The Blues Used Elements of Two Kinds of African-American Music

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Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


The blues used elements of two kinds of African-American music, including the work songs sung by slaves.

The two types of African-American music

The blues used elements of both work songs and field hollers of African-American slaves. Work songs were usually short, repetitive songs that helped the slaves stay coordinated while performing their tasks. Field hollers were shouts or cries that were used to communicate between slaves who were working in different parts of the fields.

Field hollers

Field hollers were usually sung by farm workers in the fields, and they were often improvisations on familiar tunes. The blues drew on elements of both work songs and field hollers. Boxcar hollers, moans, and laments can all be found in early blues recordings.

Work songs

Work songs were originally created by slaves in order to make their work more efficient and to make the time pass more quickly. These songs were usually sung while performing a task such as chopping wood or hoeing cotton. The repetitive nature of the work meant that the songs had to be relatively simple, with a small number of repeated phrases. The content of the lyrics was often focused on the frustrating and difficult aspects of slave life, but some work songs also contained elements of humor or defiance.

One of the most famous work songs is “John Henry,” which tells the story of a railroad worker who died after winning a competition against a steam drill. Work songs were usually performed by groups of workers singing in unison, but some solo versions also existed. Because they were so closely associated with slave labor, work songs fell out of favor after emancipation, although they continued to be sung by groups such as sharecroppers and prison inmates.

How the blues used elements of these two types of music

The blues used elements of both work songs and field hollers. Work songs were a way for slaves to communicate while they were working. Field hollers were mostly sung by male slaves while they were working in the fields.


In the early 1900s, the sounds of ragtime and gospel began to merge in the music of African Americans in the Mississippi Delta region. This new type of music became known as the blues. The blues used elements of both ragtime and gospel. One important element was call-and-response.

In call-and-response, one person sings or plays a musical phrase, and then another person responds with a similar phrase. This back-and-forth exchange was common in both ragtime and gospel music. Many blues songs were based on call-and-response patterns.

The blues also used falsetto singing, blue notes, and swung rhythms. Falsetto is a type of high, light vocal sound. Blue notes are slightly flattened versions of regular notes. They give the blues its “blue” sound. Swung rhythms are rhythms that are uneven or “swung” instead of even or “straight.”

The blues was originally a solo vocal form, but it later developed into a type of music that was played by small groups or bands. The most common instrument in early blues bands was the piano. Later, guitarists began to play an important role in blues bands. The electric guitar became a particularly important instrument in the development of rock and roll music


Repetition is central to the structure of the blues. The same couple of measures, or “themes,” are repeated over and over throughout a song. Because the blues is based on oral tradition, there was no need to write down the music. The themes were simply memorized and passed on from performer to performer. Over time, certain themes became so closely associated with the blues that they are now considered “blue notes.” These are notes that are sung or played at a slightly lower pitch than what is normally heard in music of European origin.


The blues began as an improvised music, without formal structure. Singers would make up their own lyrics to fit the melody they were singing, often using recycled verses and common themes. As the popularity of the blues grew, musicians began to write down their songs and develop more complex musical structures. The blues still retain elements of improvisation, however, and many performers still prefer to play and sing spontaneously.

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