A Brief History of Blues Music

An American Original

w-c-handyBlues music emerged from the cotton fields and small towns of the rural American South of the 1890s, drawing from African-American spirituals, folk ballads, work songs, and field hollers.  Just after the turn of the 20th century, Victor Records issued the first known recording of “black music” in 1903, the same year that William C. Handy, a musician and composer considered “the Father of the Blues”, saw a black musician at a Mississippi railroad station playing slide guitar with a knife.  By the time the first blues songs were published as sheet music in 1917—including “Memphis Blues” by Handy—the blues had taken the form we recognize today with a 12-bar “AAB” lyrical structure, distinctive vocal techniques, and “call and response” singing.   Aside from Native American chants, blues is the oldest indigenous music genre to North America, originally and indisputably created in the United States of America.  

Blues evolved as a distinctly African-American art form and contributed to a young nation’s popular culture from the Mississippi Delta and Texas, to the Piedmont region of the Carolinas.  The beginning of the blues story reflects the history of African Americans dating back to the traditional folk songs of Africa.  It includes their forced migration through the dark horror of slavery, their desperate struggle for freedom, and the oppression they experienced in the Zip Coon and Jim Crow South.  

As African Americans left the South to look for a better life in Northern cities, they carried the blues in their soul, invisibly alongside their meager belongings.  Rural acoustic blues transitioned to the big-city electric blues of Chicago, Kansas City, and St. Louis.  The so-called “race music” of the 1930s and early ‘40s transitioned to the more socially acceptable, rhythm and blues of the post-war era, as blues integrated into the white popular culture.  By the late 1950s, a broader, white audience drove the expansion and  commercial success of blues music, and in 1969, Muddy Waters and B.B. King performed to a predominately white audience at the Fillmore East, New York City. In a span of less than fifty years, the original folk blues of the 1920s ultimately became the foundation of the tremendously popular British and American blues movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.

The story of the blues continues to influence music and dance today, pushing the African American culture to a position of prominence and influence in American society. Just after the turn of the 21st century, Congress declared 2003 the “Year of the Blues” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of W.C. Handy’s chance encounter with an unknown blues singer at a Mississippi train station.  During this period, a new generation of contemporary blues dancers, led by Damon Stone and dozens of other young, entrepreneurial dance instructors across the country, were taking to the floors to teach and celebrate the original blues dance style.  

From the first recordings, to the present day, blues is a story of finding inspiration in our cultural past in the hope of a brighter future filled with love and understanding.  In The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People (Cambridge, 1956), Francis Davis suggested that Blues happened “as a result of one group of people being forced to enter another’s history.” In that same spirit, but with a lot more fun, respect, and honor to our past, Teddy’s Productions wants to internally “import” genuine Blues music from around the country to New Mexico.  

Rhythm and Blues

7097-0-1451329255Rhythm and Blues (aka “R&B”), is a music genre that emerged in the late 1940s from the blues and combined the driving rhythms of jazz with the emotional longing of gospel. The combination of rhythm and blues brings particular emotions by the singer or lead instrument while reflecting a “rhythmic” force.

“Rhythm and blues” was first coined as a musical marketing term in the United States in 1949 by Billboard magazine to appeal to a broader music audience. It replaced the term “race music” which was considered offensive. The term was initially used to identify the rocking style of music that combined the 12-bar blues format and boogie-woogie with a back beat. R&B is a fundamental element and precursor to rock and roll.

Early on, musicians paid little attention to the distinctions between jazz and rhythm and blues, and frequently recorded both genres. By the mid-1950s, R&B began to overlap with other genres and develop regional variations. At the start of their careers in the 1960s, British rock bands like The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds were essentially R&B bands. Adding to the confusion, by the 1970s, rhythm and blues was also being used as a blanket term to describe funk and soul. It was not until the 1980s that R&B adapted elements from psychedelic music and other music styles. During this time, funk and soul distinguished their genres by becoming more sultry and sexually-charged thanks to the work of Prince and others. By the 1990s, contemporary R&B came to be a major part of American popular music leading to hip hop and rap.


originalSoul music is a genre that combines rhythm and blues (R&B) and gospel music, and originated in the late 1950s in the United States.  Soul is differentiated from R&B by its use of gospel-music techniques and style, its greater emphasis on vocalists, and its merging of religious and secular themes.

Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and James Brown are considered the earliest pioneers of soul music, and were quickly followed by Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.  Aretha Franklin’s recordings, such as I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), Respect (originally sung by Redding), and Do Right Woman-Do Right Man, are considered to be the apogee of the soul music genre, and were among its most commercially successful productions. By the late 1960s, the soul music movement had begun to splinter, and as Peter Guralnick writes, “More than anything else, though, what seems to me to have brought the era of soul to a grinding, unsettling halt was the death of Martin Luther King in April of 1968.”

Soul may have paused after the King assassination, but by the early 1970s, the social and political ferment of the times inspired artists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield to release album-length statements with hard-hitting social commentary. Performing artists like James Brown led soul towards funk. By the end of the 1970s, commercial “blue-eyed” soul acts like Philadelphia’s Hall & Oates achieved mainstream success while disco and funk were dominating the charts.

There are several sub-genres of soul including: Blue-eyed, which is often characterized with catchy melodies; Detroit (or “Motown”) with strong rhythmic hand-clapping and bass line; Northern, a very rare form in northern England; Deep and Southern, a driving, energetic gospel style; Memphis, a shimmering, sultry style with melancholic horns, organ, bass, and drums; Neo, with contemporary a R&B sound along with hip-hop beats and rap interludes; Philadelphia (“Philly Soul”), with an orchestral sound and doo-wop inspired vocals; and Psychedelic, a blend of psychedelic rock and soul.

After the death of disco in the early 1980s, soul music survived for a short time before going through more fundamental transformations. With the introduction of influences from electro music and funk, soul became less raw and more slickly produced, resulting in a newer genre that, in full circle, was once-again called rhythm and blues, but sounded very different from the original R&B style. This new version of soul/R&B was often labeled “contemporary R&B.”


“If you can describe it, it ain’t funky.” -Anonymous

James-Brown_1973Today, funk is a very distinct music genre based on R&B and derived most directly from soul. One of the most distinctive features of funk music is the lead role played by bass guitar. Before soul, bass was rarely prominent in popular music. In funk, the bass guitar often becomes the centerpiece and this characteristic is what makes funk distinctive from R&B, soul, and other forms of music rooted in blues that ascended from the African-American music culture.

In addition to bass, funk has an emphasis on horns with a deep, rhythm-filled groove. Funk, especially compared to soul music, typically uses more complex rhythms and consists of just one or two distinct riffs. The basic idea of funk is to create an intense groove.  One writer described funk as the “basement of your soul.”

Funk reached its height in popularity from the late 1960s to late 1970s. The name originated in the 1950s and early 1960s when “funk” and “funky” were used increasingly as adjectives in the context of soul music—a word whose meaning transformed from a pungent odor or depression, to a strong, distinctive groove.

James Brown, considered the “Godfather of Soul” had “the groove” was also considered a founding father of funk music.  Brown was the most outspoken voice in soul, then funk, and many of his band members (“The JB’s”) such as Fred Wesley, a world-class trombonist, would later go on to funk it up with many other bands.

In addition to Brown, Rick James began to funk the world with his party music in the mid-to-late 1970s, and his fun and sexy style of music, blended with the dance grooves of the times, was a major influence.  By far, the most influential modern funk artist in the 1980s and 1990s to the dance music of the time, was Prince, who could blend many styles of music together into a danceable and soulful presentation of his art.

Blues History Timeline

How It All Went Down

1619 Slaves Arrive in the Americas

The first African slaves are brought to the American colony of Virginia....
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1830 Minstrel Shows Gain Popularity

The minstrel show, with its blackface performers, crude racial caricatures, and the song "Jump Jim C...
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Apr 12, 1861 Civil War Begins

The Civil War begins with the first shots on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina....
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Jan 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, nominally freeing the slaves....
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Apr 18, 1865 Civil War Ends; Reconstruction Begins

The Civil War ends with the surrender of the Confederate Army. Reconstruction begins in the South....
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1867 Slave Songs Published

Slave Songs of the United States, the earliest collection of African-American spirituals, is publish...
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Jan 1877 Radical Reconstruction Ends

Radical Reconstruction ends when federal troops are withdrawn from the South....
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1890 Rise of Jim Crow

Southern states move to the "Jim Crow" system of legal segregation, passing laws to circumscribe man...
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Scott Joplin publishes "Maple Leaf Rag." Ragtime will become a key influence on the Piedmont style o...
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1902 Black Music First Recorded

Victor Records issues the first known recording of black music, "Camp Meeting Shouts."...
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1903 Bluesman Discovered

The musician W.C. Handy sees a bluesman playing guitar with a knife at a train station in Mississipp...
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1912 Blues Songs First Recorded

The first blues songs, including W.C. Handy's "Memphis Blues", are published as sheet music....
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Apr 6, 1917 The Great Migration

