Rhythm and blues is a uniquely American form of musical style. Now it is usually known simply as “the blues.” Its history dates back to the Civil War and its unique sound helped bring about rock and roll in the second half of the 20th century.
The blues developed from the slaves’ music with African roots, field sung spirituals, ballads, church music, and other types of melodies born of the black traditions in the United States. The tunes were never written down: always memorized and shared orally. From its origins in the poverty stricken areas of the post Civil War Deep South, the blues made its way North to Memphis, Tennessee, where its popularity exploded in a big way.
The black composer W.C Handy (1873-1958) is widely credited with the blues’ exposure to a larger audience. He began publishing instrumental blues pieces in the early 20th century, and by the roaring twenties, recordings turned the blues into a national sensation. The blues’ influence on jazz at this time cannot be emphasized enough, and together, the two styles became an American classic.
Some of the blues singers who would ultimately influence rock and roll were born during the time when W.C Handy began publishing.
Willie Dixon (1915-1992) was a heavyweight boxer before learning to play the bass fiddle. During the 1940’s era in Chicago he cut records with his small group and made a name for himself. The legendary Chess Studios and Chess Records label produced some of the most famous blues music during the 1950’s, and Dixon was the man in charge. The “Chess sound” came to influence many modern artists, including the Rolling Stones.
Muddy Waters (1915-1983) was another fixture at Chess Records, along with the equally legendary Bo Diddley. Waters (real name: McKinley Morganfield) wrote a lot of his own tunes and was a busy vocalist in the business. He was known for singing about the “hard life” of the regular black working man. His style was not the hesitating lament that characterized the early blues: instead, he infused his vocalizations with power and intensity.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959) led a terribly hard early life, and even claimed to have worked as a prostitute during the 1930’s. While living in Harlem, she found her true calling while singing for tips in clubs. Her voice was unmistakable: she sang each song with intense emotion and intimacy, manipulating the words and tempo to suit the effect she tried to create. Hard living and drug abuse ended her life early, but she left an indelible stamp on the blues.
These are just a few of the many great artists whose distinctive styles have added to the rich sound of the blues over the decades. Taken together, these musicians and composers have created a distinctly American contribution to the world of music.
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