The popular origin-story of the blues involves American blues singer and musician Robert Johnson going to a crossroads and selling his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar-playing ability.
Johnson would later record the song “Crossroads” about this mythic story, as would artists Cream and John Mayer decades later. From there, the genre began as a popular art form for black people in the Southern United States in the 1930s. In the roughly 80 years that have followed, the blues has expanded to encompass an immense spectrum of artists and styles to becoming a truly universal art form.
In the following decades, artists like T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and B. B. King would catapult the popularity of blues among a following of black people. In the 1950s, white artists, most notably Elvis Presley, stole its guitar styling and physical movement and introduced it to a young, white audience. Artists like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck expanded the genre into the United Kingdom and established the British Blues movement beginning in the mid-1960s. Today, this genre encompasses a following of people from all ages, races, classes and locations while still generally maintaining the integrity and authenticity of the form.
Nobody described the spread of the genre into the mainstream better than Muddy Waters who famously proclaimed: “The blues had a baby, and they named it rock ‘n roll.” The blues is the predecessor for much of today’s popular music like rock, rhythm and blues (R&B), hip-hop and rap. Its influence is certainly present in the music of contemporary artists like the White Stripes, the Black Keys, John Legend and Ray LaMontagne among others.
The popular perception of the blues is, by virtue of its name, old men wailing depressing songs while plucking away at an electric guitar, which is quite mistaken. While blues began as a medium in which black people lamented poverty and oppression from whites, as a genre, it includes some of the happiest music anywhere. Who doesn’t want to get up and dance when hearing Robert Randolph’s “The March?”
The blues encompasses the spectrum of the human psyche from the melancholy of B. B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get?” or “Why I Sing the Blues” to an unrefined exhilaration in songs like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy” and Muddy Waters’ “I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love.”
Perhaps the most important part of the genre’s wide appeal is its ability to communicate the real struggles and triumphs of real people with recurring themes including heartbreak, substance abuse, working long hours at a bad job, finding a good woman and love-making. And the repetition of lyrics, particularly in 12-bar blues form, makes it easy for any listener to quickly learn the lyrics and sing along.
The blues is nearly impossible to contain into one distinct category or demographic. Artists from the 1950s like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly performed in the rockabilly style. In the late 1960s, Jimi Hendrix added psychedelia, Carlos Santana – and much later – Los Lonely Boys included Latin elements while Bob Dylan fused it with a folk influence. Bands like the Allman Brothers Band and ZZ Top further blurred the lines between blues and rock; artists like Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan revived it in the 1980s.
An often overlooked quality that contributes to the allure of the blues is the variety of instruments it incorporates. While the electric guitar, along with acoustic and bass guitars, remain the quintessential instruments of popular blues music, its reach extends to the harmonica, trumpet, steel guitar and saxophones.
The universality of blues transcends age and generation. Some of blues’ oldest artists like B. B. King and Buddy Guy continue to define the genre by consistently touring and releasing new studio albums.
The virtuoso of the pedal steel guitar, Robert Randolph, Derek Trucks and 14-year-old prodigy Quinn Sullivan shape its future and ensures blues will continue through the times.
Online Editor Ross Fogg is a College senior from Fayetteville, Ga.
Photo courtesy of Joe Bielawa