Blues Music

Early Blues

The origins of blues music trace back to 19th century America when enslaved people in the deep south, most notably Louisiana, would sing spirituals in church and work songs whilst working as sharecroppers on plantations. The music established the simple and memorable blues form enabling melodies to be easily spread around communities. Into the 20th century, the musical style began to transform from a tradition, into a documented genre. The musical style became more modernised as music began to be published with Antonio Maggio’s I Got the Blues in 1908, soon followed by Hart Wand’s Dallas Blues and W.C. Handy’s The Memphis Blues. Various regions began to emerge as the leading epicentres of blues, most importantly Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, leading to the aptly named regional styles, Memphis blues and Delta blues. Memphis was central to the early development of the blues, accommodating artists such as W.C. Handy, Memphis Minnie, Frank Stokes, and Gus Cannon. Gus Cannon was notable in popularising the folk-influenced style of jug bands that were prevalent in Memphis with his band Cannon’s Jug Stompers. These bands were typically comprised of a jug player, a guitar, and various modified or homemade instruments such as a washtub bass. Simultaneously, Delta blues was developing as a style that prioritised a simpler arrangement of guitar (often slide guitar) and harmonica accompanying the vocals. Some of the most notable and influential Delta blues musicians include Tommy Johnson, Ishmon Bracey, and Freddie Spruell, who’s Milk Cow Blues is one of the earliest delta blues recordings. This diversification of blues styles lead to a more widespread popularisation, and duke joints, which were bars or lounges that play predominantly blues, began to appear around the country. Blues music is recognisable through its use of the 12-bar blues form that is based on the chords I-IV-V.

Notable artists:

Bessie Smith

W.C. Handy

Charley Patton

Robert Johnson

Frank Stokes

Freddie Spruell

Post-War Blues

By the 1940s and 1950s blues had become very popular in clubs and bars all around the country. Blues was also beginning to incorporate the sound of electronic, amplified instruments, mainly the guitar, and figures such as T-Bone Walker and B.B. King pioneered this newer form of electric blues. T-Bone Walker especially, was known for developing a heavier sound where he cranked the amplifier to the point of the sound beganning to clip, creating a dirtier, distorted tone which is now synonymous with blues guitar. During this period, New Orleans and Chicago were instrumental to furthering the sound of blues, producing many blues recordings that were important progenitors to pop, R&B, and rock and roll styles. New Orleans blues was more polished sounding and commonly used piano, guitar, and saxophone. Some of the largest artists to emerge from the scene included Professor Longhair, who experienced a major hit with Mardi Gras in New Orleans (1949), Guitar Slim, Snooks Eaglin and Bo Diddley. Chicago blues is another urban blues style that followed on from the tradition of Delta blues and developed in the mid-20th century. It emphasises the heavier, dirty sound of overdriven guitars and so was very influential on later rock styles. A major pioneer of the sound was Muddy Waters when he moved to Chicago in the 40s to join Big Bill Broonzy. They were joined by artists such as Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker who all helped massively popularise the style and influence British blues acts in the 50s and 60s. 

Notable artists:

T-Bone Walker

B.B. King

Buddy Guy

Professor Longhair

Guitar Slim

Bo Diddley

Muddy Waters

Willie Dixon

Classic Rhythm and Blues

Rhythm and blues first began to take shape as a recognisable music form in the 1940s following the Great Migration, as there was an influx of Black Americans in major cities such as New York, Chicago, LA, and Detroit. This increased cultural diversity brought with it Black American tradition, including blues and church music. The term rhythm and blues was coined by Jerry Wexler in 1947 to categorise a new, polished blues sound being headed by Louis Jordan and his band, the Tympany Five. By the beginning of the 1950s, rhythm and blues was mainly reaching a black audience; existing primarily in clubs and honky-tonks, it was seen as a simpler alternative to jazz. However, artists such as Johnny Otis saw hits with songs such as Double Crossing Blues and Cupid’s Boogie which helped the genre gain a wider, more diverse audience. By the mid 50s, rock ‘n’ roll was becoming a highly popular genre, with many of its leading artists such as Little Richard and James Brown belonging equally to R&B. Due to the simultaneous development of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s, the genres were almost indiscernible during this period. However, in the 60s when rock went in a heavier, more psychedelic direction, R&B pursued a more polished sound. The year 1960 also demonstrated R&B’s diversification with singers such as Sam Cooke and the label Motown Records taking the genre in new directions that led to notable styles. Classic R&B shares many characteristics with rock ‘n’ roll. The instrumentation is often guitar based, with accompanying double bass, drums, piano, vocals and sometimes a saxophone. There is also a heavy blues influence and sometimes elements of gospel traditions. 

Notable artists:

The Tympany Five

The Cardinals

Johnny Otis

Ruth Brown

Fats Domino

Blues Rock

Taking influence from the popular style of 40s and 50s rock & roll, as well as electric blues, blues rock adopted a heavier sound. By the mid-60s, bands like Cream and The Yardbirds had incorporated blues fundamentals, such as the common 12-bar blues chord progression and extended improvised guitar solos, into their more riff-based song structures. Following rock tradition, bands were comprised of loud, amplified guitars and bass, as well as drums. An important progenitor of the style is John Mayall who significantly developed the sound of blues guitar and, in 1966, released the album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton which defined the previously ambiguous genre. The guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix and his utilisation of blues and pentatonic scales was extremely influential on blues rock guitarists. Moving into the 70s, blues rock became more closely aligned with hard rock as the sound became heavier, songs became more riff orientated, and the guitars were more overdriven. This was reverted however, when artists such as Stevie Ray Vaughan took blues rock back to its roots. Blues rock is characterised by traditional blues 12 and 16-bar structures being integrated with riff-based song structures. Guitars are loud, overdriven, and play extended bluesy solos.

Notable artists:

Eric Clapton

Stevie Ray Vaughan


Jeff Beck

The Rolling Stones

The Yardbirds

The Animals

ZZ Top

The Allman Brothers Band

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