Characteristics of the Three Genres of Blues
The United States have contributed a lot in the modern world. Along with the principles and other values that influenced society, one of the possibly greatest contributions of the country in the last known history is seen in the realm of music. Specifically, blues music has been considered as one of the genuine contribution of the American heritage to the global psyche. The musical genre originated in the States and has been noted to emerge from chants and spiritual praises of the African-American laborers in the early parts of the 1900s.
Studies have been considerably encountered problems in placing an actual definition of blues music as it is constantly being infused with the analysis of culture. According to Pincheon (2000, 22) studies on the musical genre could not discuss the blues without actually providing some insight on the context and the surrounding circumstances that blues music cleaves on. This will similarly be way that this study will treat the analysis of blues. Specifically, the study will look into the basic description of blues music, particularly its subgenres country blues, classic blues, and acoustic urban blues, as it is seen in literature. Moreover, the study will be focusing on the origins, lyrical content, and musical characteristics that these three subgenres possess. Thus, the observations and arguments that will be included in this paper will be based on articles and books relating to the American heritage, culture, and musical history of the country.
The following discussions will be providing a set of description on the fundamental elements surrounding the three subgenres of blues music. Discussions on the origin, lyrical content, and musical style will be presented. In the same manner, a presentation of the views of the existing literature on these subgenres of blues will also be given. Subsequently, the researcher will offer a critical view after every literature presentation on the topic.
In this part of the paper, specific characteristics on the origins and idiosyncrasies of the performances will be laid down in the following discussions.
Country blues is a subgenre of blues music that focuses primarily on rural folk expression. (Tirro, 1993, 56) It is normally called to denote styles like Southern blues, folk blues, or Delta blues. With these names connected to the said genre it is safe to assume that, same as the other types of blues, it originated from the South. However, specific allusions to the Delta means that it may well come from the more rural parts of the south.
Tirro (1993, 56) further noted that the actual origin of this genre is “lost in the past.” This is further noted as the perpetuation of the music is characterized as transferred through oral means. This means that the lyrical contents and possibly the performance of the songs may have been transferred from the original artist to another individual through word of mouth or through recollection of past performances.
This indicates that this type of blues has emerged way before known audio recording is in existence. It also denotes that the country blues that are heard of today may have been an interpretation or adaptation of the actual original version eons past.
A considerably exact definition of classic blues is seen in the work of Weissman (2004, 45) as he noted that it is a “marriage of the blues and vaudeville-theatrical musical styles, sung by women.” This means that the style involved in this subgenre comes from theatrical performances with particular influence of women’s emotional struggles. Thus, the performance factor appears to be the major element that distinguishes this subgenre with country and acoustic urban blues.
In the work of Gioia (1999, 16) he pointed out that this subgenre of the blues tend to be an offshoot of jazz performances in the 1920s and 1930s. Particularly, his account indicated that origins of such performances tend to have been derived from traveling shows from the south. It is thus needless to say that lavish performances and elaborate infusion of musical instruments comprising a live band is present in every show. This reinforces the claim of Weissman (2004) as he pointed the vaudeville element of the performances of classic blues bands.
Another subgenre of blues music is called acoustic urban blues, or plainly urban blues. Tirro (1993, 82) characterized this subgenre as a similar with classical blues, pertaining to big-band riffs, but with emphasis on the strings element of the band. Particularly, the saxophone has been placed in the limelight, as acoustic urban blues became one of the most sought after shows in the south. This indicates that classical blues and urban blues tend to have some similarities. A particular reference on the performance element as well as the roots from jazz is explicated in the said works of Tirro (1993).
Normally, blues music is held in a standard structure, particularly in the context of lyrics. The following discussions will be looking into the basic differences in the lyrical content of the subgenres of blues.
It has been described that country blues comes from the “functional aspect of the culture of the people,” which basically indicates that “it reflects their vision and their values.” (Tirro, 1993, 56) A basic instance of country blues is seen in the song Drunken Hearted Man performed by Robert Johnson. (Gioia, 1999, 13)
In looking at the lyrical content of the song, it does show some conformity with the standard held in blues music particularly shown in the repetition of lines and eventually pursued with a different line in rhythmic match with the repeated lines. (Gioia, 1999, 13) In the said song, Gioia (1999) characterized the content as sincere grief and lyrical intricacy. It is a wonder how in a span of several repetitive lines and restricted lyric content, country blues singers could convey an emotional range worthy of praise. This shows that standard lyrical construction of country blues tends to manifest a rather short stock of written content but evidently seen to have an overflow of emotion as it is performed by the bluesman like Johnson.
