A Short, Sad History of the Blues

muddy waters
Muddy Waters, avatar of the Chicago blues. Getty Images

The musical genre known as the blues is difficult to define, but you know it when you hear it: a simple chord progression, a deep bass line, and lyrics that evoke wisdom, sadness, and resignation. A "standard" blues is twelve bars long: lyrics are repeated twice in the opening eight bars, and then elaborated on, with a few extra syllables, in the last four bars. (Here's an example from a classic Little Walter song: "Blues with a feelin', that's what I have today/Blues with a feelin', that's what I have today; I'm gonna find my baby, if it takes all night and day.") The instrumentation of a blues song can be sparse (a single harmonica or acoustic guitar) or as elaborate as you please, as witness Led Zeppelin's electric, bombastic, but reasonably authentic "When the Levee Breaks." 

The Roots of the Blues

No one is quite certain where the blues came from, but most likely this musical genre evolved from the field chants of recently emancipated slaves in the deep South (some scholars say the blues can trace its roots even further back, to the indigenous music of western Africa, but this is still a controversial theory). Because it was considered a "lower" art form, not worthy of the attention of the white establishment, this evolving form of of the blues was poorly documented—there is very little for scholars to go on until the sheet-music publication of the first two "official" blues songs, "Dallas Blues" and "The Memphis Blues," in 1912. (These early blues songs also contained elements of ragtime, a multi-rhythmic musical genre that pretty much disappeared after the end of World War I.)

During the 1920's, variants of the blues were being played all over the U.S., but two strands, in particular, deserve attention.

"Vaudeville" blues singers prospered on the fringes of the mainstream: some of these pioneering African American women (like Bessie Smith) were documented on film; they inspired (and were imitated by) countless nightclub singers, especially in New York; and their records were often purchased by white audiences.

Unlike the vaudeville strain of the blues, which was influenced by jazz, gospel, and other musical genres, the Delta blues of the deep South was more austere, more forbidding, and more "authentic." Performers like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Blind Willie McTell keened their doleful lyrics to the accompaniment of a single slide guitar; however, very little of this music was accessible to the general public.

The Blues Hits the Windy City

The years after World War II witnessed what sociologists call the "second great migration," in which millions of African-Americans abandoned the South for economically prospering cities elsewhere in the U.S. As luck would have it, many Delta blues musicians wound up in Chicago, where they adopted amplification and electric instruments and began attracting a wider urban audience. If you want to get a good feel for the Chicago blues, just listen to Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy," which was itself inspired by Willie Dixon's classic "Hoochie Coochie Man." Waters, Dixon, and fellow Chicago blues artists like Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson were all born and raised in Mississippi, and were thus instrumental in adapting the Delta blues sound to modern sensibilities.

Around the time Muddy Waters and his fellow musicians were establishing themselves in Chicago, executives in the music industry were putting their heads together and created the genre known as "rhythm and blues," which embraced blues, jazz, and gospel music. (Given the attitudes of the times, "rhythm and blues" was basically a code phrase for "music recorded and bought by black people;" at least this was an improvement over the previous term of art, "race records.") Inevitably, the next generation of black performers, like Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Ray Charles, began taking their cues from R&B—which led to the next major chapter in the history of the blues.

The House That Blues Built: Welcome to Rock and Roll

You can argue that history's single greatest act of cultural appropriation was the ransacking of blues in particular (and R&B in general) by white performers and music executives in the mid- to late 1950's.

However, this would be overstating the case: no musical genre exists in a vacuum, and if it's got a beat (and a built-in audience), some form of exploitation is sure to follow. Or, as Elvis Presley's manager Sam Phillips supposedly once said, 'If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars."

As popular as he was, though, Elvis Presley borrowed more from the "R" than the "B" end of the R&B spectrum. The same can't be said of British Invasion bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, which adapted and repackaged various blues mannerisms (along with those of other black musical genres) and presented them to naive American teenagers as something brand new. Once again, however, this wasn't malicious or even premeditated theft, and you can't deny that the Beatles and the Stones added something new and important to the mix. (Perhaps more deserving of censure were tepid white outfits like The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, though even these have their defenders.)

By the time the first wave of the rock tsunami had washed over the American landscape, there was very little left of the classic Delta and Chicago blues; the only major standard-bearers were Muddy Waters and B.B. King, who offered hefty dollops of rock along with their blues (and frequently collaborated with white rock artists). This story does have a reasonably happy ending, though: not only are authentic blues still being performed worldwide by musicians of all races, but musical ethnographers like Alan Lomax have ensured the preservation of thousands of classic blues recordings in digital formats. During his lifetime, the Delta blues pioneer Robert Johnson probably didn't perform before more than a thousand people; today, billions of people can find his recordings on Spotify or iTunes.