The History of Blues Music: From the 1890s to the Present

The first references to blues music can be traced back to the 1890s and the start of the 20th century. In 1912, W. C. Handy's composition, “Memphis Blues”, was released and quickly gained popularity.

This marked the beginning of a new era in music, as Tin Pan Alley songs titled blues began to appear. On a Lonely Night in 1903, W. Handy, the African-American leader of a dance orchestra, was stranded waiting for a train in the village of Tutwiler, Mississippi. As he dozed off on a hardwood bench in an empty warehouse, he was awoken by a tattered black man singing about going where the Southerners cross the dog and slipping a knife against the strings of a guitar.

Handy was intrigued by this strange music and asked what it meant. It turned out that the tracks of the Yazoo Railroad in the Mississippi Valley, which the locals called the Yellow Dog, crossed the tracks of the Southern Railroad in Moorehead, where the musician was going, and had been turned into a song. This peculiar music was blues, although few people knew it by that name. At the turn of the century, it was gradually emerging in Texas, Louisiana, the Piedmont region and the Mississippi Delta; its roots were in various forms of African-American slave songs such as field cries, work songs, spirituals and country string ballads. Rural music that captured 300 years of slavery and tenant agriculture, it was often performed by traveling solo musicians who played acoustic guitar, piano or harmonica at weekend parties, picnics and nightclubs.

Its audience consisted mainly of agricultural workers who danced to its rhythm of propulsion, moans and slide guitar. In 1912, W. Handy helped raise its public profile when he became one of the first people to transcribe and publish a score for Memphis Blues. Eight years later, listeners got more than a million copies of Crazy Blues by Mamie Smith - the first black woman to record a blues voice - which alerted record labels to possible profits from racing records. Singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith then began introducing blues to an even wider audience through their recordings. In the 1940s and early 1950s, electrified blues reached its peak on radio but began to falter as listeners turned to fresh sounds like rock and roll and soul.

However, in the early 1960s when bands like The Rolling Stones began performing versions of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf's songs, aspiring white blues musicians from England helped resurrect it by creating gritty rock and roll that openly showed their blues influences. Today, 100 years after W. Handy first heard it, blues no longer attracts as much attention as it used to; for many young listeners it may sound as strange as it did to Handy back then. But if you listen carefully you'll discover a rich and powerful story of people who helped build America and created one of the most influential genres in popular music. Elements such as syncope, blue notes and scales such as pentatonic, mixolidian and Doric were inherent to this tradition. The popular form of piano music in late 19th and early 20th centuries was ragtime which became very popular thanks to greats like Scott Joplin. African-American composers and performers challenged efforts to segregate music in America by marketing Euro-American artists' music to Europeans and African-American artists' music to African-Americans in various ways so they could reach a wide audience.

Many chose to rely on their physical endurance and melancholic lyrics of many blues songs to create powerful emotive music that would celebrate African-Americans' lives. Alliances were formed between songwriters and lyricists to bring African-American music to people in a way that would do justice to its genre.

Alberta Knapick
Alberta Knapick

Freelance pizza fan. Beer scholar. Subtly charming zombie maven. Certified pop culture buff. Extreme food enthusiast. Freelance tv aficionado.

Leave Message

Required fields are marked *