The Evolution of the Blues Music Form

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Find out how the blues developed from its African roots into the modern musical genre we know and love today.

Pre-1920s Blues

The blues is a style of music that originated in the African-American communities in the early twentieth century. The earliest forms of the blues were a mix of African and European music, and the blues has since developed into a wide variety of different styles.

Origins in African American work songs and spirituals

The blues is a music form that has its origins in the African American work songs and spirituals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These songs were typically based on a 12-bar chord progression and wereaccompanied by a guitar or banjo. The lyrics often dealt with topics such as poverty, racism, and life’s hardships. The blues became popularized by black performers in the 1910s and 1920s, who adapted the form to fit their own styles.

The first major figure in the development of the blues was W.C. Handy, a composer and bandleader who is known as the “Father of the Blues.” Handy’s greatest contribution was his ability to fuse various musical influences, including gospel, jazz, and folk music, into a unique new style. His best-known compositions, “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues,” both became hits in the 1920s and helped to spread the popularity of the blues form nationwide.

Other early blues performers who made important contributions to the music include Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Charley Patton, and Robert Johnson. These artists helped to develop various regional subgenres of the blues, including Delta blues, Piedmont blues, Chicago blues, and others. The blues would go on to have a profound impact on subsequent genres of music such as rock & roll, jazz, and country.

Spread to the American South

The music form known as the blues developed in the American South in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Though it has been commonly associated with African-American culture, the blues is actually a blend of both African and European musical traditions. The blues began to spread to other parts of the United States in the early 1920s, when blacks began migrating from the South to northern cities in search of work.

In Chicago, New Orleans, and other cities with large black populations, the blues evolved into a more urban sound. These “city blues” were typically played on pianos or guitars and featured jazz-influenced solos. They were often sexually explicit and dealt with topics such as gambling, drinking, and prostitutes. The city blues were popularized by performers such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Louis Jordan.

Emergence of the blues form

The earliest form of the blues was characteristically American popular music, which arose in the last few decades of the 19th century. It blended elements of African-American work songs, spirituals, and folk music from the Deep South. The style developed rapidly, and by 1900 it was being performed on gut-string and banjo by “ medicine shows” that traveled throughout the Mississippi River Valley. In contrast to earlier, more upbeat minstrel songs, the new music had a more mournful sound and often dealt with sad topics such as lost love, death, and hard times.

1920s and 1930s 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 style of music that is characterized by a call-and-response pattern, 12-bar chord progression, and a focus on the emotions of the performer. The form of the blues evolved over the course of the 20th century, with the earliest blues music being played in the 1920s and 1930s.

Rise of the blues as a commercial genre

In the early 1920s, the first commercial recordings of blues music were being made by authors such as Mamie Smith and Ma Rainey. These artists were targeting the African American market, which was growing in popularity. The blues quickly became a commercial genre, with record labels such as Paramount Records and Columbia Records competing to sign the best artists. The rise of the blues as a commercial genre coincided with the beginning of the “roaring twenties”, a period of economic prosperity in the United States.

In the 1930s, the blues began to gain mainstream popularity, with artists such as Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith achieving widespread success. The popularity of the blues was also helped by the advent of radio, which allowed people to listen to music in their homes. The blues became one of the most popular genres of music in America during the 1930s.

Development of the 12-bar blues form

In the early 1900s, the most common form for popular music was the 32-bar pop song. Formally, it consisted of two 16-bar sections, both of which were sung twice. The first section was the “verse”, while the second was the “chorus” (another term for “refrain”). In between, there would often be a shorter section which served as a bridge between the verse and chorus.

One of the earliest examples of this form can be found in W.C. Handy’s “The Memphis Blues”, which was published in 1912. This song became one of the first blues hits when it was recorded by Mamie Smith in 1920.

The 12-bar blues is a musical form that is commonly associated with blues music. The form is characterized by a repeating progression of 12 musical bars, or measures, that is Played over and over again for the entirety of a song.

The 12-bar blues originated in the folk and country music traditions of the American South in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It quickly became one of the most popular forms of music in America, especially among African Americans living in cities such as Memphis, Chicago, and New Orleans. In recent years, the 12-bar blues has also become popular among rock bands and musicians around the world.

Key figures of the blues scene

In the early twentieth century, the blues was not yet a fully formed musical genre. Rather, it was one element of a larger musical tradition that included work songs, spirituals, ballads, and ragtime. However, there were a few key figures who helped to shape the blues into the form we know today.

One of the most important early blues musicians was W.C. Handy. A composer and bandleader, Handy was one of the first to transcribe and notate blues music. He is also credited with popularizing the 12-bar blues form, which would become the standard for blues songs. Another important early figure was Ma Rainey, one of the first professional blues singers. Her recordings helped to spread the popularity of the blues beyond its origins in the American South.

In the 1920s and 1930s, as jazz began to gain popularity, many jazz musicians began to experiment with playing the blues. This new style of music became known as jazz-blues or Chicago blues. Key figures in this scene included Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Jelly Roll Morton. These artists helped to further popularize the blues and bring it to new audiences.

Post-1930s Blues

The blues music form evolved in the post-1930s era with the help of technology. This allowed for a more widespread distribution of the music, which in turn helped to popularize the genre. The electric guitar and the development of recording techniques were two of the most important factors in the evolution of the blues.

Electric blues and the British blues boom

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a Chicago-based style of electric blues emerged from the clubs of the South Side. Musicians like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf developed a sound that was heavier and more guitar-centric than previous generations of the genre, with riffs often played on Electric guitars amplified through tube-driven amplifiers. This style laid the groundwork for rock and roll, which would emerge in the 1950s.

In the 1960s, British rock bands like The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and Cream began to popularize electric blues in the UK and Europe. This led to what is known as the “British blues boom,” which saw a wave of young British musicians embrace the genre. Many of these artists, including Peter Green, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck, would go on to be hugely influential in their own right.

Blues rock and fusion genres

After the Second World War, electric blues bands began to appear in American cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New Orleans. These bands often blended elements of other genres like country, jazz, and rock and roll to create a new sound that was both soulful and exciting. This new style of blues would come to be known as blues rock.

In the 1970s, a number of talented musicians began experimenting with the blues form, pushing its boundaries and expanding its sound. These artists would come to be known as the pioneers of fusion, a genre that incorporates elements of multiple musical, the blues can be heard in everything from country music to modern pop hits.

Contemporary blues scene

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of the blues. Young people are rediscovering the music form and many old-time blues musicians are enjoying renewed interest in their careers.

The contemporary blues scene is quite diverse, with artists performing a wide range of styles. Some musicians are sticking to the traditional sounds of the Delta and Chicago blues, while others are experimenting with new sounds and hybrid styles.

Regardless of the style, most contemporary blues artists are united by their deep respect for the music’s history and tradition. They often draw inspiration from the greats who came before them, while also putting their own spin on the genre.

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