“Blues is always about wanting to be someplace else but making the best of where you are.”
— Francis Davis, The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 1995)
There are a couple of resons used to explain the name of this music:
- Blues is short for “blues devil”, a term that was frequently used in America at the turn of the XX century to describe sadness or depression.
- Blues make use of the “blue notes”, which are played at a pitch lower than the major scale and give the song a haunting, melancholy tone.
In many ways, blues is easier to define than jazz. But there is more to this music than the definition expresses. It’s true, blues songs often speak of misfortune, betrayal and regret, which is what the general public normally think when considering blues. But while the words speak of personal hard luck, the music itself is about overcoming that hard luck. Blues is about saying what you think, ridding yourself of frustration and simply having fun. The best blues is visceral, cathartic and strongly emotional.
There are definitely elements of blues in jazz music, though blues emerged a lot earlier in the same place where jazz manifested itself half a century later.
After the Civil War, African Americans came to the realisation that although slaves had been emancipated, freedom and equality were still a long way away. That was the feeling out of which this music was born.
The language of blues is a cultural code that finds its origin deep in the African American cultural and historical experience. It is not necessarily an intentional hidden message, like the ones in slaves’ spirituals and working songs, but rather a more intuitive message, some kind of metaphor that comes from a communal experience that was distinctively African American. For this reason, blues was for a long time circumscribed to the black community, the only one for which it had a deep cultural and historical meaning. Segregation, which was part of that same experience, allowed the evolution of blues in its own independent way. For a long time – and even after jazz became the most popular music of the nation – blues remained a music that few outside the African American community would hear.
But inside that community, blues created quite a stir.
From the beginning, it broke with the tradition of African communal creation of music and it was rather a personal expression of a communal experience. Bluesman and blueswoman wouldn’t sing with the community being bart of it, but stand alone and sing to the community, even if they would express a communal feeling. This position implied authority on their part.
Those were men and women who performed in disreputable places and sang songs that often contained bawdy, very explicit lyrics. They weren’t considered the best representatives for an entire, struggling community. Still, as they expressed their people’s feelings toward life and future, they ended up competing with preachers’ and politics’ authority on the matter.
Soon, that controversy would spread onto jazz.
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989
Sullivan, Megan, African-American Music as Rebellion: From Slavesong to Hip-Hop (PDF)