What Is Blues Music? - Definition, History & Artists

What Is Blues Music? - Definition, History & Artists
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  • 0:01 Understanding the Blues
  • 0:21 Blues Patterns
  • 1:42 History of the Blues
  • 3:15 Blues Performers
  • 4:53 Blues Influence
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

What is blues music and how did it originate? In learning the answers to these questions, you will also meet some early blues musicians and their music.

Understanding the Blues

Have you ever overheard someone having a loud conversation on his or her cell phone, maybe on a bus or on the street? Even though you're listening to half the dialogue, you can tell that the chat is personal but not private. That's a good way to think about blues music - it's personal but not private.

Blues Patterns

When most people think about blues music, songs are what come to mind. In typical pieces, the singer would tell a sad story through a series of verses. Each verse usually had three lines or phrases:

  • The first line would be a lament or complaint. For example, you might hear: 'I hate to see the evenin' sun go down.'
  • The second line would be a repeat of the same words as a way to emphasize the emotion being experienced.
  • The third line: would be a commentary or explanation, perhaps something like, 'Cause my baby, he done left this town.'

Note that the third line rhymed. The verses that followed would use the same pattern and eventually tell the story.

There was also a certain pattern that followed with the accompaniment. After the singer presented a phrase, there would be a measure of rest where the accompanist, or one of the players, could briefly improvise as a way to further reinforce the personal expression. Each phrase was four measures long. Since each verse contained three phrases, this became the typical 12-measure blues pattern.

Many early pieces called blues were instrumental numbers. They were syncopated and upbeat, sounding more like ragtime music. They were played by early jazz bands: that consisted of trumpet, trombone, clarinet, piano, and drum players. Other instruments might include banjo, saxophone, and guitar.

History of the Blues

The blues are a historically African-American song form. They are a blend of ballads and field hollers. Hollers were the work songs of the slaves when they picked crops on the southern plantations. These rural roots make it difficult to document the exact origin of the blues, but it also makes sense that the music became so personal. Interviews with surviving musicians tell of them hearing blues sung throughout the South in the early 1900s. There was a piece published in 1908 called 'I Got the Blues,' which may be the first evidence of the word blues in print.

What we know today as the 12-measure blues pattern can be found in the music of W.C. Handy. Handy is among those musicians who claim to have heard the blues sung and attempted to imitate what he experienced. He wrote 'Memphis Blues' in 1909, which is more of an instrumental rag. However, Handy incorporated blue notes, flatted or bent notes of the scale, beginning to really change up the style.

Handy was at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and later arranged a song he had heard there into 'St. Louis Blues,' published in 1914 and recorded a few years later. Like 'Memphis Blues' it is more of an instrumental ragtime piece. Instruments like the clarinet were played in such a way as to cry or wail. One funny instrumental piece is 'Livery Stable Blues' (1917) in which the trumpet is used to imitate a horse's whinny.

Blues Performers

Blues music grew up alongside jazz. Jazz players would accompany blues singers as pianists, guitarists, or with some type of ensemble such as Dixieland bands. Sung blues were performed at a much slower speed as a reflection of the mood suggested by the words.

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