Where Did Blues Music Come From?

Updated February 21, 2017

The blues is a musical genre distinctly American, one that has given birth to almost all popular forms of modern music from jazz to rock 'n' roll. Its origins rest in the deep south of the United States, in the oppressive environments suffered by African-Americans in the years after slavery, during segregation and the Great Depression as a means to express the sadness and doubt of a people. It is nothing short of ironic that the blues would rise to become one of the most popular musical genres of its day and have an influence that is still felt through the songs being crafted in modern times.

The Origins of Blues Music

The blue's origins relate to the struggles of the south's heavy African-American population in coming up through slavery and entering into a world of inequality, hatred and contempt. The term "blues" is derived from the phrase "blues devils," which means sadness or deep depression. The term appears as early as 1798 in George Coleman's short play, "Blues Devils."

Music developed from these feelings and climate in the deep south of the United States as 12-bar style songs. The term "twelve-bar blues" was created by the song structures of early blue's artists utilising chord progressions using only the first 12 bars of a sheet of music. This created short, quickly played tunes that would eventually lead to modern radio formatted "three minute pop song."

The First Blues Songs

W.C Handy, a composer and musician of a band known as the Mahara Minstrels, discovered blues music (no news for the deep south) while on a tour of Mississippi during the early 1900s. "According to Handy, while he was waiting for the train," writes, "he heard the unforgettable sound of a man running a knife against the strings of his guitar while he sang, 'Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog.'" A decade later, Handy would publish "Memphis Blues."

The first blues song recorded is reported to have been, "Laughing Song" played by George W. Johnson in 1895. Handy was a bit of a late comer when compared with earliest recordings, but what is significant about his songwriting is the way it caught fire with the people its message represented, the common folk.

The Popularity of the Style Spreads

Blues music spread as people migrated from the deep south to northern states of America in search of work during the Great Depression. When they left their homes, they brought the music with them, and it encouraged the spread of an already well-liked southern art form.

In the wake of that migration, in the 1930s, came one of the greatest influences on popular music of that day and perhaps all song construction going forward. Robert Johnson's landmark recordings, produced in majority in small studios and hotel rooms across the Mississippi Delta, provided the greatest expression of blues music of that time and perhaps since. "Cross Road Blues," recorded by Johnson in 1936, has been performed by artists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.

Blues Music and Rock 'n' Roll

Robert Johnson has been called by some the "grandfather" of rock 'n' roll for his songwriting techniques, vocal phrasing and far reaching impact on modern musicians. In 1986, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The blues, with its melodically tight and easily adaptable song structures lent itself beautifully to the dominant musical form of the 20th century, rock 'n' roll.

Some of the most popular bands of their decades, Cream (a band that included Clapton), Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page) and The Rolling Stones based most of their song structures off of the 12-bar songwriting constructs of Robert Johnson and other blues players of the deep south. Where the blues had been the most popular music of the early 1900s, rock 'n' roll took up the torch as the music of the everyman heading into the modern era.

Blues in the 21st Century

More bands (mostly white) have come out that bare blues influences over those that dominated the 1990s with their grunge aesthetic. Band of Skulls and The White Stripes are examples of bands that carry the banner waved by Johnson and W.C Handy in making music that is at once tightly woven, expressive and popular among the poorest of peoples. That is the true origin of the blues, for without the depth of emotion that comes with struggle, such a vital art form would not exist.

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About the Author

Jonathan Lister has been a writer and content marketer since 2003. His latest book publication, "Bullet, a Demos City Novel" is forthcoming from J Taylor Publishing in June 2014. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Shippensburg University and a Master of Fine Arts in writing and poetics from Naropa University.