A Brief History of Blues

Johnny Winters passed away on July 16, 2014

Johnny Winters passed away on July 16, 2014

This is one of our doper archived articles from July 2014

A brief history of blues

I’ll be honest … I couldn’t have named one blues artist before I heard about the recent death of Johnny Winter—the blues-rock legend who died at age 70 in Zurich, Switzerland. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate the talent, but rather, it speaks to my shallow knowledge of the genre’s history. As headline upon headline labels Johnny a “guitar icon” and “blues rock guitar virtuoso” I realize that surely this guy had some colossal influence on blues music. So, I set out to educate myself. I created a blues Pandora station for my ears to devour and got to researching. Here’s what I learned:

Origin. The American Deep South is the birthplace of the African-American spiritual and traditional songs that later transformed into the smooth progressions of “blues.” Blues songs were first published as sheet music as early as 1912, and in 1920, Mamie Smith recorded the first blues song, “Crazy Blues,” for Okeh Records—it could be purchased for a respectable $1. This first hit marked the beginning of “race records”—music recorded by and for the African-American population. Shortly after, blues returned to its roots in the Deep South, fostering folk blues—a sub genre of blues that has evolved into modern day country music. By 1927, there were an estimated 10 blues record releases per week. Between 1910 and 1940 when the masses emigrated from the south, blues music followed and took urban root. By the 1950s and 60s, white audiences voraciously jumped aboard the blues wagon (à la Hairspray) and pumped even more life and money into the blues culture.

Meaning. Most research asserts that “blues” comes from term “blue devils,” meaning people taken over by a depressed or melancholy mood. While early blues music drew from a rich mix of black culture, it largely attested to the hardships African-Americans endured as slaves and immigrants. Blues legends and historians say that the true story of blues music began as inspiration from a culturally and racially conflicted past and present whose continued success lay in its hope for the future. In essence, before popular culture capitalized on the artistic genius of blues, it was the great refuge for a struggling demographic.

Form. A typical blues balled uses a 12-bar chord progression with a lyrical form that follows an AAB pattern. Muddy Waters’ “Train Fare Home Blues” is a prime example:


Sub genres. After the explosion of blues music, imitation attempts led to sub genres that often surpassed blues in mainstream popularity. Country, jazz, folk, rock n’ roll and R&B music all have direct lineage to blues. But according to the legendary American blues guitarist, Luther Allison, “The blues is the foundation, and it's got to carry the top. The other part of the scene, the rock 'n' roll and the jazz, are the walls of the blues.”

Trailblazers. Blues music is one of the few trades in documented history pioneered by women. Blues vixens Ma Raine and Bessie Smith joined Mamie in cultivating a passionate following and rearing a stage presence like none before them. Ma, like Mamie, was a vaudeville performer who incorporated her talent as a blues vocalist in her nightly shows. Ma is remembered as widely outspoken and sexually curious—“The Mother of Blues.” Bessie, “The Empress of Blues,” had a major influence on the bustling jazz scene and made an impressive 160 recordings for Columbia Records by the time she died. Both women were inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame. Later, Muddy Waters spearheaded the electric blues scene in Chicago in the 1950s, popularizing the genre with white revival audiences. Muddy was the seed from which modern R&B, rock n’ roll, folk and British blues stemmed. His legend lives on in music and in print—Rolling Stone magazine’s moniker is a tribute to his 1950 hit, “Rollin’ Stone.”

Coincidentally, Johnny Winters produced three of Muddy’s Grammy-award winning blues albums. Johnny, who was on the European leg of his tour when he died last week, defied racial odds to make a living as an albino blues guitarist in the later half of the 20th century. His artistry was characterized by his energetic flair and unrivaled guitar abilities. The industry and his fans remember him as a pillar of contemporary blues-rock who had true finesse for the soul and sound of the music.

 Edited by Valerie Reich

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