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The blues seems to be a hard genre of music to be into these days, especially when you're in your 20s, but its one of my passions. Few other genres can boast such pure unadulterated emotion in its rawest form. I came to the blues through modern rock, oddly enough. Growing up in the grunge and post grunge era I listened to a lot of alternative rock and more recently, bands of the garage rock movement. After hearing the White Stripes and the Strokes, I rediscovered classic rock, garage rock, and early rock and roll. From there I found the influences of rock and roll, the blues.
By tracing a small history of the blues through the years I hope to help others discover this amazing genre and to help keep the early blues masters alive in spirit. This is only a partial guide of course as no one could possible trace an entire lineage. Instead if your read this in reverse, you'll see how I came to the blues by tracing back through other artist's influences. I've highlighted artists who's music has influenced me, enhanced the genre and kept the spirit of the blues alive.
Its important to understand a little background as to why people like the blues. Blues typically is a story, usually a story of heartbreak or some other pain that is easy to relate to. The original blues artists began playing music on the streets in the south and the songs were often sang off the cuff in order to tell a story or even preach religious messages. This idea of a story and being easy to relate to is a major part of its attraction. Everyone can identify with the pain of a lost love and so this often serves as the basis for many blues songs. Not only can people relate to it, but its content creates for a dynamic performance that comes from the soul and raw emotion. People are often inspired by the tales of blues songs to "get into the music" and often this leads to elaborate improvisations as the performers become emotionally connected to the performance. This aspect has remained unchanged since its beginning. This is why I love the blues, and why after listening to thousands of different bands and genres, the music I continue to play and listen to the most is blues.
In the beginning:
Early on in the 1800s, is when the blues began. African-Americans of the south passed down their music orally and soon became entwined with the folk music of America at the time. This combination produced some of the original blues musicians and recordings. Featuring simple acoustic guitars and folk songs, these artists often sang about what they knew of a hard life, and of religion. In the 20s and 30s artists like Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Son House and others have some of the original "blues" recordings. These performances and recordings are often rough, heavily improvised and as raw as can be so they can be hard to get into. Here are some highlights of this time: Son House, who's take on blues and folk is so intense and emotional that it rivals any other musical recording or genre to this day; Blind Willie McTell, who's guitar work is intricate, unique and imitated ever since; Blind lemon Jefferson, who's gospel blues, rough voice and evangelist nature could make your spine tingle; and Leadbelly, who although known more as a folk musician, along with Woodie Guthrie, wrote some of the most influential American music in history.
When talking about the blues it seems that only one man ever comes to mind as the absolute embodiment of the genre, the emotion, and the lifestyle: Robert Johnson. Considered by many to be the absolute pinnacle of this genre, his life was often steeped in mystery and legend. Playing and recording in the 30s along with Son House and others, it was rumored that in order to become so good at the blues and guitar, Johnson had to sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads (later written about in songs and numerous other legends). With such classics as "Sweet Home Chicago", "Love in Vain" and "Stop Breaking Down", all of which were covered by many other musicians, Johnson's music can be seen as the cornerstone on which all later blues it built. Quite simply put, if you're into blues and you don't know Robert Johnson, you don't know blues.
In the 1950s after the development of the first electric guitars and amplifiers, the blues gained a new generation of players. The electric guitar would remain the instrument of choice for years to come in the blues genre but the original pioneers still produced some of the best music ever made. Electric blues also became more diverse based on geography with styles ranging from Texas and Chicago being significantly different. Chicago blues is the most well know form of blues it seems with great artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon raising the bar to a new standard for blues music where the emphasis was on soul, emotion, raw intensity and the beginnings of rock and roll. In Texas blues music was more twangy and country influenced than the club based Chicago blues. Great artists include Albert Collins, Freddie King, T-Bone walker, and Lightning Hopkins. Personal favorites of mine include Buddy Guy, Elmore James, T-Bone Walker, and Willie Dixon.
One of the most influential guitarist of all time, B.B. King cannot be mentioned without automatically thinking about the blues. One of the most successful blues artists, B.B. King is also known for crossing over to different genres, including rock and roll, jazz and country. His contribution to guitarists everywhere is massive. Known for his highly emotive style with the goal being not to play super fast or super loud, but with the most soul and emotion possible. With "Lucille" (King's guitar) he developed a musical skill that sounded as if the guitar itself was singing and weeping. His music has come along way from the blues of the early masters, but throughout all of his career, the music always seems to be just dripping with emotion. If emotion is the measure of successful blues, then B.B. King is definitely the king.
The Master, the God, and the Rocker:
In the 1960s, there was a musical revolution going on where old blues records were being discovered by the younger generation. This impact spurred the development of some of the most influential artists of all time. Not generally classified as blues players, their contributions to the genre can not be discounted.
