Home Page

Charlie Patton painting © Copyright 2004 Loz Arkle
Painting © 2004 Loz Arkle

Website © Copyright 2000-2011 Alan White - All Rights Reserved

Site optimised for Microsoft Internet Explorer

Background to Blues
Chronology of Blues
Artists & Bands Index
Featured Article
Blues Essays
Blues Memories
Blues Festivals UK/E10
Blues Festivals (UK) 09
Blues Festivals (UK) 08
Blues Festivals (UK) 07
Blues Festival Photos
Blues Interviews
Blues Movies
Blues DVDs
Masked Marvel CDs
Blues Internet Mags
Blues Video Clips
Streaming The Blues
Blues Masters
Blues Guitar
Blues Anthology
Blues Paintings
Blues Pilgrimage
Blues Courses
Best of British Blues
Top Twenty Blues
Blues Books
Blues Mall
Old Blues Adverts
Our Blues Links
Visitor Links
Blues Researchers
Cumbria Blues
Lancashire Blues
Lancashire Bands
Lancashire Links
North East England
The Midlands
Southern England
Hall of Fame
Resting Places
Blues Recipies
Guest Book
Blues Forum
What's New
Coming Soon
Search Me!
Search Google

Hero. Legend. Good Bloke.
John Peel OBE, 1939 - 2004

Red Lick Records



Blues Definitions

What is or are the Blues? - Being a series of definitions, descriptions and root sources compiled by Max Haymes in 1998.

This first one by U.S. author James Cobb, is one of the most important and relevant concerning the blues today:

1.  There is precious little evidence that the commercially inspired fusion of black and white music that lay at the heart of rock and roll has made a significant contribution to inter-racial understanding or that the new generation of white blues fans has much appreciation of the context of human suffering from which this suddenly trendy music evolved. Still as they see the promise of socio-economic advancement that was once assumed to be nothing less than their national birthright give way to diminished hopes and frustrated expectations, a number of Americans of every race in every region may one day come to appreciate the difference between hearing the blues and feeling them. If so, just as the blues once so clearly chronicled the failure of Delta society to live up to its ideals (or to celebrate ideals, consistent with the life experiences of the majority of its members), their remarkable musical legacy may eventually transcend geographic boundaries and racial barriers to focus critical popular attention on the discrepancies between the real and ideal in not only regional but national life as well.” (“The Most Southern Place On Earth”. James C. Cobb. 1992? p.305.)

2.  “...the blues idiom and tradition can be seen as a rejection, or, at least, a re-evaluation of Western forms”.(”Black Talk”. Ben Sidran. Holt, Rhinehart & Winston. New York. 1971. p.32.)

3.  “I’m afraid I came to think that everything worthwhile was to be found in books. But the blues did not come from books. Suffering and hard luck were the midwives that birthed these songs. The blues were conceived in aching hearts.”
W.C. Handy, “Father of the Blues”. (New York, 1941), 80”. (“Beale St. Black And Blue”. Margaret McKee & Fred Chisenhall. Louisiana State University Press. 1981. p.100.)

4.  “You get anger, you get frustration, you get melancholy (in the blues). There’s a stringent quality to them, there’s a strong quality to them. It’s not sentimentality. It’s not boo-hooing. It’s a been-down-so-long-down-don’t-worry- me kind of thing. It’s its own. That’s the reason the word came into the language. It’s its own kind of sorrow, its own kind of grief, its own kind of way of looking at life. I think they answer them... 
I don’ t know of any other people with a segment of music so important in their lives as the blues. I don’t know of any immigrant group. I don’t know of any Polish parallel, I don’t know of any Jewish parallel. I think it’s very significant that a very simple kind of rural expression catches the attention of the world”.
Sterling Brown, author, poet, critic and. teacher, in an interview at his home in Washington, D.C. June 6 1974.” (Ibid. p.p.l00-101.)

