A History of Blues Music

Blues music developed as a response to the end of slavery. No longer spending all their lives solely working in the fields and going to church, former slaves began to spread across the country and live fuller lives. Many of them became sharecroppers on their own personal farms as opposed to living together on large plantations. As the former slaves traveled, they began to encounter the cultures of different part of the country, and for the first time in their lives, they had to find work and make money. Men in particular had a difficult time finding jobs. As their lives began to expand, so did the subject matter of the music. The work songs of the slavery era began to transform into an early form of blues, as former slaves began to sing not about their work and their religion, but about their individual lives, travel, and personal struggles with integrating themselves into American society. African-American moved away from singing about traditional African topics, such as the gods, work, nature, and life after death as the adopted American culture, which focused on the individual and his personal life here on earth. Different styles of blues, such as country blues, urban blues, classic blues, and boogie woogie, developed in response to characteristics of different locations and time periods.

Early blues music copied the structure of European ballads, which consisted of between eight and sixteen lines. Eventually blues developed into the form we know today, which consists of a 12 bar structure – each verse has three lines, and each line four bars. Blues also incorporates the call and response technique. The words of the song usually take up only half on a line, leaving the other half for a vocal or instrumental response. The music also had an AAB format, in which the first two lines of a verse would the same, and the third one would be different. Early blues involved heavy use of the guitar and harmonica. As classic blues developed, other instruments such as the piano and European brass instruments began to be used. Boogie woogie blues employed a major use of the piano. Instruments in blues played the role of mimicking vocal sounds and provided a foil for the singing. Another major characteristic of blues is the personal subject matter. Blues songs tend to be sad and melancholic, and are mostly about the singer’s relationships, social struggles, travels, and personal tragedies.

Blues began to develop and the end of the Civil War when the slaves were emancipated. As they began to travel, they developed a music that was about their personal lives. Blues continued to develop in the Reconstruction era, when African-Americans began to disperse all over the country and build and develop their own societies. Early blues evolved into classic blues in the early 20th century. The mass migration of African-Americans from the South to larger, industrial Northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and New York, along with the introduction of traveling minstrel shows and musical troupes, started the evolution of primitive blues into classic blues. Primitive blues was music meant solely for the individual, while classic blues became more formalized and was intended to entertain large audiences. 
Blues continued into the 1920, when it began to be recorded and take on more urban themes. The early 1920’s also saw the introduction of race records, which was music aimed strictly towards African-Americans. This was the time in which massive amounts of blues material began to be recorded. This was due largely to the fact that African-American were now working and earning wages that they could spend on entertainment and leisure. The Great Depression brought the end of classic blues, as African-American no longer had the money to spend on records. The decline of the commercial classic blues led to the emergence of urban blues and boogie-woogie, which was played mainly at parties. Boogie woogie and urban blues remained popular through World War I and well into the late 1930’s.

Early minstrel companies, such as the Georgia Minstrels, Pringle Minstrels, and McCabe and Young Minstrels provided the first opportunity for blues singers to reach a wider audience around the country. This led to the emergence of early classic blues singers like Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Ma, or Madame Rainey, as she was sometimes called, toured the South with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and became a very influential blues singer. She taught Bessie Smith, who became the most famous classic blues singer. Touring troupes such as The Rabbit Foot, Silas Green’s and Mahara’s exposed enabled the early blues singer to tour the country with their music. Other early classic blues singers include Ida Cox and Sarah Martin. 
Examples of later classic blues singers include Mamie Smith, the first blues singer to make a commercial record and Victoria Spivey, whose first record, Black Snake Blues, sold 150,000 copies in a year. Classic blues was dominated by women, who did not have the burden of traveling and looking for work like the men did. Country blues, on the other hand, was dominated by men, except for notable females like Ida May Mack and Bessie Tucker. Boogie woogie blues, which gained popularity after the decline of classic blues featured musicians such as Jimmy Yancey and Albert Ammons. Urban blues singers include Tampa Red, Sonny Boy Williamson, and the very popular LeRoy Carr.

Blues music began in the rural South, where men worked as sharecroppers of traveled the country looking for work. This led to the development of primitive and country blues. As more and more African-Americans traveled north post-slaver, blues spread to a wider audience and further evolved. The closing of New Orleans’s red light district, Storyville, in 1917 led Southern musicians to travel north in order to find work. They were eventually hired by larger Northern dance bands, who soon became influenced by their music. By the early teens and twenties, blues saw most of its development in the Northern industrial cities such as Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The theaters of the North led to the introduction of classical blues, which was a more formal and publicized counterpart to country blues. This also led to the development of a more urban blues, in which musicians sung about the difficulties of life in a foreign, industrialized environment. Quite often, the songs referred to the South as home and the North as a place of struggle. Boogie woogie blues also developed in the North, specifically in Chicago, where it first gained popularity. It was based on the tradition of early country blues singers, which relied heavily on vocals and the guitar. Boogie Woogie replaced prominent use of the guitar with the piano.