When it comes to the journey of evolution behind the modern music we have today, the blues is arguably the most important style of music. It’s one thing for a genre to have been around before the music industry really took off commercially, but the blues genre actually proceeds the recorded era of music by decades. Over the years, countless blues sub-genres have emerged and added their own touch but the delta blues and Chicago blues remain the most important styles. While basic, small nuances everywhere throughout the blues leads to a vast array of local styles, in most cases we can still trace those styles back to either the delta or Chicago style blues. Directly or indirectly, nearly all modern rock and pop songs were influenced by blues music.
To understand how this happened, you have to take a trip back through history. Despite slavery being abolished, poverty and unjust laws kept many people from full freedom. This meant that former slaves stayed in the south and continued to work in difficult conditions. They sang spiritual songs at church and work songs in the fields to help deal with the daily struggles. Over time, this music developed into what people know refer to as “the blues”. Most blues musicians were farm workers and would work by day and play music at night, the earliest style to emerge being the delta blues.
Born somewhere around the late 1800s, the delta sound is widely regarded as the oldest sound there is. Originating from the delta of the Mississippi river, it presents one of the most basic and striped down sounds you can find in a style that almost always features a single instrument (usually a bottleneck slide guitar or a harmonica) and a single performer with a soulful sound. Slide guitar is when a musician presses a hard object (for example a bottle neck) across multiple strings on a guitar, which they would then slide up and down the neck to create a smooth, wailing sound.
Some successful delta blues performers include Robert Johnson, the man who legend says sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent. The delta style also incorporated rhythm and fingerstyle guitar. As the style of music grew in popularity, artists such as Robert Johnson became quite famous. Gradually, other blues musicians like BB King, would begin to perform in Memphis Tennessee, to establish their careers and help the blues genre to grow.
In a movement known as the great migration, from the years of 1910 to 1970, many African Americans tried to escape the racism and unjust laws of the south by moving to more northern cities in search of a new beginning. For many of them, the city of Chicago offered this opportunity. When these individuals landed in the windy city searching for a fresh start, they brought the blues with them. In Chicago, the newer generations began putting their own style on the blues which lead to the birth of the Chicago style. Chicago style blues is heavily influenced by the delta style, but usually louder and more energetic featuring electric instruments. It also tends to incorporate pianos and harmonicas, and is generally played by larger ensembles. Think of someone along the lines of Muddy Waters. It was this Chicago style blues that would proceed to have a hugely significant influence on the birth of rock n’ roll music and artists such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones.
Blues musicians continued to travel around the US mixing with different styles found around the nation, which then inspired new genres. In fact, many country songs are written in the iconic 12 bar blues progression such as Johnny Cash’s legendary, Folsom Prison Blues. Bobby Rush put it like this, “If you don’t like the blues, you don’t like your mama. ‘cus it’s the rule of music. It’s like cooking potatoes. You may fry em’, you may bake em’, you may cut em’ up, you may smash em’, but they still potatoes.”
So even though some of the true blues greats of the 20th century, like Freddie King, Muddy Waters, BB King and Stevie Ray Vaughan have all passed on, artists like 22 year old, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Gary Clark Jr. are keeping the spirit of the blues alive and well in 2021. Regardless of how music evolves, it always comes back to beautiful guitar solos, wailing harmonicas, soulful lyrics and that unmistakable rhythm which are all part of what make people love the blues. To paraphrase blues songwriter, Willie Dixon: “the blues is the roots and the other music is the fruits. In keeping the roots alive, you yield richer fruits.” When it comes to music, it really does all begin and end with the blues.
Netflix documentary, Devil at the Crossroads explores the life of Robert Johnson and the legend around his deal with the devil.
Have a listen to some of these classic blues hits.