A Brief History of the Blues

A Brief History
of the Blues

Joseph Machlis says that the blues
is a native American musical and verse form, with no direct European and

African antecedents of which we know. (p. 578) In other words, it is a
blending of both traditions. Something special and entirely different from
either of its parent traditions. (Although Alan Lomax cites some examples
of very similar songs having been found in Northwest Africa, particularly
among the Wolof and Watusi. p. 233)

The word \'blue\' has been associated
with the idea of melancholia or depression since the Elizabethan era. The

American writer, Washington Irving is credited with coining the term \'the
blues,\' as it is now defined, in 1807. (Tanner 40) The earlier (almost
entirely Negro) history of the blues musical tradition is traced through
oral tradition as far back as the 1860s. (Kennedy 79)

When African and European music first
began to merge to create what eventually became the blues, the slaves sang
songs filled with words telling of their extreme suffering and privation.
(Tanner 36) One of the many responses to their oppressive environment resulted
in the field holler. The field holler gave rise to the spiritual, and the
blues, "notable among all human works of art for their profound despair
. . . They gave voice to the mood of alienation and anomie that prevailed
in the construction camps of the South," for it was in the Mississippi

Delta that blacks were often forcibly conscripted to work on the levee
and land-clearing crews, where they were often abused and then tossed aside
or worked to death. (Lomax 233)

Alan Lomax states that the blues
tradition was considered to be a masculine discipline (although some of
the first blues songs heard by whites were sung by \'lady\' blues singers
like Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith) and not many black women were to be
found singing the blues in the juke-joints. The Southern prisons also contributed
considerably to the blues tradition through work songs and the songs of
death row and murder, prostitutes, the warden, the hot sun, and a hundred
other privations. (Lomax) The prison road crews and work gangs where were
many bluesmen found their songs, and where many other blacks simply became
familiar with the same songs.

Following the Civil War (according
to Rolling Stone), the blues arose as "a distillate of the African music
brought over by slaves. Field hollers, ballads, church music and rhythmic
dance tunes called jump-ups evolved into a music for a singer who would
engage in call-and-response with his guitar. He would sing a line, and
the guitar would answer it." (RSR&RE 53) The guitar did not enjoy
widespread popularity with blues musicians until about the turn of the
century. Until then, the banjo was the primary blues instrument.) By the

1890ís the blues were sung in many of the rural areas of the South. (Kamien

518) And by 1910, the word \'blues\' as applied to the musical tradition
was in fairly common use. (Tanner 40)

Some \'bluesologists\' claim (rather
dubiously), that the first blues song that was ever written down was \'Dallas

Blues,\' published in 1912 by Hart Wand, a white violinist from Oklahoma

City. (Tanner 40) The blues form was first popularized about 1911-14 by
the black composer W.C. Handy (1873-1958). However, the poetic and musical
form of the blues first crystallized around 1910 and gained popularity
through the publication of Handy\'s "Memphis Blues" (1912) and "St. Louis

Blues" (1914). (Kamien 518) Instrumental blues had been recorded as early
as 1913. Mamie Smith recorded the first vocal blues song, \'Crazy Blues\'
in 1920. (Priestly 9) Priestly claims that while the widespread popularity
of the blues had a vital influence on subsequent jazz, it was the "initial
popularity of jazz which had made possible the recording of blues in the
first place, and thus made possible the absorption of blues into both jazz
as well as the mainstream of pop music." (Priestly 10)

American troops brought the blues
home with them following the First World War. They did not, of course,
learn them from Europeans, but from Southern whites who had been exposed
to the blues. At this time, the U.S. Army was still segregated. During
the twenties, the blues became a national craze. Records by leading blues
singers like Bessie Smith and later, in the thirties, Billie Holiday, sold
in the millions. The twenties also saw the blues become a musical form
more widely used by jazz instrumentalists as well as blues singers. (Kamien


During the decades of the thirties
and forties, the blues spread northward with the migration of many blacks
from the South and entered into the repertoire of big-band