The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Blues: A form of folk music, characterized by slow, melancholy lyrics and the use of flatted “blue notes,” that arose in African American communities in the American South in the late nineteenth century after emancipation from slavery. Blues give voice to feelings of despair, grief, worry, and oppression and often address themes of death, hard times, and loss of love. African American blues musician B. B. King famously called the blues “an expression of anger against shame and humiliation.”

Tracing the history of “Negro music in white America” in Blues People (1963), poet and music critic LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) located the “immediate predecessors of blues” in “the Afro-American/American Negro work songs, which had their musical origins in West Africa,” but emphasized that the blues were “a native American music, the product of the black man in this country.” Early blues songs, which drew on forms ranging from work songs such as field hollers and shouts to Negro spirituals to the traditional British ballad, were generally improvised and sung a cappella. The typical blues form, established around the turn of the twentieth century, is a twelve-bar, three-line stanza in which the first and second lines are identical, as exemplified by the following verse:

Gwine lay my head right on de railroad track,

Gwine lay my head right on de railroad track,

’Cause my baby, she won’t take me back.

The blues gradually evolved to become a form of entertainment, one that continued to advance an intensely personal account of the African American experience but that changed considerably in style with the addition of musical accompaniment and the infusion of developing elements of popular American music. Noted twentieth-century blues singers included Ida Cox, Sara Martin, Bessie Smith, and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who pioneered what is sometimes referred to as “classic blues.” The following excerpt from the song “Put It Right Here or Keep It Out There” (1923), written by Porter Grainger and sung by Smith, is an example of a classic blues song:

I’ve had a man for fifteen years, give him his room and board;

Once he was like a Cadillac, now he’s like an old, worn-out Ford;

He never brought me a lousy dime and put it in my hand;

So there’ll be some changes from now on, according to my plan:

He’s got to get it, bring it, and put it right here,

Or else he’s goin’ to keep it out there;

If he must steal it, beg it, or borrow it somewhere,

Long as he gets it, I don’t care… .

During the Harlem Renaissance, a literary and cultural movement centered in Harlem in the 1920s, novelists and poets as well as musicians and dance bands began to celebrate and rework this form of artistic expression. Over time, the term blues came to refer not just to lyrics or songs recounting the African American experience but also to works by other American writers and musicians exploring the trials and tribulations of growing up outside the confines of established American culture.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” (1914); works by Harlem Renaissance novelists such as Jean Toomer (Cane [1923]) and George Schuyler (Black No More [1930]), as well as much of the poetry, fiction, and drama of Langston Hughes. Jazz dance bands and orchestras inspired by the blues included those of Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Luis Russell, and Louis Armstrong.

Examples of contemporary blues literature include Toni Morrison’s novels Song of Solomon (1977) and Jazz (1992), as well as Sheldon Epps’s dramatic musical revue Blues in the Night (1982). The Robert Cray Band’s albums Bad Influence (1983) and False Accusations (1985) are viewed as inheriting a black blues tradition that has, more recently, spilled over into other racial and ethnic tributaries. Notable examples of the blues most widely defined include “Reservation Blues” (1995) by Jim Boyd (a Colville Confederate Tribe member) in collaboration with Sherman Alexie (a Spokane Indian), as well as white blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan’s posthumous album Blues at Sunrise (2000).