Music for the Listener
Music for the Listener

Chapter 11

Folk & Blues Music

Chapter Ancillaries More Info: Charley Willis, Cowboy Songwriter
Folk music exists all over the world and is largely considered a regional, rural type of music; it is the music of the people. The term "folk" from the German "volkslied" (folksong) originated with a German philosopher (Johann Gottfried Herder) in the early 1800s.

Folk is also called traditional music or roots music, and reflects the traditions, language, and customs of a cultural group. This style of music emerges from the lives of the people and conveys aspects of their personal lives as well as events and circumstances that are important to them.

Characteristics of folk music:
  • It is transmitted orally
  • Lyrics are prioritized; they often tell a story
  • The singing and instrumental playing styles are informal, often performed by self-taught or untrained musicians
  • The music and lyrics are usually simple
  • In early folk or traditional music, the composer was typically anonymous
  • Usually performed on acoustic instruments (guitar, fiddle, dulcimer)
  • Folk music is usually strophic, meaning each stanza is set to the same music but the lyrics change.

  • This chapter primarily focuses on American folk music, which has its roots in music of the European settlers that arrived on the east coast as early as the 1600s and in the musical forms and styles that emerged from African American traditions in the nineteenth century.

    There is a debate in the musicology and ethnomusicology worlds about whether the blues, the primary style from the African American traditions of work songs, call and response, and field hollers that emerged from the experience of slavery, are considered a form of folk. According to the definition above, the blues would be considered a type of folk music because of the history of oral transmission, emphasis on lyrics and vocals, informal performance style, and simplicity.

    Folk songs are handed down from generation to generation and are taught and learned from memory rather than from notated or printed music. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, music scholars and folklorists started transcribing folk songs and publishing them, thereby preserving the tradition. John Avery Lomax was a pioneering musicologist and folklorist who collected and preserved American folk songs. He published a collection called Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910 which included Black cowboy songs "Git Along Little Dogies" and "Home on the Range". In the original edition of the text, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote the introduction.

    Charley Willis (1847-1930)

    Charley Willis was an African American cowboy who wrote many popular cowboy songs including Goodby Old Paint.

    There are several categories of folk music:

    The traditional folk music of the southern Appalachian Mountains was marketed as hillbilly music; it was often performed by string bands and was meant for dancing. This music came from the settlers of that area who were originally from the British Isles—England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Hillbilly music is the earliest form of country music, and this link demonstrates the thin line that separates folk from other popular genres.

    In the United States in the 1960s, there was a folk music revival sometimes called the Urban Folk Revival, that combined elements of traditional folk music with contemporary popular styles of the era. Artists such as Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Bob Dylan were the key figures in this "contemporary folk music" movement, and the songs were primarily protest songs about current events and social reform. The 1960s were a very turbulent time in the United States, and these artists were protesting the Vietnam War, supporting equality and the Civil Rights movement, and speaking out in support of unionization and worker's rights.

    Initially the instrumentation for these songs was the acoustic guitar, but in 1965 Bob Dylan caused quite a stir when he "went electric". Folk or traditional music fans were stunned by this new development because folk music is—by definition—acoustic. This essentially created a new genre, folk rock, which would go on to become very popular and influential to many artists and fans in the popular music scene at the time. Folk songs and popular songs are sometimes hard to distinguish from one another, and the creation of folk rock blurred this line further.

    The Blues

    To begin an exploration of the blues, we must begin by talking about the experience of slavery in the United States. Large and diverse groups of people from several different African countries were brought to the U.S. against their will from 1619 to around 1808 when the slave trade was abolished (although an illegal slave trade continued for some years after this date). At the beginning of the Civil War, in 1860, there were approximately 4 million slaves out of 31 million people in the U.S. Slavery was officially abolished in 1865, but segregation and other forms of systemic oppression have persisted. These experiences have shaped the history and the music that has emerged from Black communities in America in many ways.

    The people who were brought to the United States maintained forms of cultural expression, and over the years these combined with other African, European, and Native American cultures. In terms of music this manifested in several ways, but the most pertinent and influential example is the blues. The blues developed out of ancient musical traditions and were synthesized by African Americans in the southern United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The musical characteristics found in the blues (along with Black spirituals, another significant musical style from the 1800s) have shaped American musical styles for the past two centuries.

    The term “blues” has long been used to describe feelings of sadness and hopelessness. The easiest place to find pre-blues African musical traditions is Freetown, Sierra Leone. Songs sung by griots (pronounced "gree-oh") from Sierra Leone share characteristics with early American blues songs. Griots were oral poets: oral historians who had a high social standing because their society did not have a system of writing down history. Griot songs are similar to folk traditions from other countries and had the following musical characteristics:
    The blues styles also made use of the rough vocal tone and the duple rhythms, but the singers tended to follow accompaniment patterns more often. The difference between griot songs and the blues: blues functioned as a personal expression of an individual who suffered from a lack of human respectability, whereas the griot song was central to the dominant social structure in Africa.

