In 1865, the Civil War ended with the North defeating the South. This war abolished slavery; however, these former slaves still didn’t have many rights and suffered through hard living conditions. Everywhere you went, you would see men with guitars whether they were on the streets, in shops, or in their homes. Music became an outlet for people, a different way for them to express themselves and to share their stories. Because these former slaves did not have an education, they couldn’t read and did not have much money to go to school. They taught themselves how to play instruments and learned songs by ear.
The Blues style began in the South, most specifically the Mississippi delta, and later spread all over the country. The Blues was very different from other genres of music in that it had a pretty standard form with little variation. It typically follows a 12-beat form and has the textual form AAB. It’s a 3-verse lyric with 3 stanzas each containing four beats. The first and second stanzas are the same while the third stanza is different. This pattern can be inverted but it is not done often. The four basic chords are also usually playing in a major key. Because the Blues came from the freed slaves, many popular themes of the songs include love, loss, jealousy, discrimination, and death. Anything was possible when writing these songs and they were a way for them to express their sorrows and to let loose.
By the end of the 19th century, blacks began to be integrated into society and this helped a new style of the blues emerge. The train system began to represent their freedom, because they could move up to the North where they could hopefully make a living. According to the film, white people didn’t have the innate musical sense to play the blues, so the integration brought in new components. Songs became more sorrowful and filled with anguish. The Blues was originally limited to the ghettos, but it eventually entered the urban centers. Black people began to learn how to play white people’s instruments (“Story of the Blues” film). Words took a more secondary role. Because instruments became very expensive, people started to create their own instruments. The kazoo, jug, and washboard were all simple, household items used to imitate real instrumental sounds. The first blues and jazz recordings were done in Chicago, which ended up being a big refuge city. Music was created for specific races; white people created music for white people to listen to and black people created music for black people to listen to.
Blind Lemon Jefferson was the first to record his compositions. He had a special inflection in his voice that made him stand out to his listeners. One of his notable songs
is “Prison Cell Blues.” It is not in the typical 12-bar form, but rather an 8-bar form. Its lyrics are also in the AB form rather than the AAB form. Female singers did not appear until the 20th century. For example, Memphis Minnie started her career in Memphis, Tennessee and was an example of women supplementing their music with a side job in prostitution (Wikipedia). This was very common for female musicians back in the day and there was even a legal block for prostitution to keep in controlled (“Story of the Blues” film). One of her popular songs is “True Love.” Louis Armstrong was another influential musician coming out of New Orleans. He helped move the focus of music towards solo performances (Wikipedia). He was also a scat singer, which is style of singing without using words. Its improvisation with syllables that don’t form words.
The Blues form tapered off into different genres, including: country blues, delta blues, and Texas blues. Jazz is another type of music that came from the Blues. It brought in new possibilities and the voices gave a more personal inflection that was passed down to the instruments. No black musician was considered a good musician without being able to play a good Blues song (“Story of the Blues” film). Later on, small groups and orchestras emerged. Black dance orchestras became popular with the help of James Reese Europe in the beginning of the 1900s. He started the Clef Club Orchestra, which united more than one hundred black musicians and included guitars, mandolins, and banjos.
In one part of the film, music was being played with the visual of a stormy day and you can faintly hear the rain and some thunder. The blues sound has the tone of a rainy day and can be very calming and soothing. But this rain also represents their sorrow and the suffering caused after the war. I enjoyed the back story of the origins of the Blues music. I think learning how the music originated helps listeners appreciate it more and understand its depth. There have been so many influential musicians and it’s interesting that their form is pretty consistent. Other styles of music tend to have a lot of variety but the Blues stays constant for the most part.