Origins of the Blues


The Blues is a style of American popular music with roots in African American oral tradition, and mixed with European American musical styles, that emerged in the early 20th century. It has influenced almost every form of American popular music since, from jazz to Rock-n-Roll, country and beyond. More than a musical structure or genre, the blues is an expression. It takes its name from a term for sadness or depression, with themes from an individual’s point of view about everyday life and relations. Texts are typically in 3-line stanzas. Musical characteristics can include “blue” notes (altered or bent pitches for expression), a wide range of vocal nuances and utterances, varied instrumental colors, call and response, improvisation, and a variety of song forms and performance styles.

Key Lecture Points

  • The blues derives from African American folk music, such as spirituals, shouts, and field hollers. Collections of this music begin to appear after the Civil War (such as Slave Songs of the United States, 1867), but do not provide a complete picture of what this music sounded like or where the blues came from.
  • African American composer, musician and music publisher, W. C. Handy (1873-1958), described encountering the blues and other black folk music in Mississippi as early as 1903. He then incorporated elements of these folk traditions in his own compositions, publishing “Memphis Blues” (1912) and “St. Louis Blues” (1914).
  • The blues quickly found a sheet music market among black and white audiences, and were performed by black and white singers, but there were no recordings of the blues by black performers until the 1920s.
  • Black vaudeville singer Mamie Smith (1883-1946) recorded with Okeh Records in 1920; the success of her recordings spurred the creation of the Race Records category within the recording industry, opening the door for other black performers and also allowing for the popular dissemination of the blues.
  • “Classic” or vaudeville blues style was typically performed by a female singer accompanied by piano or jazz band, with songs composed by Tin Pan Alley songwriters and often following 12-bar blues structure. Famous singers included Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith (1894-1937) and Ma Rainey (1886-1939).
  • “Downhome” blues (also called country, rural, or folk blues) was arguably more in line with African American folk traditions. The style was usually performed by male singers, who accompanied themselves on guitar, wrote their own songs, and often improvised their music during performance. “Blind Lemon” Jefferson (1893-1929) was the first downhome blues musician to make it big on recordings, followed by artists such as Charley Patton (1891-1934), Son House (1902-88), and Robert Johnson (1911-38).
  • Variants of the blues were also popular among white performers, such as the early country musician Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), who recorded several “Blue Yodels.”
  • The blues was also integral in the development of jazz, which began as a fusion of the blues, ragtime, brass band music and other syncopated dance music.
  • The blues has had great influence on American popular music. For example, Rock-n-Roll developed from the blues and covers of blues songs (such as Elvis Presley’s cover of “Big Mama” Thornton’s “Hound Dog”).

Exploration Questions

  • What are some musical characteristics of the blues that are derived from African American folk traditions?
  • What are some of the differences between “classic” blues and “downhome” blues styles?

Reflective Questions

  • How did the blues make its way into sheet music and the emerging recording industry of the early 20th century?
  • How did the recording industry help shape the different styles of blues? Who recorded them, and who was the intended audience?
  • In what ways did the blues influence other styles of American popular music?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Albertson, Chris. Bessie. Yale University Press, 2005. 314 pages.
    A very detailed biography of the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith. Based on decades of research, this book gives new insight about the life of the legendary musician, as well as interesting perspective on the history of the early blues and music industry.
    Click here to order
  • Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. W. W. Norton &
    Company, 1997. 704 pages. Southern’s history is a reference for African American music, as she traces black musical life from the arrival of the slaves to contemporary musical contributions, including blues, jazz, gospel and rap.
    Click here to order
  • Titon, Jeff Todd. Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis. University of North Carolina Press, 1995. 340 pages. For aficionados of country or “downhome” blues, Titon focuses on the height of popularity of this style of blues on recordings from 1926-1930. He first chronicles the life, culture and contributions of musicians such as Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson, and then provides dozens of transcriptions and musical analysis of their recordings.
    Click here to order