What is the Blues?

Blues is about tradition and personal expression. At its core, the blues has remained the same since its inception. Most blues feature simple, usually three-chord  progressions and have simple structures that are open to endless improvisations, both lyrical and musical. The blues grew out of African spirituals and work songs. In the late 1800’s, southern African-Americans passed the songs down orally, and they collided with American folk and country from the Appalachians. New hybrids appeared by each region, but all of the recorded blues from the early 1900’s are distinguished by simple, rural acoustic guitars and pianos. After World War II, the blues began to fragment, with some musicians holding on to acoustic traditions and others taking it to jazzier territory. However, most bluesmen followed Muddy Waters’ lead and played the blues on electric instruments. From that point on, the blues continued to develop in new directions – particularly on electric instruments – or it has been preserved as an acoustic tradition.

Delta Blues

The Delta Blues style comes from a region in the Southern part of Mississippi, a place romantically referred to as “the land where the blues were born.” In its earliest form, the style became the first African American guitar-dominated music to make it onto phonograph records back in the late 1920’s. Although many original Delta Blues performers worked in a string band context for live appearances, very few of them recorded in this manner. Consequently, the recordings from the late 1920’s through mid 1930’s consist primarily of performers working in a solo, self-accompanied context. Either way, Delta Blues form is dominated by fiery slide guitar and passionate vocalizing, with the deepest of feelings being applied directly to the music. Its lyrics are passionate as well and in some instances stand as the highest flowering of blues songwriting as stark poetry. The form continues to the present time with new performers working in the older solo artist traditions and style; it also embraces the now-familiar string-band/small-combo format, both precursors to the modern-day blues band.

Texas Blues

A geographical sub-genre earmarked by a more relaxed, swinging feel than other styles of blues, Texas Blues encompasses a number of style variations and has a long, distinguished history. Its earliest incarnation occurred in the mid 1920s, featuring acoustic guitar work rich in filigree patterns, almost an extension of the vocals rather than merely a strict accompaniment to it. This version of Texas blues embraced both the songster and country-blues traditions, with its lyrics relying less on affairs of the heart than in other forms. The next stage of development in the region’s sound came after World War II, bringing forth a fully electric style that featured jazzy, single-string soloing over predominantly horn-driven backing. The style stays current with a raft of regional performers primarily working in a small combo context.

Country Blues

A catch all term that delineates the depth and breadth of the first flowering of guitar-driven blues, embracing solo, duo, and string band performers. The term also provides a convenient general heading for all the multiple regional styles and variations (Piedmont, Atlanta, Memphis, Texas, Acoustic Chicago, Delta, ragtime, folk, songster, etc.) of the form. While early Piano Blues and Classic Female Blues often fall into this genre, Country-Blues is primarily – but not exclusively – a genre filled with acoustic guitarists, embracing a multiplicity of techniques from elaborate finger picking to the early roots of slide playing. But some country-blues performers like Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker were to later switch over to electric guitars without having to drastically change or alter their styles.

Chicago Blues

What is now referred to as the “classic Chicago style” was developed in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, taking Delta blues, amplifying it and putting it into a small-band context. Adding  drums, bass, and piano (sometimes saxophones) to the basic string band and harmonica aggregation, the genre created the now standard blues band lineup. The form was (and is) flexible to accommodate singers, guitarists, pianists and harmonica players as the featured performer in front of the standard instrumentation. Later permutations of the style took place in the late 1950’s and early 60’s with new blood taking their cue from the lead guitar work of B.B.King and T-Bone Walker, creating the popular ‘West Side’ sub genre which usually featured a horn section appended to the basic rhythm section. Although the form embraced rock beats and modern funk rhythms in the ’80’s and ’90’s, it has since generally stayed within the guidelines developed in the 1950’s and early ‘60’s.

East Coast Blues

East Coast Blues essentially falls into two categories: Piedmont Blues and Jump Blues and its variations. Musically, Piedmont Blues describes the shared style of musicians from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia as well as others from as far afield as Florida, West Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. It refers to a wide assortment of aesthetic values, performance techniques, and shared repertoire rooted in common geographical, historical, and sociological circumstances. The Piedmont guitar style employs a complex finger picking method in which a regular, alternating-thumb bass pattern supports a melody on treble strings. The guitar style is highly syncopated and connects closely with an earlier string-band tradition integrating ragtime, blues, and   country dance songs. It’s excellent party music with a full, rock-solid sound.

Jump Blues is an uptempo, jazz-tinged style of blues that first came to prominence in the mid to late 1940s. Usually featuring a vocalist in front of a large, horn-driven orchestra or medium sized combo with multiple horns, the style is earmarked by a driving rhythm, intensely shouted vocals, and honking tenor saxophone solos, all of those very elements a precursor to rock & roll. The  lyrics are almost always celebratory in nature, full of braggadocio and swagger. With less reliance on guitar work (the instrument usually being confined to rhythm section status) than other styles, jump blues was the bridge between the older styles of blues-primarily those in a small band context-and the big band jazz sound of the 1940s.

Harmonica Blues

Harmonica Blues refers to any style of blues where the harmonica plays a central figure. Although the harmonica was present in many country-blues recordings, it became a dominant force in the ’50s, when the instrument was amplified. Although who was the first bluesman to blow his harp into a cheap microphone plugged into an equally cheap public address system and distorting it beyond belief will be forever lost to history, the artist who made the genre known as Electric Harmonica Blues come to life was none other than Little Walter Jacobs. Its greatest single innovator, greatest selling artist, and the wellspring of the entire genre, Walter’s tone became the sound to emulate and his legacy has persisted in defining the sound and style of the genre decades after his death. Not unlike Charlie Parker’s shadow in modern jazz and Hank Williams, Sr. in country, Walter’s influence has so saturated the genre that it has only been in the last decade or so that new players have turned to the other geniuses of the form (most notably {Walter Horton) for inspiration, finding new and innovative ways to express themselves on this humble instrument.

Modern Electric Blues

Modern Electric Blues is an eclectic mixture, a sub-genre embracing both the old, the new and something that falls between the two. Some forms of it copies the older styles of urban blues-primarily offshoots of the electric Chicago band style-right down to playing the music itself on vintage instruments and amplifiers from the period being replicated. It’s also a genre that pays homage to those vintage styles of playing, while simultaneously recasting them in a contemporary fashion. It can also be the most forward looking of all blues styles, embracing rock beats and pyrotechnics and enlivening the form with funk rhythms and chord progressions that expand beyond the standard three that usually comprises most blues forms.