Blues is a music style that originated from about 1860 to 1900 and originated in the music that slaves from Africa in the South of the United States – including in the Mississippi delta, between Memphis and New Orleans – made. The main musical sources that contributed to the creation of the blues are the religious songs (gospels, negro spirituals), the worksongs and the field hollers. A typical variant of the blues is the cajun music. Making music with each other or alone, with or without instruments, was often the only way for them to express and soften their suffering. Because this music had a melancholy tone and content, it was called ‘blues’.
Sometimes the singers used ‘bad words’ that the guards did not know. For example, they agreed that ‘rake’ in their song was meant to be ‘fool’. That way they could call out the guards without them noticing it. They made instruments themselves and in the evenings they sang about the misery they had.
The indication ‘blue’ for mourning comes from sailing ships. If a ship lost its captain or another officer during the voyage, it carried a blue flag for the rest of the voyage and a blue band was painted around the entire ship before entering the home port.
When many blacks around the First World War moved from the South to the cities in the North (including Chicago and Detroit), the blues got a more ‘urban’ sound, which from the 1930s was mainly characterized by the use of electrically amplified instruments. This more up-tempo version of the blues would later prepare the way for rhythm-and-blues and rock ‘n’ roll. The latter would push the blues to the background, but in the 60s and 70s the genre was alive because British (white) rock musicians like Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin started playing blues again.
All styles of jazz are strongly influenced by the blues, from New Orleans Jazz to cool jazz.
The characteristic feature of blues is that it follows a fixed schedule of 12 measures that are repeated per strop (the so-called twelve bar blues). Each verse, i.e. a composite set of verse lines, then comprises three sung rules that are each bound to four measures accompanied by chords.
Almost every blues number is recognizable by that chord scheme from which it is built. This bluing schedule usually consists of 12 four-quarters, the last sizes of which form the so-called ‘turnaround’. Other music genres, such as rock ‘n’ roll and in some cases also jazz, are based on a simplified or more complicated version of this scheme. Schemes with different numbers of sizes also occur, for example schemes with 16 sizes.
Very characteristic of the blues is soldering. Vocals alternate with instrumental improvisation, mostly in the bluestone scales derived from pentatonic scales. There are 2 bluestone ladders: minor (I-bIII-IV-bV-V-bVII) and major (I-II-bIII-III-V-VI). The minor ladder is the most commonly used. It is possible to combine these two scales (I-II-bIII-III-IV-V-V-VI-VII) but this goes more towards jazz.
Very important in the bluestone ladders are the so-called blue notes. There are 3 blue notes in the bluestones: for minor bIII, bV and bVII. The use of these notes in a pentatonic scale is not common in European music. With blues these notes are often achieved with instruments that can ‘bend’ tones, such as guitar, blues harp and saxophone. On instruments on which it is not possible to bend tones (as with keyboard instruments), a similar effect can be achieved by means of a prediction; for example, by briefly playing bIII for III.
Often a harmonic contrast is used: the minor choral or singing over a major chord scheme.
Blues music often has a somewhat raw, dark vocal part, rooted in black gospel. The vocal line is characterized by repetition and a question-and-answer dialogue between the singer and the musicians.
The blues tells about everyday life. The emphasis is on negative events, for example bad luck in love. By singing the blues one hopes to find comfort for these problems, in addition to the power to get back on top of it. A blues musician does not shy away from controversial themes such as alcohol, sex and violence. However, they are often sung in secret terms, often originating from African-American traditions, such as the voodoo.
Every blues musician does have his own typical style characteristics. Yet we can recognize the following style groups in the blues:
The blues was originally played on acoustic instruments such as guitar, saxophone, piano and harmonica. Sometimes the guitarist used a smooth and hard object, such as a knife or a bottle neck (hence the name ‘bottleneck’, English for ‘bottleneck’), with which he slid over the strings (hence the name ‘slide’, English for ‘to slide’).
Typical blues instruments include:
– contrabas / basgitaar
– gitaar (akoestisch, archtop, steelstring, elektrisch)
– mondharmonica of bluesharp