5.  “At the pulsating core of their emotional center, the blues are the spiritual and ritual energy of the church thrust into eyes of life’s raw realities. Even though they appear primarily to concern themselves with the secular experience, the relationships between males and females, between boss and worker, between nature and Man, they are, in fact, extensions of the deepest, most pragmatic spiritual and moral realities. Even though they primarily deal with the world as flesh, they are essentially religions. Because they finally celebrate life and the ability of man to control and shape his destiny. The blues don’t jive. They reach way down into the maw of the individual and collective experience.”
Larry Neal, “Any Day Now: Black Art and Black Liberation.”,
In Woodie King and Earl Anthony (eds.), Black Poets and Prophets (New York, 1972), 152.

“Behind the blues, there is really a bit of hidden gaiety. There’s a spirit of willingness to go on living despite all the sorrow and weariness the singer feels.”
Nat D. Williams, in an interview in the Press-Scimitar, January 12, 1970.

(Above quotes from McKee & Chisenhall. Ibid. p.101)

6.  James Baldwin claims that while the blues express the pain of black experience they also bring relief, even joy.

"Now, I am claiming a great deal for the blues; I’m using them as a metaphor. . . . I want to talk about the blues, not only because they speak of this particular experience of life and this state of being, but because they contain the toughness that manages to make this expe­rience articulate. . . And I want to suggest that the acceptance of this anguish one finds in the blues, and the expression of it, creates also, however odd this may sound, a kind of joy."

Baldwin does not see the contradictions as problematical because his life experiences as a black person in America often consisted of a joy born from pain.

The “bluesman, grappling with the fundamental issues of his existence, takes action against his fate by articulating his woes and thus, in effect, creating himself anew,” according to Kimberly Ben­ston. In other words, the blues transcend conditions created by so­cial injustice; and their attraction is that they express simultane­ously the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through the sheer toughness of spirit.’ That is, the blues are not intended as a means of escape, but embody what Richard Wright calls “a lusty, lyrical realism, charged with taut sensibility.”

(“Black  Pearls-Blues Queens of The 1920s”. Daphne Duval Harrison. Rutgers University Press. 1990. p.p.64-65)

7Talking about the blues, Victoria Spivey once said: “To pay too much heed to standardized blues tones and bars spoils the emotional impact inwardly for yourself. . . You must feel in your heart most of all, not in your brains or in the interest of your pocket. Let your manager worry about your pocket. Flat tones, whether they be hard or soft, show the freedom in blues singing. You should never know when they come out of you. The heart will tell the voice when.”
(“JAZZWOMEN”. Sally Plackskin. P36. 1968?)

8.  In a celebrated book on African American music, the editors note that: “Towards the end of his chapter, Sidia Jatta affirms that if there is anything rooted in human society which transcends the barriers of race and culture it is the language of music”. (“Repercussions”. Geoffrey Haydon & Dennis Marks (Eds.). Century Pub. London. 1985. p13.). And they include a quote by American poet, Henry Longfellow:” “Music is the universal language of mankind”. This generality is especially appropriate to the African-American music of our series, which is characterised above all by its endless power of metamorphosis in response to life’s shifting circumstances.” (Ibid.)

This generality is also true regarding the music that is always there in the background, re-surfacing unexpectedly and forming the basis of most modern music - the Blues. The Blues is survival music but quality survival!

9.  Pioneering U.S. blues writer, Sam Charters, in his quest for the origins of the Blues, discovered that “Things in the blues had come from the tribal musicians (in W. Africa) of the old kingdoms, but as a style the blues represented something else. It was essentially a new kind of song that had begun with the new life in the American South”. (“Roots Of The Blues”. Sam Charters. Quartet Books. 1982. p.127.)

On concluding the above book, subtitled “An African Search”, Sam Charters seems to be saying that West African culture, and music in particular, was already caught up in a great Europeanisation process and indeed also heavily influenced by Western societies in general. The only links with the remnants of African traditional styles of song were in the past, through the time machine of oral transmission, which runs parallel with my own conclusions in Europe and the U.K. of course, Charters only covered parts of West Africa and. mainly coastal areas at that. He did make a journey inland to Senegal, but surprisingly, did no recording there; surprisingly, since by his own admission he thought that his search for the roots of the blues would bear more fruit inland away from the coast.

