Blues First

“Jazz as it developed was predominantly a blues-based music.”  (Baraka 1963 p.78)


The case can be made that the defining element of African American music comes from not the various forms of instrumental music flourishing in New Orleans in the early 20th century, but primarily in the expressive dynamics that was being made by country blues musicians simultaneously in the Mississippi Delta. While much has been made of the early jazz beginnings in Louisiana, comparatively less dialogue amongst jazz historians has been placed on the folk and country blues origins that contributed some of jazz’s most enduring characteristics. Understanding the sociological and segregated elements that produced this music, along with the intricacies of musical expressions and the expressive freedom essential to the style, fundamentally changes conventional wisdom about American music, and the evolution of jazz in particular.


The Blues

The blues has its roots in Mississippi, epitomized by a style that often used a single singer that would accompany himself, usually with a guitar. The music takes root following the civil war, when African Americans began to utilize a new freedom to travel and migrate as they saw fit, seeing larger portions of the country than enslavement had allowed. This spread the early country blues music through out the region. Along with travel, There was a degree of leisure time, unsupervised by captors, and an ability to construct music not censored by a slave owner. New societal conditions, extreme segregation and the economic realities faced by the limited opportunities afforded African Americans meant the subjects involved in these expressions reflected the realities of life in the Jim Crow south, and the complex expressions of a culture rooted in displacement and the effects of racism and emancipation. With roots in shouts, work songs, and spirituals[1] early country blues was epitomized as an interactive vocal music that interacted with guitar responses that would answer a lyric, or add polyphony underneath.

The term itself may draw from many sources. Blue was feeling of sadness. related to rain, or storms, and in Greek mythology, as the god Zeus would make rain when he was sad. There is also the 17th-century English expression “the blue devils,” which refers to the intense visual hallucinations that can accompany severe alcohol withdrawal, but also used to describe melancholy or sadness as in an in George Colman’s one-act farce Blue Devils (1798). The term became slang for “drunk” by the 1800s, leaving behind a connection to the “blue laws” that still prohibit Sunday alcohol sales in various states. Most commonly the term is used to refer to a state of sadness, as in the journal of 19th century artist John James in 1827 he writes that he “had the blues.” The term was first used in published music in 1908, and would be used in many works that used ballad forms as well as 12-bar AAB form.

Expressive elements of the blues would dramatically influence numerous composers and performers, W.C. Handy is a notable example. Handy was directly influenced by musicians he heard in Missisipi in the composing of the seminal “St. Louis Blues” although the piece consciously creates a more “sophisticated” compositional structure by which to showcase blues expressions (Gioia 2008).

The compositional codification of blues was not as significant however as the shift that occurred in the presentation of what would become “classic” blues epitomized by recordings of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Mamie Smith, which shifted in the self-consciousness performances would use to gain a piece of the exploding market for easily digestible “race” recordings. The more personal expressions of often intensely emotional content surrounding subjects that were not ready for mainstream considerations, were made more general, comprehensible, and safe compared to the often brutal and explicit metaphors used by country blues musicians. Metaphors not understood by a national audience were minimized, and overt references to sex, death, abuse, and alcohol were mitigated to a degree acceptable to the emerging social segregations and all important record selling business model.

 “22-20 Blues” Skip James  (1931)

Oh, Mr. Crest, Mr. Crest
How in the world you
Expect for me to rest?
Oh, Mr. Crest, Mr. Crest
How in the world you
Expect for me to rest?
You’ve got my 22-20
Layin’ up across my breast

Oh, if I send for my baby
An she act a fool
An she don’t never come
If I send for my baby
She act a fool
An she don’t never come
All the doctors in New York City
I declare, they can’t help her none

You know, sometimes she gets unruly
An she act like she just don’t wanna do
Sometimes she gets unruly
An she act like she just don’t wanna
But I get my 22-20
I cut that woman half in two

Oh, your.38 Special
Buddy, it’s most too light
Your .38 Special
Buddy, it’s most too light
But my 22-20
Will make ev’rything, alright

Ah-or, your .44-40
Buddy, it’ll do very well
Your .44-40
Buddy, it’ll do very well
But my .22-20
I declare you, it’s a-burnin’ hell

I was stranded on the highway-hi
With my 22-20 in my
I was standin’ on the highway
With my 22-20 in my
They got me ‘cussed for murder
I declare, I never have harmed a man

Lord, oh I measured my gun
An it’s just a-long as my right arm
I measured my gun
An it’s just a-long as my right
I’m gon’ raise me some sand
And back down the road, I declare.


Crazy Blues

“Crazy Blues” was one of the most significant pieces of the 20th century, and apart from Smith’s virtuosity, this was the first by a performer who could perform what could be described as classic “blues”. It was begrudgingly recorded by Okeh Records but quickly became an unintended smash hit, breaking sales records by moving 75,000 copies in the first month alone. This recording launched the rapidly expanding industry of “race records” by recording black musicians for a black audience, a practice that would see predominantly white record companies tapping into the enormous interest and revenue involved with black music and a drive to find and record the extraordinary talent rooted in the south.

The first recording by an African American singer, Mamie Smith’s 1920 rendition of Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues” offers the first important recorded example of a blues vocal performance and elements that would form the heart of American jazz and popular music. On display is a myriad of expressive devices and interpretations that that would permeate melodic interpretation for the rest of the century. These lie in the vocal interpretation, Smith’s interactions with the instrumentalists, and delivery of the lyric, rather than any formal or what would become pedantically described as specifically scalar characteristics.


“Crazy Blues” Mamie Smith (1920)

I can’t sleep at night
I can’t eat a bite
‘Cause the man I love
He don’t treat me right.

He makes me feel so blue
I don’t know what to do
Sometimes I’m sad inside
And then begin to cry

‘Cause my best friend . . . said his last goodbye.
There’s a change in the ocean
Change in the deep blue sea . . . but baby
I tell you folks there . . . ain’t no change in me

My love for that man
Will always be.
Now I’ve got the crazy blues
Since my baby went away

I ain’t got no time to lose
I must find him today
Now the doctor’s gonna do all . . . that he can
But what you gonna need is a undertaker man
I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news

Now I’ve got the crazy blues.
Now I can read his letter
I sure can’t read his mind
I thought he’s lovin’me . . .

He’s leavint all the time
Now I see . . .
My poor love was Iyin’.
I went to the railroad

Hang my head on the track
Thought about my daddy
I gladly snatched it back
Now my babe’s gone

And gave me the sack.
Now I’ve got the crazy blues
Since my baby went away
I ain’t had no time to lose

I must find him today
I’m gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop
Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop
I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news

Now I’ve got the crazy blues.
Those blues.


Perry Bradford remarks about the looseness of this arrangement:

“When my jazz band played for Mamie Smith to record the “Crazy Blues, we had no arrangements. They were what I called “hum and head arrangements.” I mean we would listen to the melody and harmony of the piano and each man picked out his harmony notes. …It was crude, but the sound that Mamie and my Jazz Hounds planted that February morning in 1920 had such “down home” original corn in it that it has sprouted, grown and thrived all down through the years.”

While it is clear there is a strong melodic outline to Bradford’s song, Smith uses an incredible number of unpredictable vocal nuances, colorations, articulations, vibrato, dynamics, and changing of pitches within the melody, and by emphasizing various words to add dimension to the lyric. While Bradford describes the accompaniment as “crude”, it is actually a remarkable level of ensemble improvisation and interaction. The constant instrumental polyphony behind her is echoed throughout other pieces such as the guitar riffs in Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues”, demonstrating instrumental interjections not just occurring during breaths and vocal pauses, but underneath as well. These levels of polyphony occur simultaneously with and apart from Smith’s melody.

Rhythm is the most striking element of Smith’s performance, and despite the primitive groove coming out of the band, Smith’s melodies contains a simultaneously wide 8th and 16th note pocket, slightly varying between the articulations with a virtuosic subtlety that gives the feeling of both simultaneously. In addition subtle changes in tempo, leaning back and singing on top, add another layer of interpretation to her performance. This level of polyrhythm from a single voice, even when she is not singing reflects the depth of an African rhythmic tradition that, until this recording, had never been captured before.

