American blues singer and guitarist Robert Leroy Johnson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)By Xan Sillem
Blues is the name given to a form and a genre of music that originated from the African-American communities of the "Deep South" of the United States at the end of the 19th century.
It consisted of spiritual numbers, hollas and chants as well as working songs and was characterized by simple rhyming narratives.
The pioneers of this new style at the time were members of the first black generation in the US after slavery was abolished in 1808. Although now technically free, it was to be a long time before the social and economic boundaries that existed as a hangover from the slave period were finally to be adjusted.
As a result the black workers were more often than not poor and without access to education. This was a crucial point in the birth of the blues. Blues musicians would use melodies that would sound good on the ear. They were unlikely to have had any training in western music and so would not have known about key signatures or indeed any western music theory.
In the notation of blues music it is often not known whether to attribute it to be minor or major. It is more practicable to simply say a blues in A or a blues in C.
From its inception, this lead to new forms of melody being born, that incorporated elements that have now spread into an enormous number of cross genres. They worked well on the ear and didn't have to conform to the fundamental imposed by western musical structures and devices. Instead blues was making its own fundamentals.
For example, blues music often uses a minor to major third, something almost unheard of in western music up until this point. That in turn has spread into rock n roll and surf music in the 60s. Imagine that Chuck Berry may never have written 'Johnny B Goode' if it hadn't have been for that major to minor shift.
Not only that, but the dissonant sound of 7th chords have been made so familiar to us by the blues that now they have become staple elements in songs on their own, whereas previously they were used solely as devices by composers to make suggestions to the melody.
Jazz music uses a complex mixture of 7ths, majors and minors and altered scales and owes everything to blues music not only in terms of melodies and harmonies but also in the African rhythms that characterize a great deal of jazz drumming. Lest we forget the 'Jazz 1/8th note' and the problems of how to write it in notation! I read once that Blues is to Jazz music what the Sonnet is to poetry.
The use of pentatonics in blues is so widespread that they have also become so pleasant on the ear that songwriters and guitarist use them in abundance. As is the 12 bar form, which continued into Rock n' Roll and Jazz music as well as evolving into more complex melodies and chord structures.
A further element in the evolution of blues music was the lack of accessible music equipment. This would have meant that the early blues musicians would have had to be content to use whatever instruments that they could lay their hands on. Honky-tonk pianos and old guitars have lent a great deal to the early blues sound as well as spawning another blues offspring - Ragtime.
Making music became an escape from the lot imposed upon them by US society at the time and for the black community one such place where they found freedom and space to sing was in the church. Gospel music is still practiced wholeheartedly to this day and some of the finest soul singers of our times learned to sing in church choirs. We may not have had Alicia Keys or Gladys Knight or Aretha Franklin were it not for this.
The influence of blues has permeated into all forms of modern music. Gershwin is but one of many composers who have written blues pieces for musicals and the British Blues revival of the 1960s, spawned another blues offshoot that coincided with the emergence and golden age of the electric guitar.
For guitarists blues music is an essential part of their musical education as much blues music was originally and still is characterized on this instrument and is one that will still be drawn upon for much more time to come. Listen carefully and you won't fail to notice the touch of blues throughout the music that is on the air for us to listen to today.
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