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Music History - Blues

As with jazz music, blues style was created by the black slaves in America who adapted their own African music. The Saharan savannah belt was the area were a faint blues connection can best be heard. African music was barely discernible in early Blues music as the slave masters tried to destroy all aspects of African culture that may have posed a threat. Tribal drumming (which may have contained coded messages) and any religious activities were banned. Blues involved the call and response style which grew up around the repetitive group work in the chain gangs and in plantations and rhythm was also an important factor. During the slavery period, the church music grew into what we know today as Gospel and became the basis of blues.

In 1912, Hart Wand wrote his "Dallas Blues", the first published song to use the word Blues in the title. As with jazz music in New Orleans, migration of the blues northwards occurred. The migrants played country blues initially. Blues sheet music formalized the Blues into its typical twelve-bar, three chord structure (although eight-bar blues also developed). During the 1940's a newer form of blues emerged with boogie-woogie and other swing rhythms.

During the 1920s, women Blues singers became popular as the record companies thought that white record-buyers would prefer city women singing than rural men. They wrongly ignored the potential of the black record-buying population. Such artists include Alberta Hunter, Mamie Smith, Clara Smith, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox and Victoria Spivey. After the Great war many of the ex-slaves found employment in the steel and shipbuilding industry and now had spare money to spend on music.

Important figures in Blues include Reverend Gary Davis and also Robert Johnson from Mississippi who learnt guitar from Willie Brown and delta stylising from Son House. He was mocked by other guitarists such as Charley Patton, Son House and Willie Brown early on in his career. His recordings include "Dust my Broom", "Crossroads" and "Rambling on my mind".

Robert Johnson

The Wall Street Crash in 1929 created the worst economic disaster America had ever known and this caused near starvation for many of the Southern plantation workers. The migration Northwards for many of the people now came out of desperation. Chicago became a popular place for many of the travelling Blues performers. It was in Chicago where Muddy Waters first played blues with an electric guitar. His style of blues became known as Rhythm and Blues. Muddy Water's rival was the Wolf (Chester Burnett) who also played the blues with an electric guitar.

Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters

The music of John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon also became popular at this point in time. In the mid 1950s, the ghetto clubs of Chicago were home to the recording company Chess stars such as Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Otis Spann, the Wolf and Hubert Sumlin. The other recording company, Vee-Jay stars were Eddie Taylor and Jimmy Reed.

During and after World War II, African-Americans found plenty of work and for the first time had money to spend on entertainment. Unfortunately, major entertainment venues had a ban on African-Americans even when the performers were themselves African-American. Radio was also dominated by white Americans and many of the disk jockeys would not play African-American inspired music.

By the 1950's, the white American youth had turned their attentions to the young performers Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Chuck Berry with Bo Diddly were both signed up with Chess in Chicago, Little Richard was based in Los Angeles and Fats Domino was based in New Orleans. After touring night-clubs, Little Richard changed his style from a traditional rhythm and blues artist to a wild piano-bashing crazy man. "Tutti Frutti" was the first song released that made Little Richard famous. Chuck Berry was inspired to become a recording artist after talking to Muddy Waters. Berry's first release was "Maybelline" which was a cross between country style music and rhythm and blues. By 1956 the music that these artists were performing became known as rock and roll.

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