Everybody is talking about the great "Blues Revival" of 1968 but there is much confusion as to what exactly Blues is and what is being revived. The bald term "Blues" covers an incredible number of musicians ranging from Robert Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton to B. B. King and Eric Clapton and it encompases therefore a corresponding diversity of styles. Isolating a common element out of this richness of musical product is necessarily a hard task.
As a starting point we might consider the essential musical structure of most of the music we call the Blues. In its basic form it has a three chord structure in a 1, 4, 5 progression. It usually has 12 bars though this can be varied to 8, 16 or any multiple of 4. It is usually in 4/4 time but it can be fitted to other rhythm patterns as well. There is a Blues chromatism or Blues scale which has African origins and differs from the West European scale. In order to play the correct Blues notes it is necessary to bend or flatten certain notes. This is achieved in different ways on different instruments. On the guitar the Blues notes are played by bending the strings which raises the note up a quarter tone into the Blues scale.
Certain notes are primary to the Blues. In any key the most important notes are the third and seventh scale degrees which are played naturally or flatted. Thus if you're playing in the Key of E in the chord of E the third scale note is G and the seventh is D. Another Blues note is the fifth scale degree (B in the Key of E). These notes give the music the distinctive Blues sound. Out of this basic framework black musicans have created over the years the remarkable body of material that one chooses to lump under the term "Blues."
To approach the question, What's Blues?, in another way, one could say that Blues is the history of America's 22 million oppressed black citizens. The Bluesman sings about his personal problems, of love--won, lost and forgotten--and of men and women crushed by the brutality implicit in the conditions in which they are forced to live. The Blues is about suffering but singing, dancing and listening to the Blues is one way of escapng from feeling "blue" for the moment. As Blues singer Albert King says "if you have ever been hurt by your main squeeze, down to your last dime, deceived by friends and ready to call it quits then you should dig the Blues."
Outside of the musical nature of the Blues, one can't get any more specific about the meaning of the word "Blues." The next question then is, just what of all this Blues is being revived today. This is a simpler matter because one can say with reasonable confidence that the Blues coming out of the contemporary rock-scene is a version of the Blues form which has been developing in Chicago and other Northern urban centers sinces World War II. However, this Blues, primarily dominated by electric guitar, had its origins, in turn, in the Mississippi Delta. We must examine the Mississippi Blues form first.
The most famous of the Delta Blues singer-guitarists are Robert Johnson, Son House and Skip James. These men played unamplified steel string guitar and sang about everything from bad women to Boll Weevils and droughts. Many of the songs of these people are sung by such contemporary supergroups as Cream, who have done Johnson's "Four Until Late," and "Crossroads" and James' "I'm So Glad." This Blues style reached its peak of popularity in the 1920's and 30's. Though many of the Blues men of this era are dead, their music was revived in the late fifties and early fifties during the folk music area, being copied by people like Tom Rush, John Hammond, John Fahey, Dave Van Ronk, Eric von Schmitt and even a singer named Bob Dylan. Few of these names, however, mean very much to the current Blues revival.
This Mississippi Delta Blues style began to lose its importance just before W.W.II as the blacks and their new Blues moved from Mississippi to Chicago in search of a better life. In Chicago they found a new, but not necessarily better, life. Life became industrialized, mechanized and electrified--and so did the music. In Chicago, Blues was played in bars and clubs and it was impossible to hear the music of unamplified instruments above the din of the people at the bar, of the cars in the streets, and of the elevated trains overhead. The result was that Blues became amplified. Guitars were electrified, the singing was carried over a public address system and drums, extra guitars, bass piano and other instruments were added to increase volume and provide music for dancing as well as listening.
This music is raw, rude and visceral and is delivered with relentless power. Yet in its own way it reflects the hard, fast, brutal realities of the modern urban ghetto which produced it. This music reached its peak in the late fifties and early sixties when Bluesmen like Elmore James, Sonny Boy Wiliamson, The Muddy Waters Band, B. B. King and others sold thousands of records in the black ghettos of the North and dusty darktowns of the South. Depits its success in black communiites, it was considered too raw, earthy and sexual for the white teenage audience and was black-balled by Top-40 radio stations.
It is this Blues alternately called Chicago Blues, Urban Blues or Rhythm & Blues, which is being copied in the Blues revival of 1968.
There have been Blues revivals about every 5 years in the history of American pop music. To be arbitrary (Rock-Blues freaks will forgive me for not mentioning the Yardbirds, who were about 4 years ahead of their time) the present Blues Revival started around early 1966 with the release of three albums, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, featuring Mike Bloomfiled on lead guitar, and Paul Butterfield on harp, The Blues Project at the Cafe Au Go Go, with Al Kooper on keyboards, and Danny Kalb on guitar, and from England, John Mayall and His Bluesbreakers, with Eric Clapton on guitar and John Mayall on keyboards.
These three groups have provided the fountainheads for the Blues supergroups which are now flourishing, in England and America. These groups are Cream and the self-proclaimed "Super Sessions" group with Bloomfield and Kooper. This nucleus of Blues groups (including the Yardbirds) are in some way responsible for the development of most of the contemporary popular groups, including Blood, Sweat and Tears (Kooper), defunct Electric Flag (Bloomfield), the Jeff Beck Group (Yardbirds), Led Zepplin (Jimmy Page of the Yardbirds) and Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green of the Bluesbreakers).
Despite the profusion and popularity of these Blues bands, a close scrutiny of the personnel of these groups will reveal few if any black faces among all the shoulder-length hair, mustaches, and midwestern, New York or English accents. This then is a white Blue srevival. Many of these bands play heavy funky music which sounds very Bluesy and technically it is Blues. But when Clapton opens his mouth and sings a line like, "I'm going down to Rosedale with my rider by my side," you can be sure he has never been to Rosedale, probably doesn't know where it is (it's in Mississippi), and obviously didn't write the song. The lyric is from Cream's version of "Crossroads," written in 1936 by Robert Johnson and the line itself doesn't actually appear in Johnson's "Crossroads" but is from another Johnson song, "Traveling Riverside Blues."
I'm not exactly knocking Clapton or white Blues. I like the stuff and I have bought albums by most of the groups that I have named. Many white Bluesmen are technically excellent and their music is far better than most of the garbage that is called Rock today. Nevertheless, white Blues is fundamentally imitative, and while Bloomfield and Clapton can play and charm the groupies, when they try to imitate the vocals of Mississippi sharecroppers they just don't make it.
If they don't make it who does? First, let us look at those black musicians who have gained recognition in this revival of an interest among whites for listening to, and playing, the Blues.
There are the familiar names like B. B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, and Muddy Waters. All these men, some of whom have been playing Blues for over 25 years, have benefited from this Blues revival. They have made the long trip from one night stands in the roadhouses of the South to weekend gigs at white rock palaces like the Fillmost East. After many years of hardship these men can now pay their debts and take a couple of nights a week off.