A Short History of the Blues......

From blues music came great artists, such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Bessie Smith, and others.  But the blues might never have been created if it had not been for the influence of hollers, calls, and the changes that occurred in the lives of blacks.  The evolution of the blues provides insight into the changes that took place in the lives of African Americans after slavery ended. 

Because of its personalized form, the popularity of blues music among blacks, marked a unique period in the history of secular African American song.  Prior to the emergence of the blues, solo music was atypical.  Such individualized song had never been the main ingredient of black music.  Prior song consisted of field hollers, which served as a means of communication among plantation workers, and work calls, which were chanted by peddlers in Northern and Southern cities.  While field hollers and work calls had elements of personalized song, they had never truly developed as solo songs. 

Despite the blues uniqueness from hollers and calls, it was forged from the same musical repertory and traditions.  The call and response form of expression remained, but instead of incorporating a response from another participant, the blues singer responded to himself or herself.  Thus, it was not created from a new type of music, but from a new perception about oneself.

Blues music reflected the new status of African Americans.  Slaves newly acquired freedom, Booker T. Washington’s teachings, and the Horatio Alger model, which asserted that the individual molds his own destiny, influenced this form of personalized music.  According to Lawrence Levine, "there was a direct relationship between the national ideological emphasis upon the individual, the popularity of Booker T. Washington's teachings, and the rise of the blues. Psychologically, socially, and economically, Negroes were being acculturated in a way that would have been impossible during slavery, and it is hardly surprising that their secular music reflected this as much as their religious music did." (Levine, Lawrence W., Black Culture and Black Consciousness.)  As a consequence, it was the emphasis on the individual that influenced the blues personalized form of song.  

The blues was first sung by men at leisure, and was called the folk blues.  Some folk blues singers sung in medicine shows and touring carnivals.  As black vaudeville singers came in contact with country singers, they eventually learned to sing the blues.  Vaudeville singers brought a professional quality to it and constructed the foundation for the Classic Blues. 


As African Americans migrated North in the early 20th century, they brought the blues with them. Coming from New Orleans, black-butt pianist who played the blues in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, gave way to the Fast Western pianist who sang as they played, imitating Southern guitarists. Country singers joined the black-butt and the Fast Western pianist migration, and brought their style to Chicago, Detroit, and New York, where the classic blues singers united with the New Orleans and Fast Western musicians, and introduced their blues style in clubs, theaters, and dance halls.    

The Classic Blues style was popular among newly arrived African Americans in the cities.   The migration of many blacks to the cities gave them a new freedom from the church and community that had not been experienced in rural areas.  Blacks demanded entertainment, and black theaters, dance halls, and clubs were opened.  Women stopped singing in their churches and schools, and began to perform in theaters, clubs, dance halls, and vaudeville shows. 

The first recording of the blues was in 1895.  George W. Johnson's recording of "Laughing Song" was the first blues song to be recorded.  Thereafter, blues songs began to appear in music rolls.  The 1906 series of Music for the Aedian Grand, listed one blues title among the forty-nine music rolls. 

The blues entered the forefront in 1920, when Mamie Smith's recording of "Crazy Blues" and "It's Right Here for You" became popular and opened the doors to other blues singers.  The record was priced at one dollar and sold 75,000 copies the first month of release. 

The market for the recorded blues was almost entirely black during the 1920s and 1930s, and the records became known as "race records."   Record companies advertised exclusively to blacks and only black stores sold the records.  As a result of Smith's success, record companies seized the opportunity to make a profit in the new market.  Companies searched for talented blues artists, and singers such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters, became popular blues artists.  

The popularity of the blues marked a new era for black music.  It combined the styles of the past with a new type of song.  The result was the creation of a style of music that would eventually contribute to the development of jazz.    



Levine, Lawrence W., Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977)




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