Blues music (also called ‘the blues’) originated in the USA in the mid-to-late 1800s. Its birthplace was in the Mississippi River Delta, just upriver from New Orleans, where jazz originated.
Like jazz, the blues evolved from the music and songs of African-American slaves and their descendents.
Many people claim to have discovered the blues, most famously W.C. Handy, an African-American musician, songwriter and composer. Even if he wasn’t the first to discover the blues, W.C. Handy was definitely one of the first to publicize the blues and bring it to the public. In 1912 he wrote and published the first commercially successful blues song, “Memphis Blues”. Because of his career of spreading the blues to the rest of the world, he is now called the Father of Blues. One of his most famous songs is “St. Louis Blues”.
Eventually, the blues traveled up the Mississippi River to Chicago. Just like jazz, it spread to all areas of the United States and the world. Also just like jazz, the blues has morphed into many different styles. Here is a list of blues styles and a bit of information about each one:
- Delta Blues:
one of the earliest styles
originated in the Mississippi Delta
guitar and harmonica are the main instruments
famous for this style are Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton and R.L. Burnside
Dockery Farms near Cleveland, MS, is said to be the birthplace of the Delta blues
the Delta Blues and Heritage Festival is held annually near Dockery Farms
- Chicago Blues
has been described as Delta blues amplified or electrified
originated on the West Side of Chicago
features high-energy guitar music
famous for Chicago blues: Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, and Otis Rush
- Boogie-Woogie Blues
a piano style that evolved from a jazz style called “stride” in the early 1900s
became a craze in the USA during WWII
famous for this style are Clarence “Pine Top” Smith, Pinetop Perkins and Big Joe Turner
- Country Blues
a hybrid category including components of R&B, gospel, country and other types
interestingly, early Delta blues musicians could qualify for this modern category
- Jump Blues
a fast-tempo popular in the 1940s
originated in Kansas City
a swing style combining honking saxes and shouted vocals
notable artists include Cab Calloway, Smiley Lewis and Sam Taylor
- New Orleans Blues
also called Louisiana Blues
consists of many different types of rhythms, even Latin rhumba and zydeco beats
notable artists include James Booker, Fats Domino, Guitar Slim, Smiley Lewis, Little Richard and Steamboat Willie
- Piedmont Blues
musicians pick the guitar strings in a unique way
originated in the Carolinas and Georgia
musicians include Etta Baker, Blind Boy Fuller, Peg Leg Sam and Bumble Bee Slim
- Soul Blues
more commonly called Rhythm and Blues (R&B)
developed in the 1960s and ’70s
combines soul and urban contemporary music
record companies that produced R&B include Motown, Stax and Atlantic
artists include Bobby “Blue” Bland, Ray Charles, Robert Cray, Etta James, Denise LaSalle, Bobby Rush and Ike Turner
- Texas Blues
a hard-driving swing style with repetitive segments
has more swing than Chicago blues
famous musicians in Texas blues are Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Freddie King, Lonnie Mack, Big Mama Thornton, Jimmie Vaughan, T-Bone Walker and Edgar Winter
This list is not complete, for there are many sub-genres and hybrid styles of blues music. However, it gives you an idea of the diversity of the blues and how popular it is. Many rock-and-roll and pop artists, including Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, have been influenced by the blues. Even the Rolling Stones took their band name from a song by Muddy Waters.
If you are ever in Memphis, Tennessee, be sure to visit the Blues Hall of Fame.
You might know that the English phrase ‘to have the blues’ means to have a sad feeling. The name of the blues may be related to this phrase because many blues songs are about bad luck and a life of struggle, especially in love relationships. However, lots of blues lyrics also tell about happiness and even make jokes.
So, how exactly did the blues get its name? I have read at least five different stories about why the blues is called that. The real reason remains unclear, but the stories are very entertaining. Do some internet searching if you are interested.
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