by Robert Menne

Like living organisms, musical genres evolve over time and give birth to new and different styles. The blues, a quintessentially Black art form, has a vast and turbulent history that stretches back for centuries. Besides consistently evolving, the blues has also given birth to some of the biggest musical trends of the 20th century. Rock and roll can definitely be considered a descendant of the blues.

The Roots Of The Blues

The very earliest core of the music now recognized as blues comes from the musical tradition of the Griot of West Africa. When these people were enslaved and brought to America, they brought their music with them, and the Griot style of expressive, narrative song soon became a favorite among the downtrodden slaves of the South.

The Civil War brought emancipation, but not an end to suffering. Black Southerners, now laboring under economic discrimination and the sharecropping system, refined their music and incorporated European influences. For the blues, the adoption of the guitar as the instrument of choice for narrative singers was a key step.

White America first took note of this musical revolution at the start of the 20th century. “Ethnic” recordings and sheet music became popular with white audiences, and the blues started to have an impact on popular musical styles like ragtime, swing, and big band.

The 40s: The Blues Goes Electric

By the middle of the century, African Americans were leaving the South in droves, seeking more promising economic climates and settling in major urban centers throughout the US. This diaspora spread traditional Delta blues all over the nation, and remarkable advances were made by many Black blues artists.

The electric guitar became a staple of blues pioneers and innovators like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and B.B. King forged a brand new musical style that would come to impact virtually all the popular music that would follow it.

In this period, the blues evolved into “rhythm & blues,” but the key characteristics of blues music were also codified. These included the 12-bar structure, the AAB lyric pattern, and the blues scale with flatted thirds and sevenths.

Cracks In The Color Barriers

The post-WWII years produced incredible levels of prosperity in the US and a suddenly-affluent generation of young people was eager to hear something new. White musicians discovered what their public wanted to hear by examining the groundbreaking blues music being performed by their Black peers.

While early rock-and-roll artists drew inspiration from multiple sources as they developed the genre, the heart and soul of the new music was the blues. In many cases, blues songs and themes were outright appropriated; Elvis shot to stardom with songs like “Hound Dog,” an unaltered cover of a blues song first recorded by Willie Mae Thornton. Jerry Lee Lewis took inspiration from blues and boogie woogie, which is itself a blues derivative.

The 50s would see an increasing tidal wave of white artists re-recording and building on Black blues music. The 12-bar progression became the spine of many all-time rock classics. (Devotees included John Lennon.) The classic blues scale also became a foundational building block for rock; some of the all-time greatest rock songs (including The Who’s “My Generation” and The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”) feature the “ladder of thirds” derived from the blues scale.

Looking DeeperJimi-Hendrix

By the 60s, two important factors had altered the relationship between rock and
the blues. The first was that more curious white musicians delved back further into blues’ roots, resurrecting the concepts of original Delta blues and fusing them with other folk music traditions. Exemplified by the work of Bob Dylan, this “archival” interest in the blues only served to increase the amount of influence the blues had on rock music.

The other major step forward was the emergence of Black rock artists like Jimi Hendrix. While rock remained a disproportionately “white” genre for decades to come, the success of key Black stars helped to remind the nation that rock and roll was a flower growing from Black roots.

The indubitable strength and vitality of the blues are easily demonstrated by the fact that it’s still going strong today, right alongside younger genres that it had a pivotal role in creating. This key art form continues to influence and inspire musicians across a virtually endless range of styles, and the way the blues helped give birth to modern popular music in the 50s and 60s is one of the greatest artistic stories of the 20th century.

Robert Menne writes and plays music in his spare time. He runs a site, that shares the latest tips and advice about guitars and guitar playing, as well as the best video guitar lessons to help you learn to play guitar.

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