Essay: The Origin of Blues Music – Its Connection to Africa and Its Influence on Other American Music Genres

Written By:
Valerie Turner
February 28th, 2017

The Origin of Blues Music – Its Connection to Africa and Its Influence on Other American Music Genres

Many people associate the origin of Blues music with the Mississippi Delta in the late 1800s, just after the end of the Civil War. While this is basically true, we need to dig deeper to understand the true origin of this music. We need to return to the time when millions of Africans were brought to the New World against their will – these men and women arrived with nothing more than their culture and a strong will to survive. Part of that culture was their music which evolved in very interesting ways. For example, in the Caribbean, Calypso music can be traced back to Africa. Likewise, Samba music in Brazil has definite African roots. In the United States, African music evolved into what we now call Blues.

Blues music is the product of African and European influences during slavery times. It is a fusion of African musical traditions, African American field hollers and work songs, spirituals, and European-American folk music. Blues music is characterized by its lyrics, and its songs tell stories that reflect the life and times of African Americans. The earliest Blues verses consisted of a single line repeated four times. Over time, that evolved into the current format of one line being sung twice, followed by a longer line being sung once. Other main characteristics of Blues music are its call-and-response pattern, a Blues scale, a prominent bass line, and a specific chord progression. Both the call-and-response pattern and the use of the Blues scale with its special Blue notes can be traced back to the music of Africa, so the influence of African music on Blues music is very direct and very clear.

Over the years, Blues music has evolved into various subgenres and regional styles including Country Blues, Chicago Blues, Texas Blues, West Coast Blues, and Hill Country Blues. The music we (the Piedmont Bluz Acoustic Duo) play is called Country Blues which includes the Delta and Piedmont styles. The Delta and Piedmont styles are the earliest forms of Blues – all other Blues styles can be traced back to these two styles and it is our mission to help preserve them. Blues music is known all around the world and has influenced many American music genres including Rhythm and Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll, and Country.

W.C. Handy is generally credited with bringing initial attention to Blues music at the turn of the 20th century and for making some of the first recordings of Blues songs shortly thereafter. Blues music gained widespread popularity during the 1920s with classic Blues singers like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey making their recording debuts. During the same timeframe, acoustic Blues artists like Papa Charlie Jackson, Daddy Stovepipe, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton began their recording careers as well, paving the way for a stream of similar artists throughout the 1930s including Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Minnie,  Tampa Red, Leadbelly, and Robert Johnson, to name a few.

The Great Migration, which started in 1910 and did not end until 1970, saw millions of African Americans move from southern towns to northern cities – and the Blues music of the south came right along with them. The introduction of the electric guitar in the late 1930s began to transform the sound of the Blues and, by the 1940s, some Blues artists had already begun experimenting with the new electric sound. The Chicago Blues style made its entrance here, along with Rhythm and Blues – the new marketing term for the swinging, rhythmic music that was so popular among African American consumers. All of this led up to the 1950s which marked the beginning of Rock and Roll, a blend of Blues, Rhythm and Blues, Country, and Gospel music.

Pressing forward, we arrive at the Folk Revival of the 1960s and the rediscovery of early Blues music as well as some of its surviving artists. An entirely new generation of ears had embraced Blues music. Popular bands like Canned Heat, Cream, and the Rolling Stones covered many early Blues songs, bringing them to new and more diverse audiences. So, when you follow this twisting trail of breadcrumbs, it is easy to see how much contemporary American music is connected to and influenced by African roots.


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