Freedom of Expression

Many of the best examples of this early blues style can be heard from the 1930s, recordings that could seem oddly non-conforming to 21st century ears. For contemporary musicians raised on the fixed idea of fixed forms it is a revelation to discover that although the music feels like the familiar 12-bar structure, many performances rarely are. It is misleading to hear this style of country blues, perhaps through perhaps the 1937-8 recordings of Robert Johnson and think that Johnson exemplifies a freedom within the blues form by varying chorus lengths, and doing so seamlessly. Freedom is the blues form. The length of a chorus is not necessarily set, therefore there can be no variation from it. Perhaps a infantile comparison would be to say “Happy Birthday” has a fixed tempo, or key, and be quick to point out “incorrect” versions that are performed. It just isn’t on the radar. Listeners accustomed to hearing a 12-bar form repeated may remark that that many of Johnson’s performances use anything fro 9-13 and ½ bar choruses, and find that to be an unusual departure, but the flexibility in all elements of the blues, least of those the number of bars, is what the blues is, not the other way around. The idea of 12 bars being a goal was likely completely alien to a singer more concerned with the rhythm, feeling, expression, and interplay between voice and guitar. The analytical conception of “Crossroad Blues” as being loose in regard to form is incorrect if one takes the fact that there is no fixed form to begin with. As a formalistic element there is no necessity for any self-conscious and predetermined number of bars. Instead, the length of a chorus takes an improvised form, using a general feeling of phrase lengths, changed in the moment by nuanced expression and spontaneity, intensely varied pitches and articulation, rhythms, and tempo that may evolve on alternate takes. Even lyrics may or may not be improvised or embellished and can be heavily interpreted or repeated and changed at will.

The conceptual constructs that would be notated by W.C. Handy in 1914 with “St. Louis Blues” is one of the first and best examples of a codification of the style for the necessary needs of notation and eventually the needs of more than one performer to play together. The number of bars becomes fixed (although Handy adds a bridge) but in performance this again becomes a guide rather than the rule. In Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong’s 1925 version all elements of the piece are interpreted, the essential quality that would influence all of the music coming from places like New Orleans.

If a comparison is drawn from flexibility of form to the evolution of a groove, it can be easily shown that swing as a performance practice is based in a nuanced rhythmic expression decidedly NOT based in a mathematically consistent reproduction of either pulse or hierarchical arrangement of rhythmic layers. It is a flexible system of the creation of musical motion, which grooves specifically because of this expressive flexibility. The overt vocal expressions of tempo from Robert Johnson are not a variation of pulse and formal structure because those elements don’t exist! The intellectual abstractions and notational necessities that created the ubiquitous 12-bar form were variations of a malleable vocal and instrumental expression that took advantages of phrasing opportunities that changed in scale with the adaptation by groups needing an agreed upon and consistent tempo and form.  It lived most obviously in the soloist, who could push or pull, play on top or lay back, play across a bar, or change speed without disrupting the groove produced by a rhythm section. But even bass and drums took advantage of expressive rhythmic phrasing, by doing all of the techniques described above but in a more subtle way.  Examples abound, in fact the greatest rhythm sections often are so “incorrect” by pedagogical standards (how would a state jazz “competition” score Ray Brown, or Tony Williams, players who were notorious for speeding up and by doing so making the music groove much harder) yet these “imperfections” still described by educators as such, and somehow ironic for being so?!?

These lines hint that African American music, or perhaps all music, isn’t about the music itself but why that music is what it is.  The late David Bowie astounded critics by proclaiming he was not a rock star but instead using the medium to another purpose.  If one extrapolated upward, past the genre, individualistic idiom, to time, place, culture, history, and technique as well, where can we find a glimpse of what it’s really all about?

[1] See Baraka (1963) and Gioia (2009) for exceptional musical and cultural descriptions of early black music and blues.

Bradford, Perry. Born with the Blues. First Edition. Oak Publications. Print.
Gioia, Ted. Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music. 10.3.2009 edition. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. Print.
Jazz Styles. 11 edition. Boston: Pearson, 2011. Print.
Jones, Leroi. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Harper Collins, 1999. Print.

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