The Blues was the first music form that was built entirely around guitar riffs. Never before was the guitar so paramount in an art form in such a way. Up until that point in time when the blues started its life, music was played by orchestras or large bands, with many instruments, making it a product of group expression. With the blues, one man with the guitar could tell his story and captivate audiences.
Why is the Blues so Important?
Well, not many people realize that it is the root of all modern music. It was the starting spark that fired up all kinds of music in which the guitar has an important role. Without the blues there would not have been, rock, metal, punk…
It was also the first widely popular music genre that was born out of suffering and pain, hence it carried a truth in it that was undeniable. It was a beautiful art expression that carried the voices of millions of people who had been victims of terrible injustice and brutality for centuries without a fault of their own. It carried a weight and power that was never seen before in music.
The Origins of the Blues
The blues was born in the deep south of the U.S. in the 1860s. It lived through many different evolutions before setting in the form foundations that we all know today. It was in the first decades of the last century that the ‘standard AAB’ structure took form.
But, as I said, the thing that made blues so powerful was the place where it came from. In it’s earliest days it was frequently a narrative about racial discrimination and other hardships lived by the black men and women in America.
Suddenly, out of this group of enslaved people who were denied basic human rights, education, normal living conditions, artists began to flourish. I can only imagine the surprise and disbelief of southern white Americans when they saw the power and beauty these people were able to display in an art form, even though they had no access to musical education, and were considered inferior. This only proves that the human spirit will find a way to bloom, regardless of the limitations forced upon it.
Evolution of Blues
The first publication of blues might have been “I Got the Blues”, published by New Orleans musician Antonio Maggio in 1908, although blues as a genre was born several decades earlier. The earliest stages of the blues are poorly documented, mainly because of the racial discrimination (including academic circles) and the big level of illiteracy among the black population at that time in the south of the U.S. Before being transformed into a structured music form, early blues-like songs were in the form of call-and-response shouts. This earliest form would progress in time and become the call-and-response form between a guitar and singer, as we know it today.
As the world moved forward, so did the blues. By 1920, the blues had become a major element of popular music in America, reaching wide white audiences thanks to William C. Handy. It evolved from informal performances in bars and streets to performances in theaters.
The Blues in the 50’s
As the blues slowly started to move from rural communities towards urban centers, it began yet another evolution. The audiences in cities across America were different, and blues musicians had to create more elaborate expressions and adapt to new aesthetics. Some of these “city performers” would transform their musical style in a very intricate form that would give way to jazz.
After WW2, as the post-war boom was in fool bloom in the U.S., a huge number of African-Americans started migrating form rural America into cities. The reason was purely economical. They would earn more in urban communities. What was earlier deemed “racial records” by the music industry, became “rhythm and blues”.
This was the era of “electric blues”. The electric guitar, accompanied by a bass, drums and sometimes the harmonica connected to an amp were the new thing. And people were loving it. Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Memphis became centers of this new prominent blues form. The most influential musicians of the 50’s blues era, the ones that would end up being the “initial sparks” for rock n’ roll, were migrating from rural America to the cities. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed were all born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago. Muddy Waters’ performances on his tour in England in 1958 would directly inspire the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds.
The most important performer to be influenced directly by different forms of blues, the one artist that would ignite a global revolution, and transform music and popular culture forever, Elvis Presley, the King, would enter a recording studio for the first time. But, we will cover the King in some future article.
The Blues in the 60’s
The 60’ were the era when blues-influenced music genres became part of mainstream popular culture throughout the world. Rock n’ roll and soul were the most prominent ones. Traditional, and Chicago-style blues were on a decline, but new artists started gaining popularity by blending blues and rock elements.
Artists like B.B. King, Albert King, and Freddie King were creating a new subgenre that was gaining popularity by collaborating with rock and soul performers (Eric Clapton, Booker T, etc.)
But, the most important “collateral” of the blues was the start of a revolution that was called rock n’ roll. Bands and artists like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Animals, Fleetwood Mac, , Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, the Allman Brothers Band, Joe Cocker and Jimmy Hendrix were taking over the world.
The 70’s – “Texas Rock Blues”
In the early 70’s artist like Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and ZZ Top emerged with a new style of blues called Texas Rock Blues. They would all wait until the next decade to achieve international success. This was a raw, more aggressive style of blues that would later influence most of the Southern Metal bands, including the legends themselves – Pantera.
The 80’s up Until Now
After 1980 there were notable changes in the blues that made this period a significant turning point in the history of music. The biggest change was probably the “discovery” of the blues by an audience that grew up with rock ‘n’ roll. In the 1980s it was not difficult to find blues bands with a large following in all social classes.
In the last two decades, moreover, the music scene has lost some blues legends that have helped to define the musical language, such as Luther Allison, Albert Collins, Jimmy Reed above all.
However, in recent years, a new generation of talents has appeared, young musicians capable of not only blues but also hard rock, country and even jazz. Influenced by their great predecessors, they work within the rich blues tradition, infusing it with their own personal inspiration.
Today the blues is a big business that includes radios dedicated to this type of music, clubs, films, festivals, and records that sell millions of copies; In this period, there are artists who have contributed to making the blues much more popular music than was previously imaginable.
Having said that, although there is (and always will be) a huge number of blues lovers and followers, the blues has suffered in the last decade just as most of the authentic, creative musical genres. The music industry has managed to bury and hide the blues from the mainstream scene, in favor of unimaginative, serial-produced, modern music. But, that’s maybe a good thing. Even though the blues had its golden “mainstreamish” era, it was always a kind of a hidden gem…a sort of treasure lurking beneath the surface that only the chosen were allowed to discover. There is a certain amount of snobbish elitism that goes with being a blues lover, and I’m quite ok with that.
As long as there are radio stations, bars, bands and artists playing the blues, the world will be ok. The young generations that are exposed to the modern corporate music BS are unfortunately depraved of many things. In my opinion, the most important thing they are missing when it comes to music is ART. It is up to us, who have had the fortune to grow through the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s…to show them the alternative. It’s us who have to let them know that there are hidden gems, that there are countless treasures to be discovered. It’s our job to give them the map.
Thanks for reading an stay safe