There can be few things better than hearing the unadorned note of a blues guitarist settling into an emotionally charged set, replete with hollers of raw feeling and driving rhythms. As one of my own personal favourite music genres and styles, the sounds of the blues are transcendent: they transport me into a world apart, a world stripped of all things unemotional and personally non-salient. In other words, the blues is the one form of music, if there is only one, which manages to cut to the proverbial “bone” of experience. It is a howl from deep within the soul, an expression so pure that it defies mere words.
Formally defined, “the blues” is the name of both, a musical form and a music genre that originated in the early twentieth century in African American communities entrenched in the Southern states. The formal aspects of the genre take their roots from a wide variety of influences, including Christian spirituals, work songs, chants, and field hollers. In many ways the blues is often seen as the coming together of Western musical modes and systems and more traditionally African musical tastes. In terms of vocal accompaniment, the blues employ a form of rhymed narrative ballad that may relate a plethora of themes that, commonly, relate tales of personal suffering, the perils of poverty, emotional distress caused by lovers and the likes.
The blues musical form is found throughout jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll; in this light, the blues can be seen as a major influence in twentieth century popular music, especially in the Western hemisphere. Typically, the blues and blues influenced musical genres are characterised by specific chord progressions and the pentatonic scale (a five note scale). The so called “twelve bar” chord progression is highly typical in the blues, as it is in jazz and rock and roll. This progression of chords, however, can be manipulated and adapted to ensure variety. Another feature distinctive within the blues is the flattening of notes within a specific key: for example, a major third interval is often played as a minor third that then is gradually “bent” into the major interval. This type of manipulation makes the blues especially amenable to being played on string instruments – most notably, the guitar.
Other distinctive features of the blues include specific bass lines, the rhythm (as legend has it, derived from the rhythm of trains travelling over tracks built by black labour) and even a sparse selection of readily available instruments (full orchestras, for example, were not a viable option for impoverished songwriters). Several sub-genres of the blues emerged over time as the form spread from rural, “country” settings to urban environments. The best known of the various sub-genres include the Delta blues (from the Mississippi river delta), Piedmont, Jump and Chicago blues styles. Notably, the advent of the Second World War also moved the blues away from its acoustic roots into the realm of electric guitars and electric blues.
This progression also had the effect of opening up the blues to newer audiences, and in particular, white listeners. Figures like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, in the 1960s and 70s, lead another blues revolution, a hybrid of rock and blues known as Blues-Rock.