Blues

Updated: February 28, 2011

Blues is a musical genre that developed among African Americans in the lowland South during the late nineteenth century.

Blues is a musical genre that developed among African Americans in the lowland South during the late nineteenth century. With the increasing migration of African Americans into Appalachia (particularly urban industrial centers) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cross- pollination between African and European American cultures resulted in distinctive blues subgenres developing in different parts of the region. Piedmont blues, for instance, flourished in the Blue Ridge foothills of the Carolinas. Inter- actions between blacks and whites also led to the emergence across the South of blues–influenced country music styles such as hillbilly blues and hillbilly boogie. Appalachian musicians made vital contributions to several commercial blues subgenres (especially classic female blues), as well as to other southern-based musics bearing a strong blues influence, including rockabilly, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, soul, and southern rock.

Blues songs and tunes tend to share similar characteristics: a call-and-response form, the use of particular scales, and the establishing of musical tension through the juxtaposition of major and minor intervals. Eight-, twelve-, and sixteen-bar blues, as well as the less rigidly structured nine- and thirteen-bar blues, have their basis in pre–World War I rural blues songs. Florence, Alabama, native W. C. Handy, a pioneer composer of commercial blues songs, was largely responsible for the twelve-bar structure’s becoming the dominant form of blues composition. Several classic female blues singers from Appalachia—including Ida Cox (of Toccoa, Georgia), Bessie Smith (a Chattanooga, Tennessee, native) and “Diamond Teeth” Mary McClain (from Logan County, West Virginia)—became popular on the vaudeville circuit, singing the blues to orchestral or jazz accompaniment.

Some of the most distinctive styles of fingerpicked acoustic guitar blues developed to the east of southern Appalachia in the Carolina Piedmont. In the early part of the twentieth century, increased employment opportunities in such cities as Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, attracted a large number of African Americans. Entertaining both black and white audiences, usually at separate venues, black musicians borrowed European American repertoire (“Spanish Fandango”) and stylistic elements (especially an emphasis on melody and an alternating-thumb style of picking— that is, alternating between two of the lower strings for the playing of bass notes).

Piedmont blues musicians born within Appalachia include Willie Walker and the Reverend Gary Davis (both from Greenville, South Carolina), Brownie McGhee (from Knoxville, Tennessee), and Etta Baker (of Caldwell County, North Carolina). Most of these musicians greatly influenced the post–World War II urban folk revival. Other African American musicians from Appalachia likewise developed individual instrumental styles that incorporated major-scale melodies typical in the European American musical repertoire. Two regional musicians—singer-guitarist Leslie Riddle (from Kingsport, Tennessee, who assisted A. P. Carter and his family on their song-collecting trips) and the itinerant guitar player Arnold Shultz (who influenced the mandolin playing of Bill Monroe as well as the “Travis picking” guitar style)—featured alternating string thumb-style guitar picking that significantly differed from the riff-based Delta blues style, which usually featured bass notes picked on the same string. Mercer County, West Virginia, guitarist Nat Reese and La Follette, Tennessee, native Howard Armstrong, a string-band fiddler and mandolinist, are other important African American musicians who were grounded in blues traditions but who had eclectic repertoires that included other regional and popular musical styles.

Early white country musicians in Appalachia—Maybelle Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Frank Hutchison, Cliff Carlisle, and the duo Darby and Tarlton—incorporated elements of the blues (song structures, scales, and vocal inflections) into their individual guitar styles. Country steel-guitar styles, from the 1920s forward, bore a strong blues influence, borrowed directly from bottleneck blues guitar playing and indirectly from Hawaiian steel-guitar styles that had already incorporated the blues. Later-emerging country music subgenres, such as bluegrass and hillbilly boogie, reflected the influence of the blues and foreshadowed rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll. Country harmonica playing similarly incorporated the blues cross-harp style. The harmonica playing of pre–World War II Grand Ole Opry African American star DeFord Bailey (from Smith County, Tennessee) influenced not only the bluesy cross-harp style that defined the pre–rock ’n’ roll hillbilly boogie music of the Delmore Brothers, but also the harmonica playing of such Nashville session musicians as Charlie McCoy (from Oak Hill, West Virginia).

Rock ’n’ roll evolved from a similar melding. Florence, Alabama, native Sam Phillips, a record producer who operated out of Memphis, was responsible for some of the earliest rock ’n’ roll recordings, which featured African American musicians from the Appalachian margins in northern Mississippi (including Jackie Brenston’s 1951 performance of “Rocket 88” and Junior Parker’s 1953 song “Mystery Train”). In the mid- 1950s, Phillips achieved major crossover success when he recorded, for his Sun Records label, white musicians (such as Tupelo, Mississippi, native Elvis Presley) performing in a similar style known as rockabilly.

Other producers from the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, area envisioned a popular synthesis of the blues with white country music. By the late 1960s, Muscle Shoals had become a nation- ally renowned recording center for soul, a music that fused the blues, rhythm and blues, and African American gospel with country music, often joining black singers with white backup musicians. Later music subgenres such as southern rock, blues rock, and roots rock similarly drew from the wellspring of the blues. The Allman Brothers Band’s Chuck Leavell (a Birmingham, Alabama, native) and Warren Haynes (from Asheville, North Carolina) as well as the Marshall Tucker Band (from Spartanburg, South Carolina) have been major Appalachian exponents of these subgenres.

Northeastern Mississippi and the adjoining counties along Appalachia’s western margins have long been a fertile ground for the blues. Major blues musicians from the area include Chester Burnette (a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf), from West Point, Mississippi; Mississippi Fred McDowell (a resident of Como, Mississippi, in Panola County); and white rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers (from Holly Springs, Mississippi). Two other important African American blues stylists from the area—Junior Kimbrough (born in Hudsonville, Mississippi) and R. L. Burnside (a resident of Holly Springs)— attracted national followings during the 1990s, late in their careers. Northern Mississippi’s “hill country blues” continue to influence the music of younger musicians from the area— such as the members of the group the North Mississippi Allstars—as well as the music of non-native musicians, including the alternative rock band Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, which recorded with Burnside.

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MLA Style

"Blues," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 23 May 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=41>

APA Style

"Blues." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved May 23, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=41

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