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Ch. 02: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Delta Bluesman Son House

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.”

Stavin’ Chains

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

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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