What Are "The Blues"?

There has been an ongoing discussion of a defination of "The Blues". This discussion continues to the present day. Most modern writers have focused on the rural-delta blues which were performed by guitar players and because they have a closer link to rock and roll. This group would say that the blues are about poverty, despair, hardship and failed love (the weary blues) and that it is structured in the AAB, 12 bar format with a harmonic progression expressed as I, IV, V, I with a flatted seventh and played at a slow tempo.

That is definately the most basic form of the blues, but the "blues era" would not have achieved such great popularity if blues music had been limited to that defination and structure. Blues is much more a performance and vocal art than a compositional form. Many popular blues songs were an unusual combination of bars - maybe a 12/16 bar combination, or 8/12/20 or any other possible combination or number. Blues are almost always syncopated and usually contain "blue" notes. They can be slow, fast or in between. They can be happy as well as sad.

One of the earliest known blues is "Buddy Boldens Blues" which was introduced to the modern public by "Jelly Roll" Morton. This uses the famous "Funky Butt" strain that appears throuhout the era. Notably, in the famous ragtime piece "The Saint Louis Tickle published in 1904. Composer credit on that tune is given as Barney & Seymour, but modern researchers have deduced that the piece was actually written by Theron Bennett under that psuedonym. Theron was a composer and music publisher who was born and raised in Pierce City, Missouri. He was born in 1879 and grew up listening to black music in a small rural southern town in southwest Missouri. During an interview shortly before his death in 1937, he stated that "passing tones were used to signify happiness in black music". W.C. Handy who was one of the first to notate and publish early folk bluesthat he had heard, stated in 1919 that the blues were "happy-go-lucky songs".

Yes, many later blues fit the common sterotype, but the lyrics of published blues from the early period tell the story. There are few blues songs written before 1930 which are about the sterotype. In fact, the vast majority are about woman (man) trouble. The songs that relate to economic trouble (lack of funds) are not usually about poverty, but are about not being able to take your woman out for some nightlife and of course the unfaitful lover. These maladys affect white and black alike.


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