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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America


"The blues" is a secular African-American musical genre that has had broad influence in popular music. Blues songs deal with a variety of topics and emotions, though it is often mistakenly thought that they deal almost exclusively with sorrow and protest.

Although there are no recordings of blues songs made before the 1910s, it is generally accepted that a musical style recognizable as blues was being played and sung by African-American musicians in the Southern United States by the 1890s. The songs drew freely from earlier African American styles, such as work songs, field hollers, spirituals, minstrelsy, as well as from Anglo and European derived forms. Blues singers emphasized "blue notes," usually the third, fifth and seventh degrees of the scale, which they often slurred or "bent" upward a quarter tone or more, sometimes mimicking or echoing these effects on accompanying instruments, such as the fiddle, harmonica or guitar. Although they did not always seek to tell a story, singers used imagery that reflected their audience's language and world. Moans, cries, shouts and grunts were often interpolated. The so-called "12 Bar Blues" became the dominant blues song form early on, and remains so to this day. In it, verses are three lines long, with the first line repeated, and the third line usually completing a thought or making a point:

I hate to see the evening sun go down,
I hate to see the evening sun go down,
'Cause my baby, he's gone left this town.

Portrait of William Christopher Handy, 1941. Carl Van Vechten, Photographer.

African-American composer W. C. Handy (1873-1958) said that he first encountered blues music in 1903, and subsequently found that forms of it were widely popular with African Americans. He began publishing adaptation of blues themes then in vernacular circulation in 1912, and eventually reached a broad national and international audience with them. He published his most famous song "St. Louis Blues" in 1914, which is quoted above. The Victor Military Band recorded it in 1916, as part of a medley that also included another early blues, "Joe Turner Blues."

Countless blues songs were published in the wake of Handy' success, though many were blues in name only, with the word "blues" being attached to a title in much the way "rag" had been earlier, in an attempt to be in line with the newest song fad. Still, the new style spread quickly, and became a vehicle for songs that were both comic and tragic. White singers such as Al Bernard and Marion Harris drew on black vocal styles in their blues recordings of the late 1910s and 1920s. In 1920, African-American singer Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," a song about frustrated love reached a national audience, and started a vogue for women blues singers in band settings.

African-American blues artists were now recording regularly, and other urban and rural blues styles that had been developing throughout this time, made it on to records for the first time. Great blues artists who emerged in the 1920s and 1930s include singer-guitarists such as Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie. Son House of Mississippi, recorded commercially in 1930 without success, though he is now considered one of the greatest of all "Delta" blues artists. House was an associate of Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson, and taught the young McKinley Morganfieldd, later known as Muddy Waters. In 1941 and 1942, he made field recordings for Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress, such as "Depot Blues"
and "Low Down Dirty Dog Blues."

Though many songs only reflected the history of the time in a general way, some recordings did deal with current events, such as Patton's account of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, "High Water Everywhere." Blues songs were composed about experiences with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Work Projects Administration (WPA) as well. Georgia blues artist Buster Ezell celebrated the African-American heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis in this blues from 1943. Ezell also recorded this topical song about WWII, "Roosevelt and Hitler." Buster Brown, who enjoyed a major blues hit in 1959 with "Fannie Mae," also recorded a 1943 blues about World War II.

From the 1920s to the 1950s, many blues songs reflected experiences of the "Great Migration" as millions of southern blacks moved to northern cities such as Chicago and Detroit in search of work. Songs such as Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" sang of this journey in an optimistic way in the 1930s. Another Mississippi singer-guitarist of the era, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, sang this version of it at the Library of Congress in 1978.

Other blues expressed some nostalgia for the south, as Muddy Waters did in "Louisiana Blues," and "Feel Like Going Home" in the late 1940s. In this period, blues was increasingly played by amplified groups that featured drums and electric guitars. Leading blues artists in this style include Waters, Howlin' Wolf , Elmore James and B.B. King. The electric guitar became the dominant instrument in urban blues in this era, though harmonica players such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter enjoyed considerable success, too.

Singers such as Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris found success fronting groups that mixed blues with the jazz and swing styles of the 1940s, and the blues fostered early rock and roll in this era. The music began to reach an international audience, in the 1950s and 1960s, eventually becoming a well recognized and widely practiced form throughout the world, even as its original audience in the African American community has waned.