In comparison with the other subgenres of the blues, classical blues’ lyrical content tends to hold true to the standard as it tackles the ghetto struggles and attitudes of the 1920s and 1930s individual. (Tirro, 1993, 56) However, a particular difference in this subgenre is the use of the female perspective in advocating these social occurrences.
For instance, it has been noted that Bessie Smith’s materials normally compose of general contempt to “no good cheating men.” (Weissman, 2004, 38) She shares these characteristics with other famous classical blues singers like Ma Rainey. Though seemingly ambivalent at times, the classical blues tend to show indications of feminism among the American minority as it emulate the condition of women in the south in its lyrics and powerful emotional expressions of female independence and strength.
With regards to the lyrical content of urban blues, the absence of harmonica and the dominance of the saxophone manifest a shift to the a more sensual subjects. This is supported by the work of Tirro (1993, 113) as he noted that city or urban blues focused its subjects towards love and sex. Typical urban blues bands include the likes of BB King and T-Bone Walker. (Moore, 2002, 15)
The musical characteristics that will be discussed in this part of the study will be focusing on the actual structure of the subgenres of blues.
Essentially, country blues are the predecessors of the modern “rock’n’roll” music that play the mainstream today. (Moore, 2002, 40) Specifically, the said offshoot of country blues has similarly been described as a genre that infused electric instruments in the musical structure. It has done away with the conventional folk string instruments like the fiddle and the banjo. (Tirro, 1993, 56) Some distinctive characteristics of the country blues is emulated in the work of Gioia (1999, 13) as he pointed out that “instead the musician might often employ a "bent" note that would slide between these two tonal centers.” This means that unlike the normal structure in blues music, country blues does not rely heavily in the use of “blue notes.”
In the context of the actual structure of the genre, it has been noted that renowned country blues artists, like Robert Johnson, employs “a blues stanza might take twelve bars, twelve and a half bars, thirteen bars, even fifteen bars or more.” (Gioia, 1999, 14) This means that in this subgenre, the vocalists/performer tends to take ample amount of liberties in his/her performances. Restrictions of the basic twelve-bar form are merely a suggestion, thus versatility and freedom is seen in the performances of country blues as compared to the restricted forms of the other subgenres of the blues.
As indicated in the work of Gioia (1999, 16) classical blues tend to strictly adhere to the standards of blues music as described above. Basically, this may be caused by the element of performance infused in the nature of classical blues indicated in the earlier parts of the paper. Thus, the observations on the said subgenre tend to indicate that it was rather mechanical and restricted in a sense. This means that it has cleaved to a specific standard over the years and that it has considerably distinguished itself as a recognizable style in the context of the blues genre.
The musicality of the urban blues subgenre has been rather popular with its followers in the 1930s and the 1920s. There are studies claiming that this type of blues is the predecessor of modern pop music. (Ya Salaam, 1995, 351) Being an amalgamation of the heartfelt lament of country blues and the regard for showmanship and performance of the classical blues, this genre being the grandfather of pop music is rather foreseeable as seen in the current trends in music today. As stated by Gioia (1999, 16), these still adhere to some standards of blues music indicated above. However, the performers are at leisure to make their own type of music. The structure could be altered as well as the lyrical measure held in every performance.
The emergence of blues music initially encountered persecution from early American society as it promotes poor behavior and seen as violent by established conservative institutions. This may primarily be rooted in the fact that it is a form of music considerably new and different as that compared of the standard archetypes of the period. The failure to understand the contexts and even the depth of the songs in the said genre may similarly have triggered this level of unrest against it. Thus, it is safe to say that blues music, as seen in the mainstream today, is an implication of the social institutions and structures of early 18th century America.
Evidently, academics and scholars have realized this eventually as they equate the analysis of such genre to the culture of the African-American context. In due course, blues music has been accepted and even regarded as one of the primary heritage of American culture. It has veered away from being solely Black culture; it now represents the social settings and eventual revolutions that took place in American society.
In the same regard, the subgenres discussed above specifically emulate the different archetypes of cultures in the American society. Based on the characteristics and lyrical content of the discussed subgenres, it shows the plight of poverty and hardships encountered by the common man in the 1900s (country blues). In the same time, the image of the modern woman is also taken into consideration in the context of classic blues, with particular reference to the emotional troubles they have encountered which is still considered universal up to this date. On the whole, blues music represents a cultural representation of the micro environment of the United States as it manifest the social struggles of the modern American.
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