    Call and response, which is a singing technique or structure, is one of the most significant musical elements that emerged from African American traditions. Call and response means that a leader sings out a phrase then the group sings the response to that phrase. This form came about during group manual labor, i.e. slaves working in the fields, and is an integral part of what we call work songs. Call and response is often heard in the blues.

    The field holler is another type of singing done while working. The field holler is different from the work song because it was done by an individual worker who laments about the tasks required of him/her. Field hollers had a less regular rhythm than work songs and were usually slower and included improvisation. Work songs and field hollers sometimes refer to a “captain”. These references to a captain are called signifying, which means the text/lyrics they were singing had a double meaning. To the slaves the song might really be about their discontent, but to the captain or overseer it seemed respectful. This signifying or double meaning shows up later in spirituals, Black gospel music, and is also an element of rap music. This is a common African American vocal tradition. Country blues originated in rural areas in the South.

    There are several sub-genres of the blues that reflect regional differences depending on where the music was created and they also represent the evolution of the genre. Country blues is an umbrella term for the earlier forms of the blues that were created in rural parts of the American south. The Delta blues, which came from the Mississippi Delta region, are a type of country blues and are significant for their impact on later styles of rock and roll. (Listen to Robert Johnson or Leadbelly). Delta blues are usually performed by just one person who sings and accompanies themselves on the guitar (often using a bottleneck). The classic blues were often performed by a small group of musicians and lead by a female singer. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith are two of the most renowned classic blues singers.

    New types of blues emerged with the onset of the Great Migration (1916-1970), which was when more than 6 million African Americans from the rural south moved to cities of the North and Midwest like Chicago, Detroit, and many others. They were in search of better jobs and wanted to escape harsh segregationist laws that existed across the South. Blues musicians that were from the South and had careers performing Delta and classic blues moved north and started forming larger groups. In the cities there were more musicians around to perform with, so rather than just one or two people the ensembles grew to incorporate guitar, bass, drums, piano, harmonic, and sometimes saxophone. This new type of blues became known as urban blues. B.B. King and his music are a great example of the sound of urban blues.

    Chicago developed its own style of urban blues, the Chicago blues. One reason for the development of this unique style of blues is that Chess Records was based there, and several Delta blues musicians moved to the area to record at Chess. One of the most renowned Chicago blues musicians was Muddy Waters; others are Willie Dixon, Etta James, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, and Buddy Guy. Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats recorded "Rocket 88" at Chess, and this is considered the first ever rock and roll recording. The Chicago blues was the first type of blues to use the electric guitar, and several artists who recorded at Chess are responsible for aiding in the creation of rhythm and blues and subsequently, rock and roll.

    The earlier styles of the blues, Country and Delta, were mainly comprised of songs about sadness and/or hopelessness, however, as time went on the subjects of the blues shifted slightly to include topics of love, loss, heartbreak, and other personal subjects. In the later styles of urban and Chicago blues, the lyrical topics became more lighthearted. In contrast, rhythm and blues was upbeat and happy, usually meant for dancing, with a strong backbeat and somewhat sexually-suggestive lyrics.

    Blue notes added to the general character of the blues. Blue notes may have come from pentatonic scales (five-note scales) which can be attributed to other world musics. The commonly lowered blue notes are the 3rd and 7th degrees of a major scale. In the key of C, the blue notes are Eb and Bb. The guitar lends itself to playing the blue notes because you can use a bottleneck to play in between the notes or (without a bottleneck) you can use string bending (using your fingers to push or pull the string causing a similar bending effect).

    The blues is based on a three-chord harmonic progression, and I-IV-V-I is most common. This is also called the 12-bar blues. A bar in music is also known as a measure, there were three sections of four bars each in the 12-bar blues. The I chord is called the TONIC, the IV chord is called the SUBDOMINANT, and the V chord is called the DOMINANT.

    The blues is a good avenue to explore the richness and variety of Black American musical traditions. Call and response, polyrhythms, repetition as an aesthetic strength, textural complexity, and lyrical expressiveness can all be heard in different types of blues. Polyrhythm is when two or more rhythmic patterns occur at the same time. A good example of this can be heard in Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues", where he plays a rhythm on the guitar and sings a completely different rhythm at the same time. Repetition can be seen and heard in the 12-bar blues, where the harmonic foundation is repeated several times throughout the song, but the lyrics or verses change with each repeat of the form. Syncopation and the backbeat are other significant rhythmic aspects of blues, R&B, jazz, ragtime, soul, funk, and hip hop. Syncopation is when the emphasis is on an upbeat instead of a downbeat, or a weak beat instead of a strong beat. A backbeat occurs when beats 2 and 4 of a 4-beat measure are emphasized. The backbeat is a defining rhythmic characteristic of rhythm and blues and rock and roll.

    The blues still exist and are performed today, in different iterations by artists such as Gary Clark Jr., Jack White, Joe Bonamassa, the Black Keys, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Shemekia Copeland, and many others.