Here’S What The Blues Are!

It’s Jazz Part 10


We’ve all had that feeling. Gloom, sadness, deep, dark depression that can strike when life doesn’t go our way. Maybe we’ve had a serious argument with a loved one. Maybe something has been lost, whether friendship or opportunity. Perhaps we’ve been hurt or disappointed. Whatever the reason, we feel down; we feel blue.

But as much as a state of mind, the blues is a musical form. In the slow, chant-like rhythmic lament of the early blues, the musical roots are solidly planted in Africa.

But it owes a debt to European music found in the standardized 12-bar blues that emerged in the early part of this century.

The same chords vital to the blues, the chords built on the first, fourth and fifth degrees of a major scale, are the most basic chords in the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

The synthesis between Europe and Africa was unquestionably brought about by Afro-Americans. The birth of the blues is in the 19th century work songs and field hollers sung by blacks laboring in the fields or on the levees. Then as now, singing helped pass the time.

Chants tell the blues

Those chants developed into the blues sung by such classic bluesmen as Blind Lemon Jefferson. Typically, the early bluesmen accompanied themselves on guitar, and sometimes with harmonica.

The blues was associated with the black man to such an extent that Leadbelly, another classic blues musician, exclaimed: “Now this is the blues! No white man ever had the blues, ’cause [he had] nothin’ to worry about. Now, you lay down at night and you roll from one side of the bed to the other all night long – you can’t sleep…what’s the matter? The blues has got you.”

Yet the blues have developed into a universal musical expression. The Grove Dictionary of Music, generally regards as the bible of classical music, call the blues “the most important single influence on the development of Western popular music.”

Jazz has borrowed a great deal from the 12-bar blues format, and from the blues practice of bending certain melodic notes (most commonly the 3rd and 7th of the scale, and later the 5th). Even the blues feeling has been borrowed by many jazz musicians.

“I think what it all boils down to is that the blues is the essence of jazz,’ says jazz historian Leonard Feather. “And merely having a feeling for blues means having a feeling for jazz. In other words, the chords or the notes of the chords that are essential for blues are the notes that are essential for jazz.”