Book: “The Blues: A Very Short Introduction” — quick overview of recorded blues

12 12 2010
"The Blues" -- front

"The Blues" -- front

Blues as a musical genre has existed at least for 100 years. It started as a cultural phenomenon in the African American communities in the South, at the start of the 20th century. It has evolved, transformed itself to a style that was accepted across socio-cultural segments of the American society, as well as to large parts of countries with Western culture. It still exists, but no longer with as large a following as during the 1950s to 1970s. This book — “The Blues: A Very Short Introduction” —  tells the history of blues, from its birth, up to around 1960. It gives a good overview of this phenomenon, especially as it offers a different viewpoint compared to many other books about the blues.


The blues

The first real evidence of the use of the term “blues” appears in the first decade of the 20th century. When W.C. Handy in 1912 published “Memphis Blues”, the mood of that song became popular, and lots of musicians/singers started performing such music.

In 1920, Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues”, released on the OKeh label. It became a huge success, and many other record labels followed suit, and started recording blues songs. Initially they were released as “race records”, restricted to selling to the African American consumers.

The big performers were what was later called the “blues queens”, female singers backed by a band, singing the blues. A big name during that era was Ma Rainey, followed by Bessie Smith and many others.

Some years later, rural blues singers became popular, like Robert Johnson. Towards the end of the 1930s, small blues bands were appreciated by the audience, and several styles of blues began to be distinguished — Texas blues, California blues, Kansas City blues, etc.

After the second World War, what we now call urban blues became the rage. Electrified, rough, strong beat. The Chicago blues style became popular, with names like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter.

In the early 1960s, the British pop scene transformed itself into the British Rock scene, where many bands started playing classical blues, but in an up-tempo loud style. The Rolling Stones, in the early years, played a lot of blues, picked up from records that you could get from  rare specialist record outlets in Britain.

This caused the blues revival, where the black blues performers from the US now started touring in Europe, playing to enthusiastic white audiences. After some time, concerts started to be organised by US colleges and universities, and then the blues definitely spread out across the US.

In the latest couple of decades, the blues has receded from the main venues. There are still bands playing blues music, both white and black bands, but the earlier robust acceptance by the black communities has declined. The young African Americans have more or less adopted or evolved other musical styles that are not seen as evolved forms of the blues.

The book

The author, Elijah Wald, has in his book “The Blues: A Very Short Introduction” created a condensed history and characterisation of the Blues. In 120 pages, the reader is treated to an appetizing journey across 20th century blues history, and across American geography.

A basic assumption of this book is that we mainly only know about the blues through its recording history. That is, it is only in the last three or four decades that we have any direct knowledge about the way the blues functions in society and in cultural groups. Whatever happened before the 1950s is only preserved in the form of records, and in fragmentary (and not always reliable) recollections of old blues men and women.

For this reason, Wald explicitly takes the approach to discuss the evolution of the blues, as it is now known to us, in the form of recorded blues. He emphasizes that this is maybe not a true reflection of the blues as practised. The recording companies of course made their decisions about what records to release to what kinds of audiences, based on purely profit motives. Why record and release records that would not make a profit? As the African American communities in the first two decades of the 20th century was not regarded as an economically attractive target group, the African American form of the blues was out of scope for the record labels.

By a bit of luck, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” was recorded and released, and became an impressive commercial success in the African American communities. It seems that this production was more based on what Ma and her musicians performed live to black audiences, than on a packaging that should feel attractive to fairly well-off urban record buyers. The success of this record release caused a lot of record labels to enter this market, releasing race records specifically for that audience. But even so, the choice of artist and material were mostly chosen based on how well-known they were. So despite the fact that music in the genre of blues was now preserved for posterity, it was still a filtered selection of the blues as practised in clubs in the cities, and in juke-joints in the rural areas.

Wald discusses such issues throughout the book. This socio-commercial perspective of blues as a business venture provides a complementary view, compared to more analytical studies of the “pure blues”. For example, Paul Oliver has published a lot about blues as a lyrical art — see  Conversation with the Blues, Volume 1 (1965); Blues fell this morning: Meaning in the blues (w. Richard Wright, 1990). If the latter approach is a deliberate attempt to elevate the blues to the level of art (like poetry), what Wald does is similar to what Dashiell Hammett did to the crime story: “[Hammett] took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley”.

To further integrate blues into the American cultural sphere (rather than look for ways of keeping blues separate from other musical genres), Wald discusses the intertwining between blues and jazz, and between blues and country&western. The moral is that for blues as a general genre, there is a constant exchange of ideas and approaches between the blues sphere and these two other non-blues genres.

This may be a reflection of a changed attitude towards blues as a cultural phenomenon. It was only in the 1950s that blues started to be studied, and for a very long time studying the blues was regarded as not really on par with studies of other recognized kinds of musical styles. A form of music that was practised in juke-joints, and whose lyrics often were more or less sexually explicit, such things were not worthy of intellectual effort. So in order to get some recognition, several pioneers in the study of blues tried to purify the concept of the blues, make it into a form of artistic expression, and exclude everything that concerned commercial perspectives.

Well, for some time now, the blues is recognized as a worthy topic of academic study. And as the blues is regarded as something that has value in itself, there is now a more open attitude towards the way the artistic form relates to society in a broader sense. That is, now we are not bashed for looking at the commercial side of the blues.

So this is one of the added values that we get from this book … clarification of the blues as a business activity. Record companies make business. Touring artists make business. Business decisions are made. And Wald indicates ways in which such decisions have influenced the scope and direction of recorded blues. And in that way, how it has influenced our opinion of how the blues evolved from its early history to where it is now.

The author 

Elijah Wald

Elijah Wald

Elijah Wald is a musician who teaches blues history at UCLA. His books include How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, Global Minstrels , and Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.

From the publisher’s author presentation


Definitely a book that anyone interested in 20th century American music should read. It provides an interesting perspective on the phenomenon of the blues, and as such complements the more academic books that analyse the blues with a more intellectual view of African American culture.


Elijah Wald: “The Blues – A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2010), 152 pgs; ISBN-10: 0195398939; ISBN-13: 9780195398939 (book at

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