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It's a Blues Thang

"It's a Blues Thang" is a break-down of a musical tradition. In this case, that tradition is blues music. Background information is given on the origin and development of the genre. From W.C. Handy and Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton and B.B. King, this paper attempts to show that blues is an ever-developing musical tradition. Another key element of the paper is to define meaning within the genre, and defining what it means to be a great musician from a blues standpoint. The question of soul is brought up, and is used to define greatness of self expression. Finally, a bridge is built between the cultural differences of early blues and more contemporary styles.

It’s a Blues Thang

Playing the blues is contributing to part of a time honored-tradition. Historically, the development of the genre had to put up with a lot of discrimination from white culture, and musicians had to go through a lot to have the simple right to play their music. Many artists, like Jimi “Prime Time? Smith, have made valuable contributions to the transformation of the blues style over the years, and these contributions have molded the blues into a new type of music for a new audience. Because of new developing techniques and contributions by contemporary artists, the critical element of soul, and the need for musicians to have the ability to convey true expression through their music, the blues has become a genre that crosses new cultural boundaries.
In terms of historical background, the blues has a very lush and interesting story. It is said that the first blues ever sung song was entitled “Joe Turner? and was written about a penal officer from Tennessee in the mid-1890’s (Weissman 19). Although “Joe Turner? is considered to mark the birth of blues, a long road needed to be paved to get there. Much of today’s blues music originated in the south, but its true roots can be traced back to Africa. West African music contains many traits that are still used in blues music. These traits include flatting the third and seventh scale degrees, call-and-response singing, and vocal techniques such as falsetto or growling (Weissman 9). Slaves brought these styles over to America during the slave trade. Soon these techniques were being used in field songs, minstrel shows, and in early folk blues, a style of music which featured such artists as Woody Guthrie and Charley Patton. Even though there is no way to know exactly who the first musician to play blues was, many attribute the popularization of blues to a composer-musician named W.C. Handy. Common blues folklore claims Handy saw a man in a rail station playing a blues song using a penknife as a slide in 1903, in Mississippi (Weissman 19). Yet, there are countless musicians and composers who must be credited for contributing to the full development of the blues. Some of the most notable figures are Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker, yet it is impossible for any genre to cease developing because every artist brings something new to the proverbial table.
Since the birth of what is known as classic blues, musicians have made many contributions that have advanced or that have even broken out of the genre completely creating their own styles. Examples of such genres are rhythm and blues, rock ’n roll, and soul. Rhythm and blues was popularized by musicians like Ray Charles and Bo Diddley and differed from the blues in many aspects. It didn’t follow the standard twelve-bar pattern, groups incorporated horns into their bands, songwriters used choruses in a pop form, and gospel music played a highly influential role (Weissman 93). Rock ‘n roll also stemmed from blues-oriented rockabilly music, a style made famous by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash in the 1950’s (Weissman 98). Blues music has been shaped by the social and economic situations that have surrounded it. After the civil war, the failure of reconstruction left African-Americans abandoned with many problems. These problems were reflected in blues music, and similarly, during the great depression many blues songs were about poverty. These examples go to show that the blues is an art form that utilizes personal expression whether it is through peoples’ woes or their happiness and successes.
The blues is a time honored tradition that has produced many superstars and legends known by millions worldwide. Some of the greatest of these musicians are Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jimmy Reed. Jimi Smith was directly influenced by several of these artists, and it is apparent when listening to his music. Smith grew up playing with Jimmy Reed in his home, and Reed’s influence proved to be Smith’s greatest by far (Stiles). Smith learned how to play guitar from Reed, and he actually played his first gig with Reed at the Ann Arbor blues festival in 1973 at the age of 14 (Stiles). However, it is obvious that Smith takes influences from other artists. Listening to his song, “South Bound,? it is clear that Smith hints at Robert Johnson’s slide techniques, which are especially utilized during the guitar solo (Smith). All of these musicians left their marks on blues music. During the 1960’s and 70’s, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were exploring new stylistic directions for the blues. Many of these musicians were products of the drug culture and brought revolutionary new styles that no one had heard before to the table.
