So I’m going to be out of dancing commission for a while, but that doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of swing things to write about. So, while I’m not dancing, I’d like to take a closer look at one of my favourite styles of music.
Blues is slow and slinky. It is passionate and fiery. It is cool and smooth. It’s anything at all, really. But most of all, it’s simple and musical. There’s not much to blues as far as basic steps go, which makes it wonderfully easy at 4am after a long evening of dancing.
If you Google “blues” you’ll come up with a bunch of stuff about blues music. And really, blues dancing is nothing without blues music. You can’t move to non-existent music. But how many of us actually know where blues came from? Do you know how the blues really began? (If I may quote Sammy Davis Jr.) The blues as we know it has its roots way down south in the cotton fields and sugar plantations, as far back as the 1890s. Many blues songs are based on old work songs (“I sold my soul to the company store…”) or field hollers and chants. Many songs from this era aren’t documented because of racial tension and the mere fact that anything associated with slaves and Black people was taboo at the time.
As time went on, blues became a much more socially acceptable to listen to inter-cultural music and the blues took off. It spread across the country and various regional genres formed, including St. Louis blues, British blues and Memphis blues. Along with regional variations, several sub-genres popped up as popularity grew, notable among which are Delta and Jump blues.
Much of the earliest was performed in an almost orchestral way, with a full band and singer. W.C. Handy was one of the first to publish sheet music of a blues song, and he is a great example of the symphonic early sound. As time went on, a blues began to sound a bit more like what we know as country, with only a guitar for accompaniment. It is country blues for which we have Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bo Carter. (Cincinnati has the Blind Lemon Cafe, with live music every night. Gee, I wonder where they got that name?)
Blues underwent another transformation with the advent of urban blues. It’s a cleaner and more structured style of music because it had to be adapted to wider audiences. It is here that we get more of the familiar names and many female singers. Do Mamie Smith or Victoria Spivey ring any bells?
With the long economic boom in the 1950s, electric blues became popular in many of the renown blues hubs across the country, like Chicago and Detroit. It is about this time we start seeing blues performances look a bit more like what we’re used to seeing. They utilized electric guitars for the first time, double bass and bass guitar, drums and a harmonicas also begin to appear in the era. Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry hail form this decade.
Alrighty, guys and gal, I think this is a good stopping point for now. I’ll continue this little history lesson next week, so stay tuned.