talented blues artists; classic blues singers such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters became popular blues artists.

The Rise of the Country Blues
The popularity of the classic blues, however, began to decline. At the same time, male blues singers were on the rise. Record companies, such as Columbia, Paramount, and Okeh, made field trips into the South in search of talented blues singers. Record representatives recorded artists either with their mobile recording unit or arranged for them to travel north to Chicago or New York to record.

The rise of the country blues was marked by the recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson in early 1926. It was his May release of “Long Lonesome Blues” that set the stage for a new era of the blues. This time it was marked by male singers, including Blind Willie McTell, Barbecue Bob, and Charley Patton.

The Blues Hiatus & Its Revival
When the Depression hit the U.S. in 1929, many blues singers found it difficult to make a living. Record sales slumped and record companies tapered back on recording the blues. Nevertheless, the early blues was instrumental in influencing later blues singers like Muddy Waters. During the 1960s, white musicians from the U.S. and England discovered the old recordings of the early bluesmen and this lead the way to a blues revival. Today, the blues is recognized for its influence on other genres of music, such as rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and rap.
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