While blues music had been around for decades prior, sung mainly by the African-American population in the South, the first blues song actually recorded in sheet music is from 1908, Antonio Maggio’s “I Got the Blues”. Before that, only mentions in written prose existed of blues music. The color blue has always been associated with sadness in the English language, so the term “blues” fit the melancholic musical style.
When recording technology got to the point to make record sales possible, in the 1920’s, many black female blues singers, such as Mamie Smith and Lucille Hegamin. became popular. Originally, these records were marketed to black audiences only, labeled as “race records”, but eventually white audiences became fond of them as well. The mixed genre of country blues soon emerged, fusing two of the earliest types of popular music in the US.
The 1930’s saw the birth of a new blues subgenre, the so-called “boogie-woogie”. It was intended to be played in nightclubs and dance halls for party crowds. Funk and R&B (which stands for “rhythm and blues”) music are derived from this subgenre. The emergence of the boogie-woogie style was part of the urban blues movement of the decade. Blues lost a lot of prominence by the late 1950’s.
Blues music features repeating chord progressions, in a cyclic form, lasting for 12 bars. This is why this form of music is also commonly referred to as “12-bar blues”. Its cyclic nature mirrors the call and response phrases, common in African music. However, rhythm patterns can change over the repeating 12 bars of melody.
Another signature feature of any song in this genre is the so-called “blues scale”. The blues scale is a pentatonic scale plus an added sixth note, which is the flatted version of the 5th note on the scale, also called “the blue note”. This scale is also very frequently used in modern rock music.
Blues typically features guitars, brass instruments (such as trumpet, horn, and saxophone), the piano, and drums most prominently on the instrumental. “Choking the guitar” is a common technique in blues, in which the player places their hand on the string right after the strum, not letting any notes ring out for long. The tempo runs at between 40 and 90 beats per minute. The vocals are slightly less prominent than the instrumentals with sometimes short, repetitive lyrics and performed in a somber, melancholic tone. The male singers are typically baritone, female voice types can vary.
In its original form, blues music was about the plight of 19th Century African-Americans, but later expanded to general somber topics, such as heartbreak, disappointment with life, and loneliness. The aforementioned boogie woogie songs intended for dancing crowds, thus being a more upbeat melody, didn’t feature lyrics, just instrumental, mostly piano,
These days, blues is not among the most popular musical genres anymore. So, finding artists who specialize in blues per se is a hard task. However, there are also some great musicians who are still active, successful, and they have put out great blues songs as well.
The British Eric Clapton is a famous rock and blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter. His biggest blues hits to date are “Mean Old World” (1972), a duet with Duane Allman, and “Before You Accuse Me (Take A Look At Yourself)” (1989). Buddy Guy from Louisiana state in the US has been playing since the 1950’s, his most famous songs are “Damn Right I Got the Blues” (1991) and “What Kind of Woman Is This” (2005).