History of the Blues

Blues music and Wales

Wales is often described as the 'Land of Song'. While that name is often associated with the singing of romanticised folk songs, traditional hymns and rousing anthems, it's little wonder that blues music, with its unique harmonies and melancholic lyrics has been popular in Wales ever since the genre arrived on its shores at the beginning of the 20th century.

A number of blues events, including live gigs and festivals are showcased in Wales every year.

Watch Ed Holden sing the blues, explain the Blues scale and more.

A Welsh blues band performs the Walkin' Blues, showing the unique elements of blues music

The origins and birth of the blues

Although the blues evolved in the southern states of the USA from the late 19th century, it has lots of musical influences from Africa.

African slaves brought their musical traditions with them when they were transported to work in the North American colonies. Early types of African American music included spirituals (religious songs using vocal harmony) and work songs.

Slaves would sing work songs while working the plantations and religious spirituals in church. Combined with the African rhythms, these musical styles were the foundation of blues.

Work songs were sung rhythmically in time with the task being done. They used call and response in which phrases from a lead singer were followed by the other singers. African music combined with the folk music of the white European settlers to produce new styles of music.

The early style of blues was known as country blues and was usually a solo singer accompanied on guitar or piano sometimes with added harmonica or drums.

The majority of blues musicians had descendants from Africa who were transported to America in the slave trade.

Well-known country blues musicians include Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson.

Musicians, Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines

Early blues

The Delta blues, first recorded in the 1920s, was one of the earliest types of blues music and originated in Mississippi in the Delta. The Delta was particularly poverty stricken and the plantation owners kept their workers in harsh conditions.

Traditional songs were handed down by word of mouth and old lyrics were often adapted and turned into new ones. The guitar and harmonica were used to accompany vocals in the Delta blues as they were easy to carry around. The style is very rhythmic, has strong vocals and simple but powerful lyrics and slide guitar featured prominently in the music.

Blues music is characterised by sad melodies and even today the expression 'having the blues' means you are feeling gloomy. Early blues music was very slow and emotional using simple harmonies with a vocalist accompanied by a guitar. Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson made the blues style very popular in the 1920s. By the 1940s and 50s, the style had developed further and included a range of other instruments. This style was called rhythm and blues, r'n'b, and was usually played on electric guitar and bass.

Singer, Bessie Smith

History of blues music

Social changes

Until the end of the 19th century, America was largely a rural community. In the early 20th century large numbers of people started to move to industrial cities. After the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, the blues spread, together with the people who sang and played it. Many former slaves moved from the cotton fields of the southern states to northern cities such as Chicago and Detroit, where the blues became hugely popular.

Different styles of blues emerged, known collectively as city blues or urban blues. During the 1940s and 1950s city blues was very popular in black clubs and bars. Some of these blues styles were jazz influenced and many had amplified bands. Well-known city blues musicians include Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker and B.B. King.

The blues guitarist T-Bone Walker pioneered the rock guitar sound and technique, playing long solos and turning his amplifier up to distortion level. City blues produced many guitar soloists including B.B. King and Buddy Guy.

By the 1960s, the blues had spread beyond the USA notably to the UK and the rest of Western Europe. English blues guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Stan Webb emulated this style. Many more blues rock guitarists have followed. The blues has left its mark on all areas of popular music and is the driving force behind rock music.

T Bone Walker

Features of blues songs

Most blues songs:

  • have four beats in a bar
  • are built on the 12-bar blues form
  • use three four-bar phrases

They have a three-line verse structure where the second line repeats the first, for example A A B. Sometimes singers improvise the words. The repetition of the first line gives them time to think up the third line. For example, from Crossroad Blues by Robert Johnson:

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees

Asked the Lord above "Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please"

Crossroad Blues

Many blues songs feature a short instrumental break (solo) after each line – a form of call and response.

Blues lyrics

The lyrics are raw and full of emotion, dwelling on love and loneliness. They tell of injustice and hopelessness, and the longing for a better life. They were passed on from musician to musician through oral tradition. They often use slang and double meanings.

Impact

Blues music has had a huge influence on almost every popular musical style. The simplicity of the 12-bar structure has given artists the opportunity to express their music ideas freely within a framework that can be interpreted in so many different ways.

Many contemporary performers of styles as diverse as hip hop, grime and rhythm ’n’ blues cite blues music and blues musicians as key informants for their work.

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