In its purest form, the musical style known as the blues can be described as black, southern, rural, secular and emotional music.
As we have seen in the section on folk songs in the 19th century, the folk music generated by the slaves in the south could fall into one of two broad categories: spirituals (the music of religion) and work songs (shouts, field hollers, chants).
Most likely, the blues evolved from work songs and “field hollars” which were part of the plantation life in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Field hollers helped pass the time in the hot sun, passed information to other workers down the road and even rhythmically coordinated activities like swinging pickaxes or shoveling dirt when several men worked simultaneously on a task.
These field hollars were unaccompanied songs about the work or the life they knew. Sometimes they were spirituals, but most often they were secular in text. Structurally, they often fit the “call and response” format, where a single voice would “call” out a line of music while the group would sing the repetitive “response” line back between solo lines.
At the heart of both spirituals and work songs was a lament for something better, something less agonizing. It was this core which was the emotional heart for this form called the blues.
The phrase, “the blues”, however, didn’t originally stem from this type of music. In fact, the term “blues” began to be connected with the concept of being discouraged or depressed as early as England in the 17th century. At that time, when someone was in a state of sadness or lament, it was said that he or she was being afflicted by “the blue devils” on their shoulder. In the early 1800’s it was a common enough term that the “devil” part of the phrase was omitted when Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, wrote in 1807 that he was experiencing a “fit of the blues.” By the end of the 1800’s, its meaning was such a part of common language that it aptly fit the sad, mournful songs of the early blues singers.
Important also, is the early connection between the emotional mood and the presence of servants of the underworld. Even the early performers of the style admitted its connection as music of the devils as much as the spirituals were God’s songs. One of the early Delta blues men, a preacher turned blues man named Son House, stated:
“I played the blues and I played gospel some too, but you can’t take God and the devil on together, cause these two fellows, they don’t communicate so well together. They don’t get along so well together. The Devil, he believes in one thing and God, well he believes in another, and you’ve got to separate the two guys. How you going to do it” You’ve got to follow one or the other.”
Undoubtedly, the assertion of the blues as devil music was furthered along by the stories of early blues guitarists (some say it was Tommy Johnson, some say legendary Robert Johnson) who stated that they made a deal with the devil at the crossroads: their soul for the ability to play and sing the blues.
Even early blues songs state the understood relationship between the music and devil. Robert Johnson wrote several songs including “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Hellhound on my Trail”, “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” and “Crossroads Blues,” the story of his Faustian deal, which not only admit but celebrate the supposed relationship.
The connection with the devil was further reinforced when the blues became the music of choice for black juke joints in the 1930’s. Devoutly religious blacks in the south denounced the music as being “of the Devil” because of the debauchery that was a part of such establishments. Their pronouncements seemed to be further solidified by the lifestyles adopted by the hard-drinking, womanizing, gambling blues musicians who lived without responsibility and sometimes died violently. The devil was in the lifestyle, the devil was in the music.
So the blues became accepted as the anti-spiritual, a cathartic song based on emotional pain and loss, supposedly guarded by the devil, and repulsive to the God-fearing blacks in the south.
Joe Savage: “Bad Luck is Killing Me” field hollar