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Blues, The

  The Blues (the name is possibly derived from the expression ‘a fit of the blue devils’, meaning depression) is a style of music which originated with black singers in the USA at the end of the 19th century. Its exact origins are obscure, but it may have emerged out of the rural folk and work songs of black Americans. ‘The Blues’ is a multifaceted term, and one which is largely determined by its social context. As a rural form, for example, it was not so much a musical object as a mode of performance, dependent on the singer\'s emotional response to personal circumstances of hardship and suffering. It combined elements of narrative, lament and complaint, and was essentially cathartic in intention. As the Blues spread throughout the southern states its poetic and musical structure became increasingly standardized: the words were organized in groups of three lines, and each line had four bars of music—hence the expression ‘12-bar blues’. (8-bar and 16-bar blues are occasionally found.) The music is a single line of melody over repeated chords. The harmonic content was fixed, and the style used syncopation of rhythm (especially dragging the beat) and ‘blue’ notes: slightly flattened versions of those degrees of the major scale which are usually sharpened to give brightness of sound, the 3rd and 7th.

The urbanization of black Americans, during the early part of this century, meant that other forms of Blues evolved. The so-called ‘classic blues’, featuring black female singers accompanied by small jazz bands, combined songs based on the rural form with material influenced by vaudeville and black entertainment music. Another urban form to emerge was the instrumental ‘piano blues’. Stripped of the blues lyric, this retained the formal and harmonic structure of its rural counterpart; its players developed a variety of rhythmic idioms such as ‘barrelhouse’, ‘boogie-woogie’, ‘stomp’ and ‘strut’. This last style became a major influence on jazz and, through its jazz-based derivative ‘rhythm-and-blues’, on all subsequent pop and rock music. Blues, therefore, not only survives in its own right, but is the bedrock of 20th-century Western popular music, one of the most influential ideas in the history of the art. KMcL SSt

Further reading Paul Oliver, The Story of the Blues.



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