In the late 60s perhaps the greatest guitarist whoever has or will live came onto the scene: Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix's music was firmly in the rock and roll realm in the late 1960s but his guitar playing is designed around the playing of the past masters. Emotive and expressive Hendrix was known for performing elaborate jams and freak outs on stage including noise solos, improvisation sessions, playing with his teeth and lighting his guitar on fire. Still, on the most basic of blues songs Hendrix could make his guitar scream, swoon or weep at will based on the emotions of the song. Although primarily not a blues player, Jimi Hendrix, along with other artists, helped to revitalize blues, introduce new jazz and rock and roll concepts and further expand the genre while remaining loyal to it.
Seen by many as a guitar god of his time, Eric Clapton and his music is responsible for the major portion of blues revival in the 1960s. A blues purest, Clapton's music is true to the original electric blues format most often, but also expands to include country flavors, reggae, psychedelic, and folk. With Cream, Derek and the Dominoes and on his solo records of the 70s Clapton has committed to record some of the most well known rock and roll, and blues solos of all time. New takes on Robert Johnson classics like "Crossroads" helped a new generation to discover the great artists of the past. Whether you're new to blues or not, when it comes to memorable and powerful guitar playing there is no doubting that "Clapton is God".
Also to come out of the 1960s was another young blues player who would take the genre as a basis for a new form of music. Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin took blues from powerful and emotional to stadium rock and paved the way for the first heavy metal artists. Led Zeppelin was true to the blues tradition but unlike Clapton, Led Zeppelin picked up where Jimi Hendrix left off when he died. They turned their amps up to ten and played loud, raunchy versions of traditional and rewritten blues songs along with their own heavy rock and roll. Led Zeppelin proved to be a major force through the 1970s led by the guitar work of Jimmy Page, who ranged from traditional folk and folk blues, through the heavy blues they pioneered, all the way to the first metal and hard rock sounds. Although innovative, its hard to miss the traditional blues framework underlying most Led Zeppelin songs. Even in the heaviest musical acts to follow their lead, there are traces of the blues influence.
These three artists represent three of my favorite artists of all time. Although they are well known and mainstream classic rock, all three had a profound effects on how the future generations viewed blues music that is often overlooked.
After the break up of Led Zeppelin, blues continued to be upheld by some of their classic rock brethren (Aerosmith, AC/DC), but not as much with new bands. In the 1980s though, there was a new guitarist on the scene who would revitalize and inspire a new generation of blues artists. Stevie Ray Vaughan both reinvented and revived the blues in the 80s and 90s. With a Texas blues style that combined traditional blues forms with a Texas shuffle and bits of jazz flourishes, Vaughan helped to restore blues to the mainstream. Although his career was cut short, his influence was huge in helping to remind rock and roll guitarists that blues was where everything started out. His music was a revitalization for blues music, but also showed everyone that not only can blues make you cry, but it can make you clap your hands, stomp your feet and dance just like rock and roll. Stevie Ray Vaughan is a must for any blues enthusiast or budding guitarist.
The Newest Followers:
The 1990s and 2000s saw both the birth and death of grunge and the more recent garage rock revival. When it comes to grunge Kurt Cobain was the driving force. Although grunge was a blend of styles, at its heart is an emotional and powerful style like blues. Cobain's writing was as emotional as any blues artist and has been nearly as influential. His band, Nirvana, was know to cover Led Zeppelin and even Leadbelly in their day, demonstrating that although grunge lacked some of the swagger and feel of traditional blues, the two were in a way, cut from the same cloth. With garage rock's revival in the post grunge era there came a new band leading the way. The White Stripes represent blues that has both pushed into new territory and come full circle. With a stripped down sound and covers of some of the earliest blues musicians (Son House, Leadbelly), the White Stripes are effectively returning to the roots of blues music. At the same time guitarist Jack White uses heavily overdriven guitars and a rough, minimalist sound reminiscent of the beginnings of punk (the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, the Ramones). This combination takes these early blues artists and presents them in a new way just like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page did years earlier. The White Stripes have effectively forged new ground and returned rock and roll's blues roots in one fell swoop. Although both of these bands are not traditional blues, I hear blues influences in both of them and listening to their music is what lead me to backtrack my way to the original blues artists.
I guess its safe to say that the blues will never die as there will always be musicians and enthusiasts willing to carry on the tradition. With this article I hope to expose some people who are new to this genre, or even seasoned blues veterans, to some new ideas and new ways that we're keeping the blues spirit alive. As a blues enthusiast, I hope that some new people can grow to love this musical genre as much as I do as I look forward to new takes on the genre in the future.
If you're interested in learning more about any of these artists, check our www.allmusic.com as its a great musical guide and can provide both album reviews and background information.
References Include: www.allmusic.com (for days and historical information)
My music collection for artistic interpretation.