A Brief History of Blues Music
An American Original
Blues 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
Rhythm 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.
Soul 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
Today, 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.