The Blues as Vernacular Poetry

The Blues is a musical form with its mythic origins between Memphis and New Orleans. A synthesis of spirituals and field hollers, the blues began as a meditative, rural lyric poetry with accompanying guitar or piano, but it also served as a forum for self-expression and social protest as well as up-tempo dance music at Saturday night juke joints. In addition, the blueswomen of the 1920s brought African-American vocal techniques together with the commercial music of the minstrel stage and vaudeville, effectively influencing all American popular music beginning in the Jazz Age. The musical form developed through using European chords, scales, and musical instruments, but musicians Africanized each element: blues singers tended toward "blue" notes often a quarter-tone above or below Western notation; slides and bent notes made guitars "talk" as if vocalizing; sophisticated African-derived rhythmic elements transformed guitars and pianos into percussion instruments used as much for dance grooves as to carry melodies. Blues first became an urban music in cities such as Memphis and St. Louis, then shifted into the more upbeat rhythm-and-blues in the 1940s.

After World War II, the Blues developed into a range of rhythm-and-blues styles: the slick West Coast style of Charles Brown and T-Bone Walker, the jump-blues style of Louis Jordan and its swing singers such as Dinah Washington and Ruth Brown, and the stamp-press Chicago blues sound that came up from the Mississippi Delta. The careers of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf are emblematic as professional musicians from the primal Delta origins of blues who played, apprenticed or experienced the first generation of musicians: Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, Robert Johnson. In the bands of these two blues kings of Chicago, the rural, acoustic blues developed into urban, industrial, electric blues powered by electric guitars and pounding bass drums. The musicians of the British Invasion passed their records from hand-to-hand as if they were sacred texts – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, and Van Morrison, to name only a few – and later albums such as The London Muddy Waters Sessions (1970) and The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions (1971) remain documents of this transatlantic cultural influence.