The Blues – a very short introduction

history of blues music 1910 to the present

Most people imagine that ‘the Blues’ is a form of musical expression characterised by mournful lamentations about life’s hardships or expressions of lost love. Ask any musician, and they will tell you that it’s the name of a musical form, moving from the tonic to the sub-dominant fourth, then via a flattened seventh, back to the dominant. And a singer might point out that it is a four-bar ‘call’ or phrase that is repeated then completed by a four-bar ‘answer’. Elijah Wald’s strength is to show that it means all these things – and more besides. The blues is also a thorough mixture of European and African American musical elements that first became popular via very politically incorrect minstrel shows in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Wald is particularly good at explaining the distinctions between different styles – which are usually the products of different geographical areas – and showing the social and economic context out of which these styles emerged. In terms of structure he first of all covers the classic country-based blues artists of the period 1910-1930, then he looks at the blues as a mainstay of popular bands such as Count Basie, Louis Jordan, and Lionel Hampton. He several times emphasises that the big stars of this period wer almost all women singers – Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington (real name, Ruth Jones).

When it comes to the 1950s and the arrival of blues-based rock-and-roll he explains again the case he makes at length in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock N Roll. This is the argument that the new young white groups, even though inspired by the old blues masters, pushed them out of the record charts. However, it is a mistake to imagine that they universally resented this. Many of them had lost their original black audiences, and were grateful for finding new ones by association with the likes of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.

The final chapters trace the influence of the blues on American culture – first in its relation with jazz music. It’s really quite difficult to say where the blues ends and jazz begins, as all great jazz performers have have included blues as part of their repertoire from Buddy Bolden’s “Blues” to John Coltrane’s “Cousin Mary”.

It is the penultimate chapter that blues purists will find most controversial, since Wald argues that in the racially segregated world of country and western music, white performers such as Jimmy Rogers and Hank Williams were just as influential on black singers as the other way round – and he has the evidence from black performers themselves to support this idea.

He ends with a chapter on the poetry of the blues – extolling the virtues of its sexual frankness and unsentimental treatment of life’s harsher realities. I thought he missed a good chance to point out the use of amazingly inventive allegories and metaphors (Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” and Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster”) – but you cannot expect everything in a ‘very short introduction’.

Anyone who wants an introduction to this rich musical genre would do well to start here. I read it with my connection to open – and checked all his major recommendations. They were spot on.

© Roy Johnson 2010

Elijah Wald, The Blues: a very short introduction, Oxford Oxford University Press, 2010, pp.140, ISBN: 0195398939

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