Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

OU short courses

Download this course

Share this free course

Discovering music: the blues
Discovering music: the blues

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

7 Blues styles and the blues tradition

As the blues spread into urban areas and further from the isolated agricultural communities in which it first emerged, musicians adapted their singing and playing in response to their new audiences and to reflect the different communities in which they were living and working. Modern studies of the blues identify a range of different styles of blues: Delta blues, country blues, down-home blues, urban blues, harmonica blues and so on. Some of these terms such as country blues and down-home blues are interchangeable, but others are indicative of different approaches to singing or playing the blues. The records of Blind Lemon Jefferson, for example, were advertised as ‘down-home’, whereas Sonny Boy Williamson worked in the urban environment of Chicago. In the study of music, it is important to note the difference in meaning between the terms style, genre and tradition. A musical tradition may include many different styles and genres.

Described image
Figure 6 Clarence ‘Blind Lemon’ Jefferson with guitar in 1928. Signed photograph. Lebrecht Music and Arts/Universal Images Group (via Britannica Image Quest)

Listen to these two extracts focusing on the character of the voices, the instruments used and the way in which the voice interacts with them

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 3 Blind Lemon Jefferson
Audio 3 Blind Lemon Jefferson
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 4 Sonny Boy Williamson
Audio 4 Sonny Boy Williamson
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Both singers use their voices to evoke strong emotions rather than pretty tunes. Jefferson accompanies himself on the guitar, punctuating his vocal phrases and driving the rhythms. There are no other instruments and the singer’s voice is the primary element in the song. Even when instruments are introduced, the players try to imitate the sound of the voice or create call and response patterns in which the instruments are played in between the vocal phrases. Sonny Boy Williamson was famous in creating a ‘harmonica blues’ style, interjecting wailing and moaning harmonica melodies in his songs. In many of his songs he alternates between voice and harmonica using his breath to create highly expressive bends and slides on the instrument that match those of his voice. The addition of piano, drums and guitar creates a sophisticated sound and a strong sense of pulse and metre, but the voice is still at foreground.