Born from 12 bars: How the blues gave birth to American music

Blues singer Muddy Waters plays in France on Nov. 7 1976. Waters was a pioneer of the Chicago blues sound, capturing the raw emotion of blues origins with the electrifying energy of the growing rock and roll scene.

Photo Courtesy of Lionel Decoster/Flickr

Blues singer Muddy Waters plays in France on Nov. 7 1976. Waters was a pioneer of the Chicago blues sound, capturing the raw emotion of blues origins with the electrifying energy of the growing rock and roll scene.

Even if zero seconds of blues music had ever been put to tape, it would still be the most influential genre in American music.

The very nature of the genre is that it doesn’t need to be recorded, it just needs to be shared. Passing along folk songs through generations and climates has been a standard since the first languages, but the conceit of most folk music is that it relies very heavily on story. Tall tales and legends are staples of folk music, but at some point, as those stories made their way down the Mississippi river, a shift began to push people to listen to personal stories as opposed to mythic ones.

This was partially due to the changing political and cultural landscape in America between the late 1800s and early 1900s. Slavery had been abolished, African-Americans gained the right to vote, and, even though segregation would remain until the 1960s, it stopped being illegal in the south to celebrate African-American culture. This change allowed for a spread and building of culture in the south as opposed to a pure drive to preserve it.

Because of this, a huge movement of telling personal stories began to rise, as freedom of self-expression and sharing of feelings became encouraged in the communities where the blues arose from. The Mississippi Delta, specifically, became the birthplace of the modern blues movement. A voice and a guitar (or sometimes just a voice) was all that was needed to convey the raw emotions within the medium.

The very first Delta blues recording, Freddie Spruell’s “Milk Cow Blues,” is the perfect example of this. The whole song is drenched in metaphor, as the narrator of the story likens his lost lover to a cow that is both causing him problems and he is causing problems for. It’s simple, it’s raunchy, it’s melodic, and it gets its story across in just over 3 minutes.

This song alone can be heard in nearly every popular music genre today. The pining lyrics and twanging guitar echo throughout the rise of country music, which took the feelings and simplicity of the blues and added hooks, choruses, and heightened production. Country music was born on the basis of storytelling, much like folk music, but without the blues, the narrations would feel disconnected from the tales that were being told.

As dynamic as “Milk Cow Blues” was in tone, Delta blues is as defined by its despair as it is its production. Singers like Son House and Lead Belly employed wails reminiscent of soul and gospel music (sounds associated with powerful, elated emotion), and delivered their songs of broken relationships and dead lovers as if they were watching it happen before their eyes.

In the same breath, blues singers could be incredibly seductive, such as Lucille Bogan in “Shave ‘Em Dry,” an explicit song about physical intimacy from the female perspective that was relatively unmatched in its provocativeness even after Elvis Presley broke through into the mainstream.

As music became an ever growing medium, both the subject matter and the sound became more smooth and easily consumable, but this formula for love and affection remained a mainstay of pop music during the bubble-gum pop era of the 50s.

The Mississippi Delta wasn’t the only place where the blues was being developed. In the clubs of Chicago, the blues became louder and groovier than ever before. The addition of swinging drums and electric guitar allowed the instruments to catch up to the vocals in intensity, and the infectious energy of songs like Howlin Wolf’s “Back Door Man” and Muddy Water’s “Rollin’ Stone” gave the blues a direct pathway to being showcased on radio.

Chicago blues was a gateway to rock and roll, with songs like Earl Hooker’s “Two Bugs and a Roach” employing jazz-influenced guitar solos (which, in reality, is the blues without vocals) that were reflected in Chuck Berry’s earliest recordings. Blues influence was so pervasive that it made its way back to its origin, as folk musicians like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez played and told stories with just an acoustic guitar with the same energy as Muddy Waters sang about his lover.

Even if the blues started as a medium to tell personal stories, its evolution correlated with the evolution of music.

As its sound became more defined after the popularity of Chicago blues, the purpose of the songs found its way back to its origins in folk music: a way to entertain.

Everyone has a story to tell, and there will always be someone who wants to hear it. That’s why the most popular genres of music have become as big as they are, there are people behind each song with something to say. The blues was responsible for making the singer as important as the song, regardless of genre, and those who contributed to its development have a hand in the last hundred years of musical storytelling.