Blues Music Buying Guide
The Blues, as a musical genre, encompasses countless subgenres and a variety of musical elements, all of which have developed regionally over the course of the past hundred years of recording history, as well as countless generations before that. As with any folk tradition, characteristics of the blues are as varied as the locale's in which they were formed. Basic components of blues music encourages artists to incorporate extensive musical and lyrical improvisations, which would then spawn wholly original new forms out of the traditional structures. The songs were mostly played on guitar ,banjo or piano , using simply, often using simple three chord progressions.
In approaching blues music, one must be made aware of the following:
- As one of America's discinct traditional art forms, many blues songs were handed down orally over many generations. The early recordings of blues music only represent a truncated portion of the genre's actual musical history.
- Before the 1960s, the blues were almost never popular enough to warrant an LP record, and so small 78rpm singles were the only option. Unfortunately, many of these early recordings were made cheaply and did not survive long enough to be remastered. Thus you will find that most recordings of early blues artists from that age have been reformatted into large collections.
- When listening to these artists in collection form, one must also remember that these songs were in most instances recorded over the course of decades, and not in distinct periods like most modern recording artists. Thus, each song must be taken as a work in and of itself, and most importantly, in its historical context.
With so many subgenres, the elementary blues enthusiast may find a complete list encompassing all the subgenres daunting. Thus, this article attempts to highlight the main or archetypal blues subgenres that also give a sense of the progression of styles over time.
Originating as we know it in the Delta region of Mississippi, Delta Blues is the main archetypal style of early blues. Usually heard with an acoustic guitar, banjo or piano, this form was usually recorded/practised solo, with the musician accompanying his forceful musicianship with passionate and often rauncy lyricism. Major artists include Mississippi Fred McDowell ,Son House ,Bukka White ,Robert Johnson , and Charley Patton .
Major albums to consider:
With the onslaught of the Great Depression, poor Southerners migrated from the plantations into the northern cities to find work in the industrial sector. As Bruce Eder notes, "...as the Black populations in Chicago, New York, and other northern cities gradually surged, the audience for the blues changed. A new, more sophisticated brand of blues, akin to big-band jazz, began to manifest itself alongside acoustic country blues. By the middle of the 1930s, rural acoustic blues was on the decline, along with the economic situation of its audience." (Beginner's Guide and History -- How to Listen to the Blues...Bruce Eder). The resulting style became known as Chicago Blues.
Musicians from the plantations, like Muddy Waters , came to northern cities and adapted their music to the new lifestyle. Muddy Waters was especially important in this transition, as he is considered to have been one of the original blues artists to evolve acoustic delta blues into a small band context with aggressive, electric instrumentation. From this point on, Rock & Roll and Rhythm and Blues emerged as offshoots of the blues tradition and became the most popular musical genres of the 1950s. However, soon the Chicago Blues style would become a major source of fascination as the youth of America and England became interested in the source of the contemporary popular styles.
Major artists from the Chicago style include Sonny Boy Williamson ,Big Bill Broonzy , and Tampa Red as the original Post-War kingpins, along with Elmore James ,Little Walter ,Muddy Waters ,B.B. King ,Howlin Wolf ,Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon as later masters and revolutionaries.
Major Albums to consider:
Characterized by a more relaxed, swinging feel, Texas blues followed the trends of other subgenres, such as the acoustic sensibilities of the Delta blues , followed by the postwar electric Chicago style. The Texas subgenre, like Chicago, similarly illustrates the progression from acoustic to electric, though with a different regional twist. The main proponents include: Lightnin' Hopkins ,Stevie Ray Vaughn ,Blind Lemon Jefferson ,John Lee Hooker ,T-Bone Walker , and Clarence "Gatermouth" Brown .
Major albums to consider:
Reawakening: Folk Revival and British Blues
With the steady success of Rock & Roll and R&B in the 1950s and 60s, a new generation began searching for the roots of these styles. The folk revival of the 1960s, and the British Blues-Rock phenomenon both emerged as a response to the growing interest and enthusiasm concerning the origins of American Rock and R&B.
At events such as the Newport Folk Festival , forgotten bluesmen, who had faded into obscurity and who had never thought their music would be performed again, were suddenly "rediscovered" to perform in front of major audiences. Musicians like Mississippi Fred McDowell ,Skip James ,Furry Lewis ,Bukka White , and John Lee Hooker were favourites among revivalists.
Across the ocean, appearances by Muddy Waters in London changed the soundscape of Rock & Roll, when early blues enthusiasts Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies (of Blues Incorporated ) took the Chicago style and began a ferocious blues revival in Britain. From these humble beginnings emerged such blues-guitar phenoms as John Mayall ,Eric Clapton ,Jeff Beck , and Jimmy Page , as well as blues-inspired groups like Fleetwood Mac ,The Yardbirds , and the Rolling Stones .
Since the folk revival and British invasion, numerous musicians adopted the blues style as the basis for their instrumentation and song structure. Here are some suggestions for great modern blues albums: