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The Blues

Even more influential than jazz is the evocative music called “the blues.” The blues has its roots among African-American communities in the American south. It takes certain forms, particularly the “blue note” or flatted-third, and some percussive rhythmic expressions, from African music, and is known most strongly for the use of a 12-bar chord progression. Blues songs and their distinct lyrics reflect African-American culture and history with particular poignancy. The blues can be rough, delicate, upbeat or hopeless, depending on the mood of the performer.

In the early days of blues in the south, a typical country blues singer would accompany himself on acoustic guitar, perhaps in conjunction with a harmonica player. The work of Robert Johnson, from Mississippi, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, from Texas, exemplifies this conjunction of lyrical singing with intricate single-string and chordal guitar playing. Concurrently, female blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, working with backup musicians, developed their own blues forms in more urban settings. As black people moved from southern farms to northern cities over the course of the 20th century, the blues moved also. Southern-born artists like Muddy Waters and B.B. King formed electric combos backed by drums and bass, creating urban blues genres in various cities, Chicago above all. It took only a slight adjustment from black artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Bo Diddley in the 1950s for the blues to morph into early rock and roll. White artists like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis added their own energy to the mix.

In addition to rock and roll, blues is the direct parent of most of today’s African American musical genres. Blues has heavily influenced jazz, has exercised a strong influence on country and western music, and stands as one of the preeminent and uniquely American contributions to world music. Much American popular music, even the jingles of television commercials, uses the blues without the audience, or perhaps even the composers, being aware of it.

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