Varieties of blues

Although the blues has had a relatively short history, there are many varieties as well as grey areas on the periphery. Some of the key parameters are rural versus urban, place, and time. For a representative range of performers see Table 13.2.

Biographical data

Rural players tend to rely on more portable instruments and playing alone or in small numbers. They are more likely to have an idiosyncratic style (e.g. Skip James) - John Lee Hooker might well be classed in this way, although residing in Detroit for many years. Urban players have more opportunity to use a wider range of instruments, to play in larger bands, and to be exposed to a greater variety of musical styles.

Defining blues by place is problematic because many musicians are itinerant as part of their work and because of the role of migration in US history. Different types of blues and related music probably originated in different areas of the US, but the heartland seems to be the area round the southern Mississippi River. We know most about blues styles from recordings, which mainly occurred in urban settings. Distinct styles evolved in Chicago, New Orleans and the West Coast. Rural Louisiana evolved its own hybrid, Zydeco, influenced by different instruments (especially piano accordion) and the local French heritage.

Cross-cutting the geographical spread is the temporal evolution, influenced by fashion and technology. Technological variations included changes in instruments and the impacts of amplification and electrification. Fashions were determined by an interaction of musician and audience, so phases of migration could change a local style. There was a clear change in style in recorded Chicago blues from before and after World War II, coinciding with considerable migration. Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) became one of the leading exponents and band leaders of post-war Chicago blues. He was first recorded in 1941 in a rural Mississippi setting by a travelling musicologist from the Library of Congress, Alan Lomax. By 1947 he was being recorded in Chicago, initially with piano and bass, and with a strong rural Mississippi sound.20 This sound evolved as he added drums, amplified his guitar, and developed a more polished expression.21,22 No doubt his target audience consisted of migrants from rural areas who were becoming more urbanised. By 1960, this black audience was switching to even more urbane soul music; Muddy Waters recorded at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival and eventually his audience became white Europeans, with further changes in style to appeal to his new market.

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