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This lesson will define the history and styles associated with classic blues. We will explore some of the major figures associated with classic blues and perceive their connections with later genres.

Classic Blues: the Backbone of American Music

The Blues is one of the most beloved and deeply-rooted genres of American music. Classic blues typically refers to the oldest and most traditional styles of blues that originated in the southeastern United States in the late 19th century. Although classic blues would spawn numerous subgenres of blues like Kansas City blues and Chicago blues, classic blues styles are understood by most scholars to be the most fundamental versions of the genre that gave rise to all of the others.

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In addition to other blues subgenres, classic blues was the ancestor of most contemporary popular genres including rock’n’roll, rhythm and blues, heavy metal, and many others.

Origins and Development

The origins of the blues are not thoroughly understood, as they reach back into the history of rural, southern, African-American culture in the years after the Civil War. During the 19th century, scholars did not pay a great deal of attention to African-American music or take it very seriously. The work songs that African-American slaves sang during both the antebellum period and in the post-war period were deeply important precursors to the blues. Traditional styles, chord patterns, and genre of music that African-Americans preserved from African traditions were equally vital building materials for the blues, as were European ballads and folk songs.The concepts of folk music and folk culture are very significant to an understanding of the blues.

Although the term ‘folk music’ is often erroneously used in contemporary culture to mean ‘anything playing on an acoustic guitar,’ folk is not a genre, but a process through which culture is created. A folk song or a folk tale is something that is handed down from generation to generation, usually through oral transmission, without any single, known author or originator. Someone cannot sit down and write a folk song, it must develop from a given community over a period of time, with each generation making variations and additions.

The Early 20th Century

The blues articulates as well as any other aspect of American culture the pain, heartache, and longing associated with racial injustice. At the turn of the 20th century, African-Americans suffered under the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, the humiliation of segregation, and an economic system that provided virtually no opportunities for African-American advancement.

John Lomax
Lomax

As in most other aspects of life, white southerners largely ignored the suffering of African-Americans that was articulated in their music.

This started to change with the advent of recorded music. In the early 20th century, folklorists and antiquarians started traveling throughout the United States trying to record traditional songs for posterity. John Lomax, along with his son Alan, recorded numerous genres of American folk music. In 1930 Lomax met Huddie William Leadbetter while visiting Angola State Prison in Louisiana. Leadbetter would come to be known as Leadbelly, one of the most important figures in classic blues and American folk music more generally.

Leadbelly’s amazing skill with the 12 string guitar and his rousing versions of traditional folk songs continue to earn him fans across the world, 66 years after his death.

Leadbelly
Leadbelly

Robert Johnson was another indelibly important figure in classic blues, in spite of his short life of 27 years.

Johnson combined traditional blues chords and themes with original variations of his own creation in the construction of one of the most compelling examples of classic blues from the early 20th century. Although receiving very little fame or success during his lifetime, his few recordings were rereleased in the early 1960s, giving significant momentum to the classic blues revival of the 1960s.Charley Patton is considered by many to be the earliest and most important figures in classic blues. His recordings include Mississippi Boweavil Blues and Banty Rooster Blues, among many others.

Patton infused his own original lyrics and arrangements with traditional chord patterns and melodies in a fashion that would inspire generations of bluesmen that came after him.

The Legacy of the Blues

It is very difficult to overstate the importance of classic blues on international popular music. The term classic blues really refers to a family of genres including delta blues and country blues, but the term classic blues really refers to the earliest recorded versions of African-American blues music that were preserved in the 1920s and 1930s.

Classic blues was made with acoustic guitars and usually performed by a single musician. Although relatively simple in structure, it remains one of the most emotionally resonant and artistically profound styles of music on earth.Most of the music that we hear on the radio, or watch on YouTube, or stream in Pandora today would not exist without these early styles of blues music. Popular music as such is a direct descendant of the blues.

Lesson Summary

Classic blues is a family of genres that constitute the earliest versions of African-American blues music. Most examples of classic blues were recorded in the 1930s, but have origins that go back into the 19th century. Classic blues is understood to be one of the most culturally significant and influential genres of American music.

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