What is 'the blues'?

Updated: May 28

Blues music can be traced back to ‘turn-of-the-century’ America and the African-American slave population. Whilst working in the cotton fields or in the prison chain gangs of the deep south they sang songs of protest. This was the birthplace of what we now refer to as ‘the blues’. Born out of the injustice and struggle their people faced at the time these protest songs often told stories of pain, suffering and heartache. Many of these protest songs would be later featured in artists work such as LeadBelly, B.B King, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and countless others. These chants often made use of the call-and-response technique with one singer leading the choir and the rest following, this can still be heard in modern blues music in the today. Utilizing the African-American communities strong links with ‘gospel music’ and ‘slave song’ the blues has always had a quality of authenticity about it, this music was more than just singing and playing; it represented an entire race of people yearning for freedom.

Some of the earliest blues music recorded that is still in circulation was credited to a man named Lawrence Gellert. Gellert was an eastern European immigrant to the United States and a keen collector of folk music. He began taking trips from his home in New York to places like North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia in the early 1930’s. There he collected recordings of the African-Americans working in the fields or in the prison yards, Gellert had a strong sense of his duty as a journalist as well as an understating of how important these songs would become in the American struggle for civil rights. At the time he was working as a contributor to the marxist magazine ‘Masses’ (a magazine with a close association to the Communist party) in which he wrote a column entitled ‘Negro Protest Songs’. He later even had an article written about him in ‘Time Magazine’ commending him on his efforts which stated that “Because of Gellert’s work a new genre of music had been discovered which at the time few white men had ever heard”. Through Gellert’s work people in the far left-wing circles began to recognize this was a whole new genre of music to which they had witnessed the birth of.

In the mid 1930’s musician Lead Belly (born Huddie William Leadbetter) was serving considerable jail time at the now world famous Angola Prison Farm for an attempted homicide charge. He was “discovered” a few years into his sentence by folklorists John and Alan Lomax. The Lomaxes recorded Lead Belly for the first time in 1933 and then again with some improved equipment in July of 1934. Lead Belly became famous for using a twelve string guitar and having a booming ‘raspy’ quality to his voice. Other artists started to gain recognition around this time through the Lomaxes, who recorded another African-American singer known as Son House, who soon thereafter began performing concerts. These early blues musicians inspired the likes of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, in fact in 2017 Son House’s song “Preaching the Blues” was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

The blues is a genre that has spanned continually from the early 1900s to the modern era, it has grown and reached audiences all over the world and inspired countless people to pick up the guitar and have a go. Interestingly through all the advances in technology, musicality and the way music is consumed by a modern audience, the style of the music itself remains relatively unchanged. We can still hear a lot of the musical devises of these early ‘delta’ blues songs such as the aforementioned call-and-response or twelve bar structure in modern blues music such as the music of Joe Bonamassa ect. This is due in part to the stylistic awareness of the modern players, blues players almost have a feeling of responsibility to the innovators of the art. They use the blue-print set out by Robert Johnson and Son House and then adapt it to their own modern style, but at the same time they are careful not to inhibit that special soulful feeling that is within blues music. It is this very soulful, emotional aspect of the blues that tends to attract players and fans alike, countless people have been quoted saying such things such as “B.B King can bring you to tears with one note” or “Muddy Waters can make that guitar sing” These are representations of the musicians soulfulness and ability to emote effectively through their playing, and that to me is as much part of playing blues music as learning the twelve bar is.

These early blues players were in many ways similar to prize fighting boxers, they have to fight through adversity, master their craft, go against the odds and most of all captivate people with their individual story. The stories of these early musicians is what makes them so special, the lyrics may be simple, the guitar strings loosely tuned, the recording quality less than desirable but you can't deny the absolute purity of the emotion and intent. This is why people still listen to the Son House recordings from 1934, for the same reason people still watch Charlie Chaplins movies, you can't deny true innovators and originators. Son House was the Jack Johnson of blues music, he was the badass, loose cannon that his people hailed as king, he represented (in the same way Jack Johnson did) a way out from the hardship and pain of his fellow African-Americans. For all these reasons modern blues players often pay homage to these early innovators and their works, it is very much commonplace to play other peoples songs, rehash lyrics as a ‘tip of the hat’ to someone that inspired you or pick up elements of someones guitar or vocal stylings.