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Key People:Stevie Ray VaughanJimi HendrixAretha FranklinMavis StaplesEric Clapton…(Show more)Related Topics:Mississippi Delta bluesRhythm and bluesBritish bluesBoogie-woogieClassic blues…(Show more)
The blues is a form of secular folk music created by African Americans in the early 20th century, originally in the South. Although instrumental accompaniment is almost universal in the blues, the blues is essentially a vocal form. Blues songs are usually lyrical rather than narrative because the expression of feelings is foremost.
In the 19th century the English phrase blue devils referred to the upsetting hallucinations brought on by severe alcohol withdrawal. This was later shortened to the blues, which described states of depression and upset, and it was later adopted as the name for the melancholic songs that the musical genre encapsulates.
The origins of the blues are poorly documented, but it is believed that after the American Civil War (1861–65), formerly enslaved African Americans and their descendants created this genre while working on Southern plantations, taking inspiration from hymns, minstrel show music, work songs and field hollers, ragtime, and popular music of the Southern white population.
In the early 20th century the blues (among several other popular genres of music) was considered seductive and destructive by parents and clergy who worried that such “Devil’s music” was a dangerous and sinful influence on children.
The blues has a distinct melancholic and somber tone, which is achieved through vocal techniques such as melisma, rhythmic techniques such as syncopation, and instrumental techniques such as “choking” guitar strings on the neck or applying a metal slide to the guitar strings to create a whining voicelike sound.
blues, secular folk music created by African Americans in the early 20th century, originally in the South. The simple but expressive forms of the blues became by the 1960s one of the most important influences on the development of popular music—namely, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, and country music—throughout the United States.
Although instrumental accompaniment is almost universal in the blues, the blues is essentially a vocal form. Blues songs are lyrical rather than narrative; blues singers are expressing feelings rather than telling stories. The emotion expressed is generally one of sadness or melancholy, often due to problems of love but also oppression and hard times. To express this musically, blues performers use vocal techniques such as melisma (sustaining a single syllable across several pitches), rhythmic techniques such as syncopation, and instrumental techniques such as “choking” or bending guitar strings on the neck or applying a metal slide or bottleneck to the guitar strings to create a whining voicelike sound.
As a musical style, the blues is characterized by expressive “microtonal” pitch inflections (blue notes), a three-line textual stanza of the form AAB, and a 12-measure form. Typically the first two and a half measures of each line are devoted to singing, the last measure and a half consisting of an instrumental “break” that repeats, answers, or complements the vocal line. In terms of functional (i.e., traditional European) harmony, the simplest blues harmonic progression is described as follows (I, IV, and V refer respectively to the first or tonic, fourth or subdominant, and fifth or dominant notes of the scale):
Phrase 1 (measures 1–4) I–I–I–I
Phrase 2 (measures 5–8) IV–IV–I–I
Phrase 3 (measures 9–12) V–V–I–I
African influences are apparent in the blues tonality, the call-and-response pattern of the repeated refrain structure of the blues stanza, the falsetto break in the vocal style, and the imitation of vocal idioms by instruments, especially the guitar and harmonica.
History and notable musicians
The origins of the blues are poorly documented. Blues developed in the southern United States after the American Civil War (1861–65). It was influenced by work songs and field hollers, minstrel show music, ragtime, church music, and the folk and popular music of the white population. Blues derived from and was largely played by Southern Black men, most of whom came from the milieu of agricultural workers. The earliest references to blues date back to the 1890s and early 1900s. In 1912 Black bandleader W.C. Handy’s composition “Memphis Blues” was published. It became very popular, and thereafter many other Tin Pan Alley songs entitled blues began to appear.