BHM Series 2014: Exploring the Roots of the Blues

How would you define the blues? Scholars, activists, musicians, and countless other people have injected their own description of this historical folk genre into the fabric of our culture ever since African Americans began echoing the moans, hollers, foot stomping and rhythmic timbres that would eventually form the blues.

Writer and author of the famous novel The Invisible Man Ralph Ellison describes the blues as “an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.1

The origin of the blues can be traced back to the later part of the 19th century and is the product of a variety of musical expressions such as revival hymns, spirituals, minstrel songs, folk ballads, work songs and field hollers. The blues, in its simplest form, can be defined as a type of folk music formed by African Americans as a result of their experiences in America. 2

The blues, known first as folk blues, continued to evolve from this musical creation on the Southern plantation fields into to a more artistic genre known as classic blues, which was pioneered by female blues singers like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey during the 1920s and 30s. And when it made its way to the urban centers of the North, the blues was altered into a more rougher form known as city blues.

Blues icon Robert Johnson

The blues has progressed tremendously since its beginnings in the deep south and while it is not perceived as a highly popular genre today, this music is forever etched into every American musical genre.

To pay homage to this historical music genre, I will be examining various blues topics that I researched in college. I’ll be discussing the blues as folk music, the blues as a form of sexual imagery depicted by female classic blues singer of the 1920s.

I’ll also be highlighting some city and rural blues musicians such as Robert Johnson, Howlin Wolf and Lead Belly. Finally, I’ll examine the present state of blues music and showcase some local musicians who are keeping the music alive.

Look out for BHM posts throughout the month of February.

Footnotes
1.Ellison, Ralph. Richard Wright’s Blues.
2. Oliver, Paul. The Blues Fell This Morning.

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