All Music Guide to the Blues

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


The All Music Guide to the Blues is a comprehensive guide to the history and evolution of the blues.

The Birth of the Blues

The blues is a genre of music that originated in the African-American communities of the southeastern United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a fusion of African and European musical traditions. The blues has been a major influence on later American and Western popular music.

Pre-Blues Roots

The roots of the blues began in the American South with spirituals, work songs, and ballads. These songs were created by African Americans in the 19th century and were often passed down orally from one generation to the next. The earliest blues songs were typically simple 12-bar tunes with three chords and a basic melody.

The lyrics of pre-blues songs often dealt with themes of heartache, hardship, and betrayal. This is likely due to the difficult lives that many African Americans faced during this time period. Despite the darkness of their subject matter, these songs often had a joyful, upbeat sound that reflected the resiliency of the African American spirit.

The popularity of pre-blues songs began to declining in the early 20th century as new musical styles emerged. However, these older tunes would ultimately lay the foundation for the development of the blues.

The First Blues Recordings

In the early part of the 20th century, the phonograph was invented and revolutionized the music industry. Record companies sprung up all over the United States, and one of their most popular products was race records, recordings by African American artists for a black audience. The first blues recordings were made in 1920 by Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds, and “Crazy Blues” became an instant hit. It sold over a million copies, an extraordinary feat for a race record at that time.

The Classic Blues Era

The classic blues era was a time when the blues were truly beginning to take shape and form. This was a time when the music was raw and truly reflected the emotions of the people who created it. The classic blues era was a time of great change and evolution in the music.

The Big Three of the Classic Blues Era

Three of the most important figures of the classic blues era were pianist Leroy Carr, guitarist Robert Johnson, and singer Bessie Smith. All three were African Americans who recorded between the 1920s and early 1930s, when blues was at its commercial and artistic peak. Though they worked in different genres—Carr and Smith were urban blues performers, while Johnson was a Delta bluesman—they all helped to define the sound and style of classic blues.

Leroy Carr was one of the most popular urban blues musicians of the 1920s. His music was smooth and mellow, with a light touch that made it accessible to a wide range of listeners. Carr’s songs often dealt with heartbreak and loneliness, but he sang them with a wry sense of humor that made them sound more charming than sad. His best-known song is “How Long, How Long Blues,” which has been covered by many artists over the years.

Robert Johnson is one of the most influential Delta blues musicians of all time. Though he only recorded a handful of songs before his untimely death in 1938, Johnson’s guitar playing and singing have influenced countless musicians in the decades since. His songs are dark and haunting, filled with images of death and damnation. One of his most famous songs is “Cross Road Blues,” which has been interpreted in many different ways over the years.

Bessie Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s. She had a powerful voice that could convey both joy and sorrow, and she sang with emotion and conviction on every song she recorded. Smith’s music was earthy and sensual, filled with references to sex and alcohol. She was also a masterful storyteller, often using her songs to recount personal experiences or relate tales from her imagination. Her best-known song is “Downhearted Blues,” which became a hit in both black and white communities when it was released in 1923.

The Little Three of the Classic Blues Era

The three most important recording companies during theClassic Blues era were Paramount, Okeh, and Columbia. Owned by giant corporations whose main focus was not the blues market, these companies ran their racehorse subsidiaries as semi-autonomous profit centers. They signed whoever they could get their hands on and threw them into the studio with whoever happened to be around. As a result, the records that came out on these labels during the Classic Blues era are some of the most intriguing, contradictory, and confounding ever made.

The recordings made by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey on these labels are some of the most important documents of classic blues.

The Chicago Blues Scene

In the early 1950s, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf electrified the Chicago blues scene with a fierce, raw sound that would lay the foundation for rock & roll. Bo Diddley, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson were also major forces in the development of Chicago blues during the 1950s. The following decade saw a continued popularity of electric blues in Chicago, as Arthur Crudup, Junior Wells, Elmore James, Buddy Guy, and Magic Sam brought their own brand of urban blues to the city’s vibrant clubs. Perhaps more than any other city, Chicago served as the breeding ground for electric blues in the years after World War II.

The Modern Blues Era

The Modern Blues Era is generally considered to have begun in the early 1960s with the British Blues boom, when blues recordings by artists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf began to achieve mainstream popularity in the UK. The term “Modern Blues” is used to describe more recent developments in the genre, including electric blues, Chicago blues, and Mississippi blues.

The British Blues Boom

The British blues boom was a period between about 1967 and 1972 when there was a sudden increase in the popularity of blues rock music in Britain. It followed a long run of popularity for the blues in Britain which can be traced back to the late 1950s, when skiffle groups suchasa Lonnie Donegan’sSkiffle Group reached the British charts with renditions of songs by Lead Belly and Josh White. At first, only artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee were heard on the radio or seen on television. Then, in May 1965, The Rolling Stones first toured America playing shows that featured Chicago blues artists like Waters and Robert Johnson.By 1966, other British Invasion bands such as The Animals were incorporating elements of electric blues into their repertoire.

The Electric Blues

The electric blues began to be heard in the early 1940s, when guitarists such as T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian began to experiment with amplifiers. Christian, who was a member of the Benny Goodman band, is generally credited with being the first electric blues guitarist, though his sound was actually closer to jazz than to what is now known as the electric blues. Walker’s “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just As Bad),” which was recorded in 1942, is often cited as the first electric blues record. The advent of the electric guitar and amplifier had a profound effect on the course of the blues; it allowed solo performers to be heard over a full band for the first time, and it changed the sound of the music from a largely acoustic to a largely electric one.

The Contemporary Blues

The contemporary blues is a genre of modern blues that developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It combines elements of traditional blues with elements of rock, jazz, and pop music. The style is generally characterized by electric guitars, a rhythm section featuring drums and bass guitar, and sometimes horns or keyboards.

Contemporary blues artists often use different guitarist-vocalist-harmonica player lineups than their predecessors in the classic blues had used. Many contemporary blues artists have gained widespread popularity, including John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Robert Cray.

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