Classic Blues: Songs & Artists

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will define the history and styles associated with classic blues. We will explore some of the major figures associated with classic blues and perceive their connections with later genres.

Classic Blues: the Backbone of American Music

The Blues is one of the most beloved and deeply-rooted genres of American music. Classic blues typically refers to the oldest and most traditional styles of blues that originated in the southeastern United States in the late 19th century. Although classic blues would spawn numerous subgenres of blues like Kansas City blues and Chicago blues, classic blues styles are understood by most scholars to be the most fundamental versions of the genre that gave rise to all of the others. In addition to other blues subgenres, classic blues was the ancestor of most contemporary popular genres including rock'n'roll, rhythm and blues, heavy metal, and many others.

Origins and Development

The origins of the blues are not thoroughly understood, as they reach back into the history of rural, southern, African-American culture in the years after the Civil War. During the 19th century, scholars did not pay a great deal of attention to African-American music or take it very seriously. The work songs that African-American slaves sang during both the antebellum period and in the post-war period were deeply important precursors to the blues. Traditional styles, chord patterns, and genre of music that African-Americans preserved from African traditions were equally vital building materials for the blues, as were European ballads and folk songs.

The concepts of folk music and folk culture are very significant to an understanding of the blues. Although the term 'folk music' is often erroneously used in contemporary culture to mean 'anything playing on an acoustic guitar,' folk is not a genre, but a process through which culture is created. A folk song or a folk tale is something that is handed down from generation to generation, usually through oral transmission, without any single, known author or originator. Someone cannot sit down and write a folk song, it must develop from a given community over a period of time, with each generation making variations and additions.

The Early 20th Century

The blues articulates as well as any other aspect of American culture the pain, heartache, and longing associated with racial injustice. At the turn of the 20th century, African-Americans suffered under the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, the humiliation of segregation, and an economic system that provided virtually no opportunities for African-American advancement.

John Lomax

As in most other aspects of life, white southerners largely ignored the suffering of African-Americans that was articulated in their music. This started to change with the advent of recorded music. In the early 20th century, folklorists and antiquarians started traveling throughout the United States trying to record traditional songs for posterity. John Lomax, along with his son Alan, recorded numerous genres of American folk music. In 1930 Lomax met Huddie William Leadbetter while visiting Angola State Prison in Louisiana. Leadbetter would come to be known as Leadbelly, one of the most important figures in classic blues and American folk music more generally. Leadbelly's amazing skill with the 12 string guitar and his rousing versions of traditional folk songs continue to earn him fans across the world, 66 years after his death.


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