I was recently told by the executive of a local recording company that any Record Album with the word "Blues" in the title was almost sure to sell. This rather remarkable statement is indicative of the current fantastic, although often superficial, world wide interest in the blues.
The Blues exists today in a variety of social and musical contexts, in the rural south of the USA, and in the Negro ghettos of that country, it can be heard performed by both the singers of the folk song revival and the idols of the pop scene. The latter two categories are the ones through which the blues gets it's main public exposure, and this often gives a distorted picture of blues as a whole.
It will be the purpose of this talk to give a brief historical background and description of this potent musical form.
The blues can be best described as the musical vernacular of the American Negro. This peculiarly Afro-American Art form demonstrates the prime difference between African and European musical concepts in that African music is primarily rhythmic in character while European music has always been essentially melodic and harmonic. The first slaves taken to the USA learnt many of their masters' melodies but gave them a distinctly African quality. What gave Negro folk music in general and the blues in parlicular its uniqueness was the way in which the slaves made use of Rhythmic Melody.
It is beyond the scope of this talk (and the scope of my musical knowledge) to delve very deeply into the formal musical characteristics of the blues. It can be said though, that the blues generally tends towards a 12 bar form composed of 3 four bar lines. However a study of only a few authentic blues performers will reveal blues stanzas of 11, 13, 14, 15, or 17 bars. We can say then briefly (although rather ponderously) that the blues song is distinguished by both its structure and content and that it has certain standard although always variable musical characteristics.
Social scientists tell us that an increasing number of people feel alienated by the depersonalised society in which they live. This could provide a clue to the amazing popularity of what is basically the music of disenfranchised underpriviliged ethnic group ie "The American Negro." As a form of expression, blues are usually a statement of personal misery. At the very heart of the blues is a transmuted expression of criticism or complaint the very creation or singing of which serves as a balm or antidote, and as a way for singer and audience to share mutual social and emotional experiences. It should be mentioned here that we generally think of the blues as a musical form, because this form seems so self-evident, and because the music is so often very moving. We tend to overlook the fact that in it's natural setting the blues is not primarily conceived as music but as a verbalisation of deeply and commonly felt personal meanings.
It is convention that this verbalisation be sung. Even the word "Sing" often has a different connotation to country people. When for instance a preacher exhorts his congregation to "sing it." He is thinking of verbalisation, of an emphatic emotive statement, rather than what we think of as music. In most country music, and in the blues, music is a vehicle for the statement but is seldom the statement itself. Harold Coulander an authority on American Negro music believes that our passion for constant change has infected our view of folk cultures, and that the widely held view that the blues evolved from earlier religious and secular folk musics is not necessarily correct. He says:
"The persistance of Archaic Blues songs in cultural backwashes of the South together with other Negro songs both religious and secular that clearly antedate the civil page 18war, suggests that the blues form may be far older than is generally recognised and that it may have existed for a long time with parallel forms out of which it supposedly developed.
Although the exact origins of the blues are unknown it seems reasonably certain that they jelled into their present form sometime in the 19th century if not earlier. There is in fact good reason to believe that something closely akin to the blues was performed in the towns and on the plantations of the Rural South in the antebellum period. The transition that has occurred from the rural and traditional blues styles to the contemporary urban and usually electrically amplified blues could alone be the subject of a book, and a brief outline must suffice here.
As we have already shown a rural folk culture such as the blues is not likely to evolve into more sophisticated or advanced forms while existing in its natural environment. When this environment is broken up, exposed to mass media, or evacuated, the music must either become extinct or adapt. During the first Negro migrations from the rural south to the industrial northern cities the country blues provided a link with home and a familiar way of life in alien, and often hostile cities of Chicago, New York and Detroit. Hence the colossal (for the time) sales of country blues records to the "race" market in the cities. A chronological listening to blues recording from 1923 to the present will show more clearly than any amount of writing how the blues adapted to the new environment just as it's exponants and audience did.
The blues today is a tough driving often heavily amplified music, it is music of the city. It is often cynical and angry. Although it has lost much of the direct earthiness of the old country blues, there are still the essential qualities and traditional strengths which make it an increasingly meaningful mode of expression to thousands of people the world over.