Origins of the blues

According to many music historians and experts, blues is the authentically African American music style, which would never exist if it weren’t for particular historical, cultural and social circumstances of early African American communities in the USA. Of course, black music is played all over the globe, Africa being the home of many extraordinary world music genres, but no discussion about Western black music can be complete without talking about the blues and its African American origins.

The blues music first started at the turn of the century at the Mississippi plantations with slave labor. This authentic type of black fork music was heard on the cotton fields where workers sung about their hardships, love stories and everyday activities. The blues spread across the Mississippi Delta (or simply Delta) and then across the Southern states, where musicians travelled, sang and played their music or music they picked up on their travels. The performers were humble men (and sometimes women) who did it for the sake of the song. Back then the so-called “tent shows” were the most accessible and hence the most popular form of entertainment. They included variety shows, music, “medicine shows,” magicians, jugglers and comedians. The musicians played a mixed repertoire of bluegrass, ragtime, gospel and folk, and blues became part of that mix. Guitar or harmonica players travelled around the country (but mostly the Southern states) with their instrument, often hitching a ride or jumping the trains and then played on street corners, bars and juke joints for tips and small change. Blues was also popular in brothels, where it was often played on or accompanied by piano music. Musicians also played on paydays at plantations, logging camps and similar workplaces with tough working conditions and long hours, because the workers were eager to spend some of their pay checks on music, food and drinks after hard work. However, blues didn’t serve only as entertainment – an important aspect of it was the fact it often depicted hardships, troubles, pains, bad luck and grief. The listeners enjoyed that kind of music because it helped them share the load and not feel alone in their troubles.

The first published blues sheet music was “I Got the Blues” by Antonio Maggio in 1908, or, more precisely, it was the first song to use the word “blues.” It didn’t take long for other blues artists, both black and white, to start recording and publishing their music, often for very small fees. Most musicians, particularly the black ones, never saw any substantial gain from their music and they hardly considered it a profession.

As from where exactly the blues evolved, it is not completely certain but most experts believe that it originated from vocal music and oral traditions of slaves from West Africa, the African call-and-response tradition that somehow merged with the European harmonic structure. From there, the blues evolved into many subgenres and styles and it continues to evolve even today.

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