Where It All Began: Learning the Rich History of Blues

Where It All Began: Learning the Rich History of Blues

American music is a rich tapestry of different genres and influences that have come together to make something beautiful. Few styles of music embody that idea as much as the blues. The genre started as the result of several types of music and cultures and has evolved into a distinct category that influences modern artists every day. Let’s explore blues music history to see the origins and growth of this beloved American classic.

Understanding Blues Music History: The Early Days

Like many forms of art, blues music started as a form of expression for people who were often left out of mainstream music. The originators of blues were the workers in southern fields who faced life’s hardships and newly freed slaves who used music to heal from the traumas of modern life.

The music echoed this feeling of struggle, with themes of sorrow and resilience common in early and contemporary blues music. This is the reason the emotional impact of blues music is so great and has touched so many people over the decades.

1870s: Field Hollers and Spiritual Whispers

Looking into “When did blues music start?” will take you back to the 19th Century. By the late 1800s, blues music was beginning to surface among the working class. In the 1870s, people searching for a new way of living after the Civil War started to make songs to sing while they worked. Field hollers were also common, which are rhythmic calls between workers used to communicate.At the same time, African rhythms and beats were becoming more widely heard in the South, setting the stage for the collaborative genre that would become the blues. Folk music also played a role, adding a lyrical style to this music of the people.

1890s: Blues Finds its Voice

By the end of the century, blues music started to evolve into something distinctive and recognizable. This is the time many historians would say the music came into its own. Artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson helped give voice to the sound. The Louisiana farmer used a rustic guitar and sang along, sharing lyrics about his joys and pains in a style that would become characteristic of the genre.

Others began to pick up the mantle, taking the music from country fields to city streets. Blues artists started to perform in dance halls and juke joints, picking up more fans as exposure grew.

1920s: The Blues Takes Flight

The years from 1920 to 1930 were critical in the history of blues music. The boom of the recording industry added fuel to the spread of blues music, allowing artists to distribute their music further than ever. Record labels started to actively record African-American artists as they led the way in popular new genres, including blues and jazz. While these albums were marketed to Black audiences, they gained a following among all people in a short time.

In the 1920s, women also began to play a bigger role in the history of the blues. Pioneers such as Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey became blues stars, making significant tracks and records that would help set the direction of the genre. “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith is often credited as one of the first vocal blues records released and paved the way for other artists. 

Another force was also starting to influence the path of the blues. In the Mississippi Delta, the music had a more raw and rural sound than what was being made in the cities. The lyrics were emotional and backed with the slide guitar technique that added energy and grit to the music. This style of blues wasn’t as commercially viable as the urban version but still attracted a dedicated audience that related to the turmoil in the music.

As African Americans moved out of the South during the beginning of the Great Migration, they took blues music with them. Soon, northern cities would start to develop their own blues communities and styles, expanding the style and reach of the genre. The rural acoustic instruments were paired with or replaced by electric versions, adding a new sophistication to the blues.

The Great Depression also played a role in the growth of the blues. In a time when more people felt the struggle of economic woes, the laments found in blues music were cathartic. Artists such as Muddy Waters from Mississippi helped amplify the genre, making edgy music that captured hearts.  These early years of the blues set the stage for growth and experimentation, and the artists who would pick up the torch next made sure to push the limits of what blues music could be.

Understanding Blues Music History: The Modern Growth

With the foundation for the music set between the 1870s and the 1930s, the artists and writers who continued blues music ushered in a new phase. The music took on new styles, and new regions emerged as key locations on the blues music map.

1950s and 1960s: Beyond the Delta, Blues Takes Root 

Once blues music made its way north, large cities found their own blues communities growing. Chicago became a notable blues mecca, with artists such as Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon showcasing stories of struggle, overcoming, and love. They used Mississippi-style vocals with unique rhythms to create a sound that had wide appeal and drew people in.

During this time, blues also became popular in an unexpected place: the United Kingdom. British artists such as The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were topping the charts in the U.K. as well as in America. While these artists are often considered rock or pop acts, they used the influence of the blues to create their popular sound, infusing their music with the soul of the artists before them.

At this point in blues music history, the sound became more integrated into other genres such as R&B, Rock ’n’ Roll and soul music. While fewer strict blues albums and artists emerged, the music stayed alive through the artists who used blues elements to inform their own sounds and styles.

1970s and Beyond

In the 1970s, the blues experienced a resurgence through the popularity of blues-rock. Artists such as Eric Clapton and Janis Joplin embodied this sub-genre, which combined the emotions of blues with the energy of rock music. Younger audiences started to embrace the music more, enjoying exciting performers such as B.B. King and Buddy Guy. This decade was significant for bridging the gap between traditional blues and the mainstream music scene.

During the 1980s, traditional blues had a resurgence with music labels such as Alligator Records and music stars like Stevie Ray Vaughan. They brought a new blend of blues, pop, and rock that was both loved by blues fans and well-received by commercial audiences. A new generation fell in love with the blues. Older blues pioneers also found new success, with growing appeal for acts such as John Lee Hooker and Albert Collins.

Moving into the 1990s and 2000s, the blues continued to diversify. Artists blended the music with funk, hip-hop, and soul, creating experimental but captivating songs. Festivals also began to play a role in the history of blues music. Events such as the Chicago Blues Festival and the International Blues Challenge attracted people from all over, letting them share their love of the music.

A Legacy That Doesn't End

While blues music is still alive and well as a unique genre, it is also a key component in many other kinds of music. Perhaps the most direct descendant of blues is Rock'n'Roll. Even as blues was still growing, artists including Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were integrating blues music into their rock music, ensuring that more people were exposed to blues elements. Rhythms, song structures, and the 12-bar progressions of blues made their way into more music styles. 

Blues also played a critical role in the development of jazz. The use of blue notes – notes played at a slightly lower pitch than standard – became a characteristic element in jazz, adding a layer of emotional depth and complexity. Jazz legends like Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis were deeply influenced by the blues, merging its expressive qualities with improvisational jazz elements.

In more recent times, blues has influenced hip-hop, rap, and modern R&B. Blues has always been about telling stories and conveying the hardships of life, themes that fit well with modern music. Blues tracks have also served as a literal foundation for songs in these genres, with artists and producers sampling blues songs.

Blues Music History: a Rich Tradition

When you examine "When did blues music start?", you'll begin a walk through more than a hundred years of history. Blues artists used heartwrenching lyrics and sorrowful music to connect with people's souls, offering them a way to lament the tough moments in life and find hope for the future. The Blues is a key part of America's culture, with artists and fans still inspired by the songs and albums. Embrace blues music and explore classic songs on Musicnotes.