“When I’m singing the blues, I’m singing life”, stated American singer Etta James.
Blues is a music genre born during the late 18th century in the United States. Although its precise history is not well known, it is said to have emerged amidst the enslaved populations in the Southern States between the 1890s and early 1900s. As enslaved people moved from the cotton fields to the Northern States, the genre of the blues became popular in cities and evolved into many different styles of blues. This includes the birth of what was known as “the city blues” in the 1940s and 1950s with artists like BB King. Blues music was played in Black clubs and Black bars in a time when segregation defined the United-States, and allowed artists to share their pain and suffering.
“To feel blue” is a known idiom meaning to feel sad or depressed. Blues music echoes these feelings, and the song lyrics often mention despair and misery. T-Bone Walker’s song “Stormy Monday Blues” is an example of typical blues music. His lyrics incorporate references to daily life, religion, heartbreak, and misery : “Lord have mercy, my heart’s in misery”.
Blues music influenced many musical genres in the 20th century. It set the foundations for jazz music : artists such as Louis Armstrong used blues elements in their music. R & B music literally stands for rhythm and blues, and is derived from blues music all while incorporating elements from jazz, swing, and gospel music. Rock ‘n roll artists like Elvis Presley were inspired by blues artists and used this inspiration to shape their music.
The legacy of blues music lived on through rock artists from the 70s such as Eric Clapton or the Rolling Stones. In 1971, the group released their song “I’ve Got the Blues”: a slow-paced ballad influenced by blues and soul, with a melancholic meaning. Eric Clapton, by releasing his 1999 compilation album Blues in which he covered many classic blues songs, contributed to reminding people of the cultural heritage that accompanies blues music.
Blues was also an important influence for American literature in the 20th century. Langston Hughes’ poem “The Weary Blues”, for example, shows a bluesman playing piano and singing about his misery. In Hughes’s texts, blues music is depicted as the music of the oppressed but also as representing the Black working class. It is no longer a simple music genre, but an embodiment of life, power struggles, and social realities of the time.
In short, blues shaped the 20th century. Not only did it give the musical world a new set of influences, it also embodied a certain culture and moment in history.
Image : ©Austin Neill, Unsplash License