Story of the Blues

From Blind Lemon to B. B. King

The film “Story of the Blues: From Blind Lemon to B. B. King” begins in the United States of America in 1865, at the end of the Civil War. Sterling Wilson narrates as the film follows the aftermath of the Civil War and the music that was created during the time. One of the earliest blues musicians able to record his compositions was Blind Lemon Jefferson. Another pioneer of blues music was Big Bill Broonzy, who had a clean vocal style and distinct guitar style. Another musician featured was Duke Ellington and his work “black, brown and beige,” which depicted blues as being sadness and anguish within people. “Memphis” Minnie, real name Minnie Mc. Coy was a female blues singer who remained true to the rural roots of blues. Louis Armstrong made many significant contributions to the blues and jazz genres alike, especially his song “West End Blues.” Considered one of the best blues singers of all time, Bessie Smith shaped the blues in an unmistakable way. B. B. King was an authentic blues player who incorporated the electric guitar into his work. “Sweet Little Angel” is an example of how B. B. King seamlessly incorporated new instruments into classic blues music.

Early blues music was played solo by rural black men with guitars, singing lyrics they had created themselves. It was different from any other music at the time and quickly became a new form of artistic expression. This marked the birth of the blues. These musicians were not formally trained, and they played by ear, unable to read sheet music. They learned to adjust their music by listening to each other. At first, there was no definitive structure to the music, and each player used their own discretion in creating verses, using eight, twelve, or sixteen beats. By the end of the nineteenth century, a definitive rule formed: blues music was characterized by twelve beats, comprised of three stanzas with four beats each. The first and second verses tended to be the same, or similar with slight variations, with the final verse being different than the others. Another characteristic that made blues music stand out was the timbre of black men’s voices. Their inflection and shaping of their words made blues music unique.

Early blues musicians were concentrated in the South, particularly the Mississippi Delta region. They travelled to cities like New Orleans, Memphis, and Saint Louis, bringing their music with them. Blues also originated from the south-west, which contributed an inverse of stanza layout. In this form, the first and second verses of each stanza are varied while the third verse remains the same in each stanza. As musicians migrated north from the Mississippi Delta, Chicago welcomed them most wholeheartedly. Early blues recordings were made in Chicago, first targeted towards black audiences before being marketed to more diverse audiences as white people took interest.

The themes of early blues music were diverse. Themes of love, loss, and jealousy were common, and sarcastic humor was also used. Songs described themes such as prison and discrimination, addressing the social problems of the day. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, blues music took on a new dimension as black people became more integrated with social life and had more contact with white people. New knowledge was shared as blues music entered urban areas, and black people began to learn instruments previously played only by white people. New instruments were created, such as the kazoo and the washboard. Female blues singers did not appear until well into the twentieth century, by which point blues had heavily influenced jazz music. Despite the white influences on blues music, the genre retained its twelve-beat form.

The diversity of influence the blues genre possessed stood out to me most in this film. Blues music originated from rural black communities, growing from solo guitar work into an entire genre with many characteristics and forms of expression. Blues influenced so many musicians and genres of music, becoming a major supportive pillar of jazz. Jazz may never have come to exist if it were not for the influence of blues music. The blues genre grew in so many ways; for example, in New York, at the end of the 1920s, the Boogie-woogie movement was created by black musicians and played by pianists. Boogie-woogie was simply another form of the twelve-beat blues, but it provided a new form of expression. The blues influence on music and culture was profound and has helped mold contemporary music into what it is today.

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