10.  Interestingly, an African composer/guitarist, Francis Bebey, born in the same year as Charters, in Cameroon, uses words to explain his music which describes the blues almost to a ‘t’. “In fact, African music..., is without doubt one of the most revealing forms of ex­pression of the black soul. The effort to understand it may he hard, but the reward will be all the greater. Under a rather forbidding exterior of unmelodious noise, peculiar notes and scales, rudimentary instruments, and strange tonalities, lies the whole of African life and the expression of all its many human qualities.” (“African Music - A People’s Art”. Francis Bebey. 1969 p.16.). And the African singer “...recreates a world of 1aughter and pain, mockery and praise; and it throws open the gates of time to reveal a glimpse of the future .“ (Ibid. p130.). .So it is also with the blues singer.

11.  “As an art form - or art forms - jazz music has developed more or less concurrently with the blues and has been continually fed and re­vitalized by it. It was the blues that sparked jazz into life, that sep­arated it from the music of the street parade or the ragtime pianist. And if there is any common factor that unites the widely divergent forms of jazz that have originated, flourished and in some instances already died… .it is the continued stimulation of the blues. How he plays the blues, his instrumental adaptation of the vocal blues, is still the criterion by which a jazz musician of almost any school is evaluated.

If jazz has depended on the blues for one of its essential qualities, the opposite is not the case. The blues has been influenced very little by jazz: few blues singers are aware of jazz musicians and their music, except as important figures who have made their way in a predominantly white world. Louis Armstrong and Count Basie will be known and their music enjoyed, and they typify, along with much more blues-orientated musicians like Ray Charles, the achievements of a select few of the Negro race. But if jazz had never existed the blues would have flourished very well without it.” (“Blues Off The Record”. Paul Oliver. The Baton Press. 1984. p285.).

12.  Radical, black U.S. writer, Richard Wright noted that “...the most astonishing aspect of the blues is that, though replete with a sense of defeat and down-heartedness, they are not intrinsically pessimistic: their burden of woe and melancholy is dialectically redeemed through sheer force of sensuality, into an almost exultant affirmation of life, of love, of sex, of movement, of hope. No matter how repressive was the American environment, the Negro never lost faith in or doubted his deeply endemic capacity to live. All blues are a lusty, lyrical realism charged with taut sensibility.” (Richard Wright in the Foreword to “Blues Fell This Morning”. Paul Oliver. Rev. Ed. 1990. 1st. pub. 1960. Cambridge University Press. p. xv.).

13.  “The blues is in my blood, you know? I can’t play, can’t sing nothin’ else. And I don’t want to,’ cause the blues is for me. It’s like a shoe,...you take a number seven shoe you sure can’t wear a size four. You wear the one that fits. The blues fit me.” (Muddy Waters in “Jazz Monthly”, Jan 1959. Quoted in “Blues Off The Record”. Ibid. p.261.)

14.  Excerpt from a Paper delivered to the “Mosaic Of Texas Culture” “Blues Come To Texas Lopin’ Like A Mule”. Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. 3/4 April, 1997. By Max Haymes.

“The Blues is primarily a VOCAL music as sung by working-class blacks, who originated from the Southern states. These include Georgia, Alabama, both Carolinas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Northern Florida, and East Texas. Here in the late 1990s, the Blues have become multi-racial and can be heard from Tokyo to London to San Francisco Bay. The Blues is on the one hand a state of mind; and there again it is a persona of neb­ulous human form with supernatural tendencies. As writer, Giles Oakley, puts it,” the blues singer does not pass “Go” and does not collect 200”. (“The Devil’s Music”. Giles Oakley. B.B.C. Rev. Ed. 1983. p.?).

In the words of the Blues singer, the Blues can be:
“a low-down shakin’ chill,
An’ if you ain’t never had ‘em, child I hope you never will.

or the:
“Blues ain’t nothin’ but a woman lovin’ a married man, 
Can’t see ‘im when she wants to, gotta see ‘im when she can.

And the Blues is:
“Gettin’ caught in a rain of soup an’ ain’t got nothin’ but a fork”.

It affects a person so that it:
“hurts my feet to walk, 
an’ my lovin’ tongue to talk”.

And in extreme cases, as Lonnie Johnson graphically describes:
“Blues an’ the Devil, is your two closest friends; 
The blues will leave you with murder in your mind, 
That’s when the Devil out of Hell, steps in”. 
(Devil’s Got The Blues” Lonnie Johnson. 1938.)

