The history of the blues is one that is splattered with irony, and drips with racial judgement. It was invented by black people, yet popularised by white people. Only black people are said to be able to play it well, yet the market is saturated with white players. That’s the racially ironic nature of the blues – a genre whose influence is often forgotten today.

To some the blues is envisaged through old, suit-wearing, wrinkled, black men playing worn-out acoustic guitars; to others the blues is Eric Clapton – or his white, Stratocaster-wielding, British counterparts – and to others still the blues is just something that they read on Wikipedia as being an influence to Jack White. The blues of today has become very diverse, and often goes unacknowledged for its role in shaping the landscape of the popular music that we see before us today. Keith Richards was the first to admit this in an interview for The Stones’ 22nd album, A Bigger Bang; “If you don’t know the blues… there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”

Keith churning out some blues

If this relatively old musical genre is so far reaching and has been so filtered and altered over the years, then what can we call the blues of today? Are the blues currently being diluted into the white mainstream until they disappear into the history books as ‘just an influence of rock n roll’, or are the ‘white man’s blues’ a valid part of the genre?

The long history of the blues, whose origin almost perfectly coincides with the first sound recordings, certainly contributed to its altering and ever changing form. This manner in which the blues has so drastically changed is extraordinary for a genre which is only based around a simple three chords. The simple roots of the blues, which is expressed through repetition – both musically and lyrically, started growing during the early 1900s where, in the ‘Deep South’ of America, the blues were sluggishly conceived.

These roots slowly spread amongst the African-American population, and, by the 1920s, early recordings of blues music began in earnest. At this early stage the blues were focused almost entirely on a black audience and were performed almost entirely by black people.

This ‘first wave’ of the blues brought about performers who, although at the time did not achieve either commercial or critical acclaim, are now considered to be – by some – what the blues is all about: sad and solo black men with acoustic guitars, just crying an unheard cry to the dismissive world. Artists like Robert Johnson, Son House, and Blind Willie McTell are prime cuts from this period of the blues. Although their music made an unbelievable contribution to music, their songs were soon forgotten by the masses.

The only known photographs of Robert Johnson

The music which emerged from these artists was as rough if not rougher than the places, conditions and feelings which these musicians were singing about. The pure emotion that emanated from these early recordings was hugely influential to the next generations of musicians that went on to emulate them.

Eric Clapton was part of this new wave of musicians in the 60s who made a musical, Columbus-like voyage to America, and ‘discovered’ this music. He admitted his particular love of Robert Johnson in his autobiography: “At first the music almost repelled me, it was so intense, and this man made no attempt to sugar-coat what he was trying to say, or play… [but,] after a few listens, I realized that, on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man’s example would be my life’s work.”

Eric Clapton's 2004 Robert Johnson cover album

It was during this period that Clapton and Co. started to mix the blues with rock, and create a monster which still breathes today. This new generation of hip musicians acted as a Martin Luther King figure, unifying the black side of the blues with the white side of rock. Despite the irony that it took some white, British kids selling black America’s music back to them for the blues to gain popularity, these youngsters opened up a chasm of musical expression and exposed many people – particularly Americans – to what had been sitting around in their back garden for years.

This ‘British Invasion’ brought about bands like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and, of course, The Beatles – who effectively received the gift of blues from America, repackaged it, and sold it back to them. Muddy Waters made a snipe at Mick Jagger about this phenomenon, saying that “He stole my music, but he gave me my name” – the bitter/sweet nature of the blues perfectly articulated.

Mick Jagger and Muddy Waters

Although some blues purists, who don’t want their sacred, ‘Aryan’ genre to be tainted, would disagree, this mixing of musical styles and race was responsible for some of the best mainstream music that the world has ever heard. These new musicians effectively created a haze (which was also ironically mimetic of their sobriety) between genres, fogging up the distinctions between what rock is, what pop is, and what is the blues are.

It was this synthesis of genre, the grey area that was created between the white and the black music, which made the blues much more difficult to definitively classify. It was in this grey area that the beauty of musical mixing became apparent.

Then – in typical blues fashion – this amalgamated, musical nirvana slowly disintegrated. Blues however has proven over the years to have more lives than a cat, constantly dying a short death before being reincarnated. This reincarnation almost always takes place in a different musical body – whether it is mixed with jazz, rock n roll, folk, country or soul.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Blues is reincarnated again, this time in the body of alternative rock. It was called post-punk revival by some, but it was just the blues rearing its head once again, further amalgamating and diluting the purity of blues. However, just like in the 60s and 70s the music produced by this blues-inspired-monster was amazing, and found mainstream prominence.

Bands like The Black Keys, The White Stripes, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The Kings of Leon all emerged from this movement, once again exposing a new, mainstream generation to the blues – albeit blues full of pounding rhythms and distorted guitars, which have been much altered from their humble, acoustic upbringing.

The White Stripes

The blues even travelled internationally during this movement, where they were poached by places like Japan – through bands like The 5.6.7.8’s – proving that the genre, born out of raw emotion, truly is a universal language.

These waves of blues-inspired movements just keep coming, and, although there are sometimes lapses between sets of these waves, the new waves that arrive are filled with great music. For a genre that is obsessed with death, it seems impossible that it will be killed off – the blues-monster has a tendency to just sprout a new head and carry on fighting.

Even in South Africa, the blues have recently been revitalised – by the likes of Shadowclub and Taxi Violence. They are able to mix their ‘rocky’, South African sound with the feel of the blues. This band therefore illustrates the adaptable nature of the blues which, having been passed over the Atlantic many times is also present locally.

Shadowclub - Bringing the blues to SA

The blues has changed a great deal since its inception – being influenced racially, culturally and musically – and, no doubt will continue to change and adapt even more over time. Yet, one thing that has not changed as the blues have progressed is the emotive pull that the genre provides. The feel for the blues, although expressed in different ways, will always remain the same. That’s the essence of the blues anyway, the feel. As Jimi Hendrix famously said, “The blues are easy to play, but hard to feel.” So, as long as artists can recreate that musical feel of the blues, and audiences are there to appreciate it, the blues will remain immortal.

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