I’m sure most people have at least some awareness of blues music and its origins, but here I will look at some of its most important social and political history, and how it has evolved from its roots to the present day.
Blues music developed as a response to social and economic conditions, as many blues singers were descendants of slaves in 18th and 19th century America, and their music was rooted in the oppressed and economically disadvantaged African-American communities in rural southern states, where slavery continued until after the American Civil War (1861-65). One area that is particularly noteworthy in the history of blues music is the Mississippi Delta, which some argue was the birthplace of the blues. There was a greater concentration of black people there than in any other part of America, and their economy was primarily based on cotton farming. These people lived in a society where segregation and the social isolation of black people due to lack of economic opportunity was virtually unquestioned; it was just a part of their lives.
In terms of musical history, a key source for blues songs were the work songs and field hollers from the days of slavery. In addition to those, many early blues musicians were influenced by Christian songs that also referenced aspects of the lives of slaves. In poor rural communities, the Church played an important role in people’s lives. Black people were able to gain some education in Church schools, and could gain status as community leaders through the Church. Church services, which included singing, were a place of shared community experience and an outes for emotions. For many artists, including blues legend B.B. King, pictured above, gospel music was the first music they learned to sing and play. People also gathered together to listen to music and dance in music halls, which created strong community identities and offered a way to express all kinds of emotions, positive and negative. The ballads and dances from these forms of entertainment also inspired blues musicians, due to the sense of community and the fact that performing there was a way to earn a living.
Female blues singers tended to stay in their home communities, working in local clubs and bars. Male singers would often become migrant workers, travelling to larger towns and cities to perform. These travelling musicians often had to live in difficult conditions and were subject to racial segregation and abuse, but formed communities within which singing and dancing helped them to maintain a collective identity and express their emotions. Their blues music was identifiable as they would often accompany themselves on guitar instead of piano, because a guitar was much more portable, and it began to evolve from its original roots, being transformed for new communities.
Many black workers migrated from the southern states to the northern cities, which created concentrated areas of densely populated and very poor black communities within the urban cities. However, they maintained their sense of community, and with the new technology of electric amplification began to create a more dynamic version of blues music. One city which was particularly important in the emergence of the urban blues was Chicago, as it had a rapidly growing recording industry and drew in blues, jazz and other musicians. Blues music was beginning to move away from the agricultural communities where it began, into more urban areas. This led to the musicians adapting their singing and playing to appeal to their new audiences and because they were living and working in different communities.
Originally, blues music was an oral and aural tradition, as it was passed on from one musician to another by mouth and by ear, and was not written down. As the musicians would listen to and copy one another or work together on music, the songs were learned informally and would evolve depending on the musician and situation. Today we have cover versions of songs, where one artist performs another artist’s song as it was, but in their own style. The blues songs would be completely reworked, with only a few key elements remaining the same.
From around 1910 onwards, more blues music was written down and printed. The fact that the music was beginning to be recorded allowed blues singers to reach a much wider audience, and also meant that other musicians could copy it or use parts of it in their own music. However, the actual recording technology was limited, so the blues music that could be recorded and produced was significantly different to what it would have been like when performed live. Also, the tradition of blues favoured improvisation, meaning songs would change from one performance to another, and lyrics would be made up on the spot. Recording a song meant that particular version was fixed, and did not necessarily reflect the true blues tradition. The majority of big name blues artists were black, which created a divide between the recording industry producers and the market that blues music was for. Specific record producers began to record black musicians for the market that was dominated by the black population. Still, many artists were mistreated and badly paid. The beginnings of electrical recording in the 1920s led to great improvements in the quality of recorded music.
In the 1960s, white British rock bands began to discover recordings of music by great blues singers. Many artists and groups, including The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and more, appropriated elements of the blues, and drove the evolution of rock music. Even today, many musicians have done cover versions of blues songs that were recorded. This could be seen as a positive thing, as new generations are discovering the blues and preserving it as a tradition. However, it can also be said that these cover versions diminish the original meaning and significance of blues music. Over the years, many white singers have appropriated elements, or even whole songs, of blues music from poor black musicians and benefited financially, sometimes without acknowledging the sources they got the music from.
Blues music has had, and still has, a large influence on Western popular music. Music from the early 21st century that emerged in economically disadvantaged and marginalised communities developed in its social environment in a similar way to the blues. In particular, some hip hop and rap music has occasionally used samples from blue songs, and its lyrics are often comparable to those of early blues music, with commentary on personal situations, unjust societies and the musicians’ disillusionment with the urban environments in which they live.
I'll leave you with a great example of a blues song, B. B. King (1925-2015) performing his song 'Three O' Clock Blues':