The blues is everywhere, not only in the wind, as Oakley says, but in the singer’s house:
“Woke up this mornin’, blues all in my bed,
Went to eat my breakfast, an’ blues is in my bread.”

The blues can be a potential enemy:
“The blues got after me, dodgin’ from tree to tree.”

Or a possible employer:
“Good mornin’; Mr. Blues, Mr. Blues how do you do?
I ain’t doin’ nothin’, an’ I would like to get a job from you.”

Yet, rather than succumb to total depression, the blues can uplift a person’s spirits. For above all else, the blues is a music of survival. Although a singer generally uses the first person “I” as in “I woke up this morning” or “My baby caught the train and gone”, any black listener could identify with these lines and the singer knows this. And she/he can draw on an almost unassailable feeling of solidarity with the rest of the black community. This inner strength helps develop a central philosophy of the Blues, which sustains an individual throughout their life. This is born out by statistics which showed that numbers of suicide cases were much lower among the working-class blacks than their white counterparts in the first half of this century. Part of this central philosophy is an inherent sense of humour. As portrayed by Memphis guitarist, Furry Lewis, in 1928:
“I went to the I.C. train, leave my head on the I.C. track;

I.C. train, leave my head on the I.C. track.
Then I see it comin’, Lord, an’ I snatched it back.”
(“Cannon Ball Blues”. Furry Lewis. 1928.)

This strong sense of solidarity in the Blues is reflected upon by a guitarist/harp blower from Georgia, named Buddy Moss during the Great Depression:
“Some people talk about money, but I ain’t got none.(x2
But I’m so g1ad I ain’t the only one.”
(“Cold Country Blues”. Buddy Moss. 1933.)

A quotation from celebrated white jazzman Mezz Mezzrow, captures the spirit of the Blues completely: “..it was a celebration of life, or breathing, of muscle-flexing, of eye-blinking, of  licking-the-chops, in spite of everything the world might do to you. It was a defiance of the undertaker. It was a refusal to go under, a stubborn hanging on, a shout of praise to the circulatory system, hosannas for the sweat-glands, hymns to the guts that ache when they’re hollow. Glory be, brother! Hallelujah, the sun’s shining! Praise be the almighty pulse! Ain’t no­body going to wash us away. We here, and we going to stay put - don’t recognize no eviction notices from the good green earth. Spirit’s still in us, and it sure must get to jump.” (“Really The Blues”. Milton ‘Mezz Mezzrow & Bernard Wolfe. Random House. NY.C. 1946. p324.)

The lyrics of the Blues were all-important to the black listener. (“Blues Come To Texas Lopin’ Like A Mule”. Max Haymes. 1997.)

15.  The following is quoted by Carl Sandburg:

“0 Lord, let it rain,
Wet my little dress!
So that corn will be cheaper
And I can fill my belly.”

This translation from hieroglyphics on an ancient Egyptian temple is among the oldest known songs of working people. (“The American Songbag”. Carl Sandburg. Harcourt, Brace & Co. New York. 1927. p362.)

16.  “When I sing the blues, when I’m singing the ‘real’ blues, I’m singing what I feel. Some people maybe want to laugh; maybe I don’t talk so good and they don’t understand you know? But when we sing the blues - when I sing the blues it come from the heart. From right here in your soul, an’ if you singing what you really feel it comes out all over. It ain’t just what you saying, it pours out of you. Sweat runnin’ down your face" (Muddy Waters talking to Paul Oliver in “Backwoods Blues”. Compiled by Simon Napier. 1968. p.13. From “Blues Unlimited” magazine.)

Legend used in Blues Transcriptions

vo.= vocal
gtr.= guitar 
bjo.= banjo 
vln.= violin 
bs.= string bass 
b.bs.= brass bass (tuba, etc.) 
pno.= piano
im.bs.= imitation bass (T-chest bass, etc.) 
hca.= harmonica
mand.= mandolin 
unacc.= unaccompanied 
cor.= cornet 
clt.= clarinet

Back to What is the Blues?

Website and Photos © Copyright 2000-2009 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
Text (this page) © Copyright 2000 Max Haymes. All Rights Reserved.
For further information please email: alan.white@earlyblues.com