The “Story of the Blues” is a tale coloured by quite a broad spectrum of emotion, rather than simply the tale of “a good man feelin’ down”. From its roots in communal music, vocal-only songs, slavery and religion before the 20th Century, Blues grew to touch American, European and World culture more widely after the Second World War. Many people cite The Beatles and their ilk as some of the first originators of ‘Pop Music’; this is true not because of their invention of a new form of music, but rather that those songs were popular. In many ways they were just another collective of musicians building on foundations laid by others before them, inside which it is clear to see Blues music and all its component parts.
History is often laboured with the accusation of repeating itself, as if previous incidence guarantees future happenings, and this is certainly evoked in post-war pop, rock and other forms of cultural phenomena as originally told in the story of Buddy Holly – his rise to stardom and immortality in death (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron).
The Rise of Pop
Holly was one of the first stars of popular music with “hit records”, a “marketable” look and a particular sound. Whilst his sound was not wholly original as a creation it was particular enough to go along with his glasses in the eyes of the audience as belonging a distinctive individual. Whether or not the music was Rock n Roll, Rhythm and Blues or Rockabilly it was undoubtedly touched by the Blues. Songs such as “Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues”, “Gotta Get Near You Blues” and “Blue Day, Black Nights” can’t be separated from the cultural connection with the Blues. In comparison with Chuck Berry Buddy Holly was arguably not as influential among musicians that went after him, but the story of a man at the height of his fame suddenly dying seemed to touch millions of people, whether fans or no, and can be marked as one of the first tragedies of 20th Century pop music.
Music changes, it develops, or as some say, “evolves” and takes on new forms. Genuine African-American originators of Blues music including Robert Johnson, Son House were influential for later musicians whose music was popular. The Rolling Stones, for a bunch of white kids from London, considered themselves a Blues group. Mick Jagger’s Americanised vocal accent and Keith Richards Chicago-bluesman guitar sound took Blues to new audiences through the 1960s and beyond. White people playing music of black origin then became influencers themselves – white Blues musicians featured on records alongside black players. Some of Bobby Womack’s music released in the 1970s sounds more like the Stones themselves, as opposed to “influenced by Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters”.
The Blues Guitar
The guitar in particular was the latter 20th Century Blues aspiring Blues musician’s weapon of choice. The more distorted, rock/blues sound of Jimi Hendrix, Cream and other 60s bands took Blues into another direction, a heavier, louder form of music. This louder sound developed further into straightforward Rock music, with quicker playing of minor-key scales and a new aesthetic look for bands during the 1970s. Led Zeppelin are an example of a band bridging the space between Blues and Heavy Rock, which would become Heavy Metal and its various forms. “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is the band’s slow-starting Blues tune that grows louder and more extreme with emotion, moving from sadness to confusion and anger, with the sound moving away from straightforward Blues.
The American Blues Dream
The American Dream of rags-to-riches, poor to fulfilled is one of struggle. This working-class “folk story” held the aspirations of many in the post-Vietnam era and the 1980s economic boom. One of America’s heroes during this time, Bruce Springsteen, told the story of the American Dream in a variety of musical styles, from “Soul” sounds including Saxophone and prominent Bass to typically 80s keyboard-pop with a hard drum sound. The Blues was still in these songs, whether you heard it or not. Springsteen is noted as the “successor” to folk heroes like Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, two artists influenced by Blues and the story of the Blues. Springsteen echoed the Blues in some of his vocals and lyrics, but often in the way he performed. “The Boss’” preacher-man live performances connect with the religious, soul-touching aspect of the Blues.
There was a rich plethora of musical genre in pop culture by the 1990s, with artists taking influences from a variety of places (and those that did were usually branded “cutting edge” by journos). The Blues during this decade was still very evident. With CDs and re-issued albums generating large volumes of sales for record companies traditional Blues was as widely available as ever. Blues made an appearance with a number of collaborative efforts between new and established artists, including Carlos Santana, whose improvisational technique can be traced to Blues and origins in Jazz.
Jeff Buckley offered more of a stripped-down Blues, performing powerful, soulful songs often just with a guitar and a voice that be described as truly special. Buckley played a lot of covers including a number of traditional songs as well as Blues numbers and songs including “A Satisfied Mind” with a Blues-driven melody. The song had been notably sung in the past by others on the Blues road, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Ella Fitzgerald.
Blues In The Twenty-first Century
One of the perhaps unexpected things about the new millennium was the rise to popularity of no-nonsense guitar bands including The Strokes. Their Punk-ish, New Age kind of sound moved directly opposite to european-style dance and club music, stadium rock bands and popular gangsta rap. There was a whole lot of Blues to be found in The White Stripes – they carried the Blues torch into the 21st Century very much alive and well, showing their passion through a surprising rich sound only coming from guitar and drums. The White Stripes incorporated traditional Blues songs into their repertoire that were so similar to their own songs it was hard to know who wrote what.
Whatever the era, the Blues keeps on coming on. Blues vocal melodies are so ingrained within pop music that they feature in songs of any genre. Have you found the Blues in an unexpected place? Share it in the comments below.
About The Author: Robert is a mostly-retired guitarist and ex-band member working with Paradiso Records, which features a wide range of band merchandise and music.