Blues emerged in the late nineteenth century in the Deep South and Texas as an amalgam of African American folk music, spirituals, work songs, and narrative call-and-response songs. The term “blues” may have come from the color’s association with melancholy and sadness; the majority of early blues songs are about personal hardships, lost love, and troubles in African American society.
W.C. Handy is known as the “Father of the Blues” for creating and, along with Bessie Smith, spreading the genre’s twelve-bar, AAB form through the 1920s and 1930s. Handy’s 1914 “St. Louis Blues” particularly helped popularize the form. Early on, blues split into many subgenres, including the Delta, Piedmont, Jump, Chicago, and piano blues. In the World War II era, acoustic blues fell out of fashion as electric blues began to develop. The earliest blues recordings date from the 1920s; guitarist Lead Belly recorded many classic blues songs, helping to popularize the genre.
Blues music is generally set in 4/4 time and is characterized by specific chord progressions; the most common form is the twelve-bar blues. These chord progressions repeat to create a cyclical musical form: at the end of a series, a dominant chord signals a “turnaround” transition to the beginning of the next progression.
Blues melody is characterized by “blue” or “bent” notes, which are 3rd, 5th, and 7th notes that are flattened in relation to the major scale’s pitch. These flattened notes are often sung or played at the same time as directly adjacent notes, which allows for greater embellishment. The lyrics of blues songs are traditionally AAB verses in which each line is repeated four times. In early blues, the lyrics were often spoken rhythmically rather than sung.
The guitar and voice are the most traditional blues instruments, but blues piano does exist and is often in boogie woogie style. Blues pianists also influenced the genres of swing, R&B, jazz, and rock and roll.
One of the first popular blues pianists was Roosevelt Sykes – or “The Honeydripper” – who was known for his strong, influential boogie woogie piano playing. Sykes’ first record, “’44’ Blues” (1929), became a blues standard. He composed songs with often-risque lyrics and used an eight-bar blues-pop-gospel structure rather than the standard twelve-bar style.
Otis Spann was a leading Chicago blues pianist with a distinct style. He did not make many solo recordings but was a member of the Muddy Waters band from 1952-1968. Well-known Spann recordings include 1954’s “It Must Have Been the Devil” / “Five Spot” with B.B. King and Jody Williams, and the 1966 studio recording The Blues is Where It’s At.
Blues pianist Pinetop Perkins played with many influential blues and rock and roll singers over his lifetime, touring and performing into his 90s. He joined the Muddy Waters band in 1969 and later formed The Legendary Blues Band, with whom he recorded through the early 1990s. Perkins’ first solo album was 1988’s After Hours, and he won a 2008 Grammy Award for Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesman: Live in Dallas. In 2011, at age 97, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as well as a statuette for Joined at the Hip with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.
Blues returned to popularity in part thanks to the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, which features cameos by many real blues musicians like James Brown, John Lee Hooker, and Ray Charles. The 1980s and 1990s featured a blues revival by such artists as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, and B.B. King, many of whom still perform today.
Many modern music genres are derived from blues: bluegrass, jazz, R&B, rock and roll, and country music. American twentieth-century classical composer George Gershwin even used the blues scale in two of his most famous piece, “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Concerto in F.” Today, the standard blues scale is used all over modern pop music.