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Discovering music: the blues
Discovering music: the blues

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4 Defining the blues

In the early decades of the twentieth century, many blues musicians interacted with other musicians playing and singing in a variety of styles. A lot of blues music was not written down, and when later asked about it, many musicians did not use the word ‘blues’ to describe it. As a result the blues has become confused with the early history of jazz, ragtime and gospel music.

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Figure 4 Playing the blues

However, to talk about the blues in an academic way we need a definition. The term ‘blues’ means different things to different people, so defining it is problematic. Alyn Shipton, a scholar of jazz and popular music, has defined the term blues as ‘an African-American song form, derived from late nineteenth-century ballads and field hollers, plus elements of spiritual and gospel music’. However he also notes that ‘there is evidence of the word being used for a much longer period to denote the melancholy state of mind that underlies a vast number of blues lyrics’ (Shipton, 2001, p. 41).

This formal definition contrasts with how blues singer Booker White defines the blues, as White focuses on the emotional aspects of the music: ‘Well sure, blues is a feeling! But you can write the truth with the blues… You see, I tell you, you gotta feed your mind with something all the time, you think about something all the time. Sometimes you can have a good feelin’, sometimes you have a bad feelin’. But now in the blues line, it’s always being up on somebody you love or somebody that quits you’ (Oakley, 1987 (1976), p. 46). An even tighter description relies entirely on the type of musical structures used in blues music (Wald, 2012). For the purposes of this course these elements will be drawn together to define the blues as an African-American song form that tends to make use of a set of straightforward musical structures (discussed later) and whose lyrics often emphasise subjective responses to love and loss.