From the beginning, the blues merged the sounds of enslaved people with the sounds of their oppressors. “The blues is born out of the a cappella music of Africa and the music that blacks created as slaves, which manifested as field hollers, mixed together with the European folk music they learned from the slave owners,” says Bing Futch, who won the solo/duo guitar category in the 2016 International Blues Challenge, “as well as some of the music that was coming out at that time.”
As a music form, the blues has certain distinct features. The melody usually goes up and down a six-note scale. (If you’re starting on a C, that scale would go C, E flat, F, G flat, G, B flat, C.) The lyrics tend to follow what’s known as an AAB pattern, with the first line of each verse repeating itself: “The thrill is gone, the thrill is gone away / The thrill is gone, the thrill is gone away.” The “B” line usually answers or resolves whatever is in the “A” line: “You know you done me wrong, baby, and you’ll be sorry someday.”
The blues also evokes a particular response in the listener, says Susan Rogers, an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music: “Rock arouses and pumps up; it is intense and rebellious. R&B soothes and often seduces; its lyrics tend to be externally focused. Blues is more introspective and complex; its lyrics tend toward describing one’s internal state.”
During the 20th century, this melancholy music was the sound of the rural South. “The blues came out of the life of struggle,” says Barbara Newman, the president and CEO of the Blues Foundation, a nonprofit that serves as an umbrella for more than 175 blues organizations around the world. “It came out of what was going on in the Delta, whether it was weather or slavery and sharecropper lives that were difficult.” The emancipated slaves who created it were known as “songsters”: traveling musicians who played standards and new songs. Their music found its way into juke joints—black-operated establishments in the Southeast United States. (The word joog means rowdy in Gullah, the creole of lowland South Carolina and Georgia.) Legends like Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey and W.C. Handy all reported hearing the music for the first time around 1902.