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From its source in the South, the blues’ simple but expressive forms had become by the 1960s one of the most significant influences on the development of music that is popular throughout the United States.
Although instrumental accompaniment is almost worldwide in the blues, the blues is basically a a kind that is vocal. Blues songs are lyrical rather than narrative; feelings are being expressed by blues vocalists as opposed to telling stories. The emotion expressed is typically one of depression or melancholy, often due to difficulties in love.
To express this musically, blues performers use vocal techniques for example melisma (keeping up one syllable across several pitches), rhythmic techniques including syncopation, and instrumental techniques including “choking” or bending guitar strings on the neck or applying a metal slide or bottleneck to the guitar strings to create a whining, voice-like sound.
As a musical style, the blues is defined by expressive “microtonal” pitch inflections (blue notes), a three-line textual stanza of the form AAB, and a 12-measure form. Typically the first two and a half measures of each line are given to the last measure, singing and a half consisting of an instrumental “break” that recurs, answers, or complements the vocal line.
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African influences are noticeable in the blues tonality, the call and response pattern of the falsetto break in the vocal style, the repeated refrain construction of the blues stanza, and the imitation of vocal idioms by instruments, notably the guitar and harmonica.
The sources of the blues are poorly recorded. Blues developed in the southern United States after the American Civil War (1861–65). Southern black men, most of whom came from the milieu of agricultural workers derived from and largely played blues.
The earliest references to blues date back to the 1890s and early 1900s. In 1912 black bandleader W.C. Handy’s composition “Memphis Blues” was released. It became very popular, and afterwards many other Tin Pan Alley songs entitled blues began to appear.
Jefferson, Blind Lemon [Credit: Archive Photographs]The rural blues grown in Georgia, three main regions and the Carolinas, Texas, and Mississippi. The blues of Georgia and the Carolinas is noted for its clarity of enunciation and regularity of beat. Affected by white and ragtime folk music, it is more melodic than the Mississippi and Texas styles. Blind Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller were representative of this style.
High, clear singing followed by supple guitar lines that consist typically of single characterizes the Texas blues -string picked arpeggios rather than strummed chords. Blind Lemon Jefferson was the most influential Texas bluesman. Mississippi Delta blues is the most intense of the three styles and has been the most powerful. Vocally, it’s the most speech-like, and the guitar accompaniment is percussive and rhythmic; a slide or bottleneck is often used. The Mississippi style is symbolized by Charley Patton, Eddie (“Son”) House, and Robert Johnson, among others.
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Rainey, Ma [Credit: Archive Photos]The first blues recordings were made in the 1920s by black women like Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, and Bessie Smith. These performers were mainly stage singers backed by jazz bands; their style is known as classic blues.
As millions of blacks left the South for the cities of the North the World Wars and the Great Depression caused the geographical dispersal of the blues. The blues became adapted to the more advanced urban surroundings. The amplified harmonica and the electric guitar created a driving sound of great emotional and rhythmic intensity.
Hooker, John Lee [Credit: Frank Driggs Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]Among the cities where the blues initially took root were Atlanta, Memphis, and St. Louis. John Lee Hooker settled in Detroit, and on the West Coast Aaron (“T-Bone”) Walker developed a style later adopted by Riley (“B.B.”) King.
It was Chicago, nevertheless, that played the greatest part in the development of urban blues. After World War II they were supplanted by a fresh generation of bluesmen that contained Muddy Waters, Chester Arthur Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf), Elmore James, Little Walter Jacobs, Buddy Guy, and Koko Taylor.
The blues have affected many other musical styles. Jazz and blues are closely associated; such seminal jazzmen as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton employed blues elements within their music. Rhythm and soul music and blues also show obvious blues tonalities and forms. The blues have had their greatest impact on rock music.
Early rock singers for example Elvis Presley frequently used blues material. British rock musicians in the 1960s, notably the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and John Mayall, were powerfully influenced by the blues, as were such American rock musicians as Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, and the Allman Brothers Band.
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