Blues Then and Now - The History of the Blues (Chapter 13, page 1 of 2)


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Chapter 13

After the Emancipation, musical instruments were used to accompany the blues. The more commonly used instruments were the harmonica, banjo and guitar. It was however, the guitar that the blues singers preferred for accompaniment because it provided a greater effect and background in their singing. Gradually the blues became an instrumental form of music. No longer limited to vocal music. Musicians could play the blues on their instruments.

With the passing of time, Negroes were slowly being introduced to brass and reed musical instruments. They taught themselves to play blues and jazz on these new European imports.

Many blacks learned to master these instruments, yet they still had the urge to sing a line in their musical breaks. But, when more and more musicians mastered their instruments, the blues began to change. Trumpeter Louis Armstrong and pianist Jelly Roll Morton were great blues singers as well as master of their instruments. The creation and development of the blues was mainly accomplished by illiterate musicians and singers who by the majority could not read music. Therefore, they had to improvise around a preset musical pattern. The most familiar pattern at the time was the twelve bar blues with a precise designated harmonic progression that was easily committed to the musicians memory.

The early blues form was very simply written requiring the three basic chord changes. They are the I-IV-V chords. The structure of the blues is simple and is mostly used in a twelve bar pattern with the chord progressions played at predetermined measures. They are, four bars of the I chord, two bars of the IV chord, two bars of the I chord, two bars of the V7 chord and two bars of the I chord. This is the exact original basic blues progression.

Originally, the blues was a personal and individual expression of feelings. It could be about a certain event, or an experience they had, or perhaps some form of hardship they had to endure or about every day life in general. Slavery, for example, provided lyrics for many blues people. The men sang about the inhumane treatment they received under the master's whip. The women sang about the many rapes and sexual acts they had to perform to both the slave master and sometimes to his wife or mistress. These were the lyrics associated with the early or primitive blues.

However, W. C. Handy, around the early 1900s saw the commercial value of the blues and began to update and modify the blues progressions. Gradually, the placement of the I-IV-V chords began to change in their location within the twelve bar blues pattern.

Basically, there are only six notes to a blues scale. They are arranged in the order of a minor third, a major second, a minor second, a minor second, a minor third and a major second.

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