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Memphis Blues, jump blues, musical notation, musical form, classic blues

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Blues, type of music developed during the late 19th century by African American performers. Blues embraces a variety of styles, including downhome or country blues, boogie-woogie, classic blues, jump blues, and Chicago (urban) blues. Blues directly or indirectly influenced the vast majority of popular music during the 20th century, including jazz, rock, rhythm and blues (R&B), and gospel.

As a form and style blues most likely first appeared in the 1890s, a quarter century after the Civil War (1861-1865) officially ended slavery in the United States. Jazz and ragtime also first appeared around this time. Although freedom did not substantially change the material conditions of the majority of African Americans, it did have a tremendous effect on the mindset of those born into freedom. It is therefore probably no accident that the first generation born outside of slavery would develop a new music that more accurately reflected their worldview and the social situations in which they lived.

Blues Form

Blues can be distinguished both as a musical form and as a genre (style) of music. The typical blues form consists of a 12-bar harmonic pattern that subdivides into three groups of four bars each. (A bar is one measure and in musical notation is indicated by a vertical line). The 12-bar pattern usually follows a traditional blues chord progression. This form was standardized in 1912 with the publication of “Memphis Blues” by musician and composer W. C. Handy. From the beginning, the blues form became one of the standard harmonic structures used in jazz music, although jazz musicians have made the form much more complex over time by substituting and altering chords at various points in the pattern. The blues form has also been an important component of country music, R&B, and rock and roll.


Bowman, Rob, B.A., M.F.A., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Music, York University. Author of "Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Recors (1997)" and winner of a 1995 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes, "The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Volume 3: 1972-1975".

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