The blues is of major importance in the development of XXth century music: it has considerably influenced jazz, rock, and pop music. It is an Afro-American music which originated in the rural South of the USA (particularly in Georgia, Texas and Mississippi) at the turn of the century.
It derived from the work songs and from different styles of music existing at the end of the XIXth century: ragtime, religious music, Negro spirituals and also White folk music. Similarities can also be found with African songs of complaint.
1.The different kinds of Blues
a. General characteristics
At first, the blues was mostly vocal. It consisted generally in a solo vocal expressing woe (great sorrow, sadness) or tales of unhappy love, with instrumental accompaniment (originally banjo, then an acoustic guitar, and a harmonica).
Techniques are used to express feelings of sadness or melancholy and imitate the tone of human voice: guitarists sometimes bend the strings or apply a metal slide or bottleneck to them to produce a whining (complaining) sound.
The blues is characterised by a 12-bar construction. Its harmony is made of a progression of repeated blues chords using the three major chords of a scale (I, IV, V), and the emotional tone is expressed by the use of “blue notes”:a flattened (bémolisé) third or seventh note which is used in a chord when normally a major unflattened interval would have been expected.
b. From classic Blues to Rhythmn and Blues
Female singers made the first blues recordings in the 20s (Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Ida Cox). It was the birth of classic Blues. They appeared on the stage, accompanied by a jazz band. Other artists (Robert Johnson, Bukka White) sang alone and accompanied themselves on the guitar or the harmonica. This was the rural or delta Blues.
But soon, millions of black workers moved to the North of the country for economic reasons and brought their music to urban areas. The blues thus evolved and in the 1940s–1950s, electric guitars and other instruments were used (piano, bass and drums): the urban Blues developed, especially in Chicago (J. Lee Hooker, Howlin’Wolf, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday…). It was more rhythmic, themes were more urban. Rhythm and Blues was born, influenced by jazz. The tunes were more melodic than speech-like and the guitars and drums amplified (R. Charles, J. Brown).
2. The evolution: White musicians’adaptations
During the 50s and 60s, the blues was adapted by White musicians. Famous rock or pop singers returned to the roots of classic blues and re-recorded hits: Elvis Presley, Bill Haley. Later, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix and many others were strongly influenced by the blues while the “originators” like John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, B.B. King and their successors Buddy Guy, Roy Buchanan, continued to enjoy a successful career in the blues tradition.
In the 1980s, the latest generation of bluesmen like Robert Cray (the blues noir) or Stevie Ray Vaughan have renewed the genre and attracted new listeners.