The United States enters World War I. Military and economic mobilization accelerates the great inter...
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Feb 1920 Mamie Smith

Mamie Smith records for Okeh Records. Her "Crazy Blues" becomes the first blues hit, beginning the b...
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1923 Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey

Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, the defining performers of the classic blues, make their recording debut...
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Jun 14, 1923 Folk Blues Debuts

Ralph Peer, the famous Artist & Repertory man for Okeh and Victor Records, makes his first field...
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1924 First Folk Blues Records

The first male folk blues records, featuring singers Papa Charlie Jackson and Daddy Stovepipe, are i...
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1925 New Recording Technology

Electrical recording technology is introduced....
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1925 Blind Lemon Jefferson

Blind Lemon Jefferson is first recorded. He will become the dominant blues figure of the late 1920s ...
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1929 Charley Patton

The early Delta bluesman Charley Patton is first recorded....
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Oct 24, 1929 Great Depression

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 begins on Black Thursday, signaling the beginning of the Great Depress...
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Nov 1936 Robert Johnson

Legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson begins his short recording career....
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1939 Electric Guitar

Eddie Durham records the first music featuring the electric guitar. The modern instrument, first dev...
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1941 Muddy Waters Recorded

Alan Lomax records McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, for the Library of Congress a...
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Dec 7, 1941 U.S. Enters World War II; Migration Continues

The Japanese bombing attack on Pearl Harbor marks the entry of the United States into World War II. ...
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1947 T-Bone Walker Goes Electric

Bluesman T-Bone Walker plays electric guitar on the recording of his standard "Call it Stormy Monday...
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1947 Muddy Waters and Chicago Blues

Muddy Waters makes his first Chicago recordings, beginning his tenure as the dominant figure in the ...
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Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup records "That's All Right," a tune that recalls Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Tha...
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Jerry Wexler, an editor at Billboard magazine, substitutes the term "rhythm and blues" for the older...
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1952 B.B. King

B.B. King has his first major rhythm and blues hit with a version of "Three O'Clock Blues."...
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May 17, 1954 Brown v. Board

The Supreme Court rules on Brown v. Board of Education, a unanimous judgment in favor of school dese...
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1954 Elvis Debuts

Elvis Presley makes his recording debut on Sun Records with a version of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "...
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1959 The Country Blues

Samuel Charters publishes The Country Blues, fueling the blues element of the folk music revival....
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Jul 3, 1960 Muddy Waters Performs

Muddy Waters performs at the Newport Jazz Festival to tremendous acclaim....
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1961 Robert Johnson Revival

John Hammond pushes to have a selection of Robert Johnson's recordings reissued on LP by Columbia....
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Jun 1964 British Invasion

The first U.S. tour by the Rolling Stones marks the invasion of British blues rock bands....
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June 1964 Freedom Summer

Freedom Summer, the civil rights campaign to register black voters, draws young whites to the South....
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Jul 1964 Delta Bluesmen Perform

The recently "rediscovered" Delta bluesmen Son House and Skip James perform at the Newport Folk Fest...
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Jan 1, 1808 The End of Slave Importation

Congress legislates an end to the importation of slaves to the United States....
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1969 White Fan Base

Muddy Waters and B.B. King perform at the Fillmore East, a concert venue in the East Village region ...
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1990 Robert Johnson Re-Released

Columbia's release of the complete Robert Johnson recordings on CD goes gold, selling 400,000 albums...
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Congress declares 2003 the "Year of the Blues," commemorating the 100th anniversary of W.C. Handy's ...
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(Shmoop Editorial Team, 2008)

“The blues is like a planet. It’s an enormous topic. You can’t ignore the impact that it has had and continues to have on the whole musical culture. It’s a tree that everyone is swinging from. Without it, I don’t know where I would be. It’s indelible and indispensable.”
Tom Waits
“As a guitar player, you can gravitate to the blues because you can play it easily. It’s not a style that’s difficult to pick up. It’s purely emotive and dead easy to get a start with.”
Boz Scaggs
“I don’t try to just be a blues singer – I try to be an entertainer. That has kept me going.”
B.B. King
“I listened to King Oliver and I listened to Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp… I listened to everything I could that came from that place that they call the blues but, in formality, isn’t necessarily the blues.”
Eric Clapton
“Hearing the blues changed my life.”
Van Morrison
“The blues is like a planet. It’s an enormous topic. You can’t ignore the impact that it has had and continues to have on the whole musical culture. It’s a tree that everyone is swinging from. Without it, I don’t know where I would be. It’s indelible and indispensable.”
Tom Waits