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date: 18 October 2019


  • Paul Oliver


A secular, predominantly black American folk music of the 20th century, which has a history and evolution separate from, but sometimes related to, that of jazz. From obscure and largely undocumented rural American origins, it became the most extensively recorded of all traditional music types. It has been subject to social changes that have affected its character. Since the early 1960s blues has been the most important single influence on the development of Western popular music (see Popular music; Pop).

The most important extra-musical meaning of ‘blues’ refers to a state of mind. Since the 16th century ‘the blue devils’ has meant a condition of melancholy or depression. But ‘the blues’ did not enter popular American usage until after the Civil War; and as a description of music that expressed such a mental state among the black population it may not have gained currency until after 1900. The two meanings are closely related in the history of the blues as music, and it is generally understood that a blues performer sings or plays to rid himself of ‘the blues’. This is so important to blues musicians that many maintain one cannot play the music unless one has ‘a blue feeling’ or ‘feels blue’. Indeed, the blues was considered a perpetual presence in the lives of black Americans and was frequently personified in their music as ‘Mister Blues’. It follows that ‘blues’ can also mean a way of performing. Many jazz players of all schools have held that a musician’s ability to play blues expressively is a measure of his quality. Within blues as folk music this ability is the essence of the art; a singer or performer who does not express ‘blues’ feeling is not a ‘bluesman’. Certain qualities of timbre sometimes employing rasp or growl techniques are associated with this manner of expression; the timbre as well as the flattened and ‘shaded’ notes (produced by microtonal deviations from standard temperament; ...

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