City Blues #4
The History of City Blues
Blues, the term may have come from the term “blue devils”, meaning melancholy and sadness; an early use of the term in this sense is found in George Colman’s one-act farce Blue Devils (1798). One alternative explanation for the origin of the “blues” is that it derived from mysticism involving blue indigo, which was used by many West African cultures in death and mourning ceremonies where all the mourner’s garments would have been dyed blue to indicate suffering. This mystical association towards the indigo plant, grown in many southern U.S. slave plantations, combined with the West African slaves who sang of their suffering as they worked on the cotton that the indigo dyed eventually resulted in these expressed songs being known as “the Blues.”
The lyrics of early traditional blues verses probably often consisted of a single line repeated four times. It was only in the first decades of the 20th century that the most common current structure became standard: the so-called AAB pattern, consisting of a line sung over the four first bars, its repetition over the next four, and then a longer concluding line over the last bars. Two of the first published blues songs, “Dallas Blues” (1912) and “Saint Louis Blues” (1914), were 12-bar blues featuring the AAB structure. W. C. Handy wrote that he adopted this convention to avoid the monotony of lines repeated three times.
Kansas City blues is a genre of blues music. It has spawned the Kansas City Blues & Jazz festival and the Kansas City Blues Society.
Although Kansas City, Missouri is known primarily for jazz, it has also contributed to the history of and the preservation of the blues.
Kansas City did not enter into blues history until the 1940s. Kansas City blues artists Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner recorded a style of music called jump blues, which later provided the foundation for rhythm and blues, and later rock and roll. Charlie Parker dabbled in the blues in the late 1940s with his release of the hit “Now’s the Time”, a bebop jazz number that gave a nod to the popularity of the blues in Kansas City, by using the familiar blues pentatonic scale and blue notes.
The blues scene in Kansas City produced Jay McShann, Sonny Kenner, Little Hatch and Cotton Candy and the blues was popular in small nightclubs and after-hours jam sessions. Many Kansas City musicians would finish their “paying” gigs at weddings, jazz clubs etc. and then pack up and head to the 18th and Vine-Downtown East, Kansas City district to participate in all-night parties that would sometimes continue well into daylight. The 18th & Vine jam sessions continue today at Kansas City’s Musician’s Foundation. The Musician’s Foundation has immunity from liquor laws, and has not changed its outlook since the 1940s.
Blues is a musical form and genre that originated in African-American communities in the “Deep South” of the United States around the end of the 19th century from spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, is characterized by specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues is the most common. The blue notes that, for expressive purposes are sung or played flattened or gradually bent (minor 3rd to major 3rd) in relation to the pitch of the major scale, are also an important part of the sound.
Blues as a genre is based on the blues form but possesses other characteristics such as lyrics, bass lines, and instruments. Blues sub-genres include country blues, such as Delta, Piedmont and Texas blues, and urban blues styles such as Chicago and West Coast blues. World War II marked the transition from acoustic to electric blues and the progressive opening of blues music to a wider audience, especially white listeners. In the 1960s and 1970s, a hybrid form called blues-rock evolved.