When witnessing a performance of any of these great musicians, or any blues musician for that matter, it is a natural reaction to judge the talent of the given musician. The difficult question is, “How do you go about determining a musician’s skill in regards to their specific instrument?? Certainly the answer to this question is different for every genre of music and can differ from musician to musician within the given genre. Putting aside all deals with the devil, most blues musicians would agree that becoming a true virtuoso on guitar, harp, or bass cannot come without practice. However, no matter how much practice, the only thing that truly matters in a blues musician is the player’s soul. Yet, even this definition is potentially problematic because it requires understanding of the term soul. In a 1983 recording session, Albert King talks to Stevie Ray Vaughan about soul. He says that “there’s a lot of guitar players…that just play fast; they don’t concentrate on no soul? (“Old Times?). Therefore it takes much more than ability to play your instrument to be considered truly great. The music that comes out of your guitar can’t just be notes, it has to be you. In the blues song “My Soul,? by the popular jam band Phish, Trey Anastasio sings the lyrics “Why do I/ Sit and cry/ Without a reason/ I don’t know why/ It’s my soul.? The ability to convey personal emotions through music is crucial in the blues because it is such a down-to-earth, no-bullshit type of music.
Since Jimi Smith learned how to play guitar from Jimmy Reed they both have somewhat similar approaches to inserting soul into their blues. When listening to Jimmy Reed, it is clear that he comes from an earlier period of blues development. His songs are much slower than and not as busy as those of Jimi Smith’s. Reed utilizes strong, rhythmic 12 bar and 16 bar patterns that surge on steadily like a train. To add extra expression, he plays screechy harmonica melodies over the guitar rhythms that create an extremely bluesy tone. Smith uses some of these techniques as well, but in different ways. Most of Smith’s music is more up-tempo and has a lot of backup from other instruments. This forces Smith to find different ways to make his music soulful. Since there is more sound being produced by many players, Smith uses his guitar to wail through the rest of the players and give his music something special.
Before the 1960’s, blues was primarily a music made by and for African-Americans. However, the cultural revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s brought about a new audience for blues music (Powell 1). In general, blues artists are primarily middle aged black men who can write music that plays to the interests of their audiences who typically shared the same demographic. However, with the rising percentages of a white audience, there was a clear drop in the percentages of black audience members, who were beginning to focus more upon soul music (Oliver). Because of this decrease in audience, many artists were forced to scale down their touring, and they had a lot of success among the American University circuit (Oliver).
With crowds of young, white hippies surging to shows by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Eric Clapton, the system of black blues performers playing for a black audience began to break down becoming a part of mainstream white culture (Powell 2). Powell goes on to include the eighties pop-culture movie “The Blues Brothers? in the conversion of blues to mainstream culture (2). Yet, we must consider the repercussions this shift would have on the music as a whole. Playing for a new type of audience can cause a need for musicians to write lyrics that are tailored specifically to their fans. The majority of black blues artists, from Charley Patton to B.B. King grew up picking cotton, so their audience understood that a standard opening line “Woke up this mornin’? meant that they were waking up to a day of arduous labor for low wages (Powell 2). Is this meaning lost by now middle aged and younger white blues fans or does it help to build bridges across cultural lines? Some critics would argue that it is not merely the racial shift of audience makeup that is affecting the meaning of blues music. Rather, it is because so much time has passed since the age of slavery, and black people are earning the respect and acceptance they deserve causing the youth to become dissociated with the problems of the past. It is arguable that this shift has given a new strength to the genre, as a more diverse demographic is likely to bring more income for musicians and possibilities for new developments within the genre.
Searching throughout the history of the blues, it is obvious that blues is a music that has been through many changes. New artists are constantly emerging in the genre and redefine what it means to be a blues artist. From Robert Johnson to B.B. King, there have been countless blues players who have each left their mark on the historical value of blues. Yet, as new styles continue developing, there is something that can never be taken out of the blues: soul and personal expression, the two cornerstones of blues music that define the genre.

Works Cited
Powell, Garry C. "Talkin' Blues at the Living Blues Symposium." Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 35 (2004): 121-28.
Smith, Jimi. "Jimi Prime Time Smith." 18 Mar. 2008. 29 Oct. 2008 .
Weissman, Dick. Blues Basics. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Stiles, Ray M. "Blues on Stage." 1998. 17 Sept. 2008 .
Oliver, Paul. "Blues." Oxford Music Online. 2007. Groove Music Online. 12 Nov. 2008 .
"Old Times." Rec. Dec. 1983. By Albert King; Stevie Ray Vaughan. In Session. MP3. Bill Belmont, 1999.


Nice additions to this paper. It still boggles my mind how so many musicians get involved in their respective scenes so early in their lives.

Very interesting history.... who knew the blues came from Africa?!

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