The blues puts into music what we all feel when it seems like we just can’t go on: lost jobs, friends, love, and dreams. But the very music that was made to express the depths of despair can, by its very artistry, lift us up again. The blues is also cathartic. It’s about overcoming obstacles.
The blues was born out of African American history. It traces its origins to plantation slavery, through the toiling oppression of the Jim Crow era, and into the days of escape to a completely new world during the Great Migration. Ultimately, the blues has its roots in African American work songs and chants, spirituals, and rural “field hollers.” It came to early maturity in the Mississippi River Delta around New Orleans, growing up alongside jazz, before branching out west, east, north, and finally around the world.
Here is a look at three of the many distinctive styles of the blues that developed in the United States throughout the mid-20th century, along with portraits of three of their leading creators.
Meade “Lux” Lewis’ piano-pounding boogie-woogie
The boogie-woogie blues, heavy on rhythm and percussion and with a varied and unpredictable style, was the first and only type of piano music born directly out of the blues. In boogie-woogie, the right hand’s riffs play off against the left hand’s ostinato drive.
Boogie-woogie flourished from the beginning of the 1920s until the end of World War II in 1945. The word “boogie” referred to a house rent party among people living in tenements in big cities with large African American populations. Rent parties opened up new ways to socialize while helping to pay their rent during hard economic times.
The ultimate source of the boogie-woogie style may have been the logging camps, gin mills, and other labor groups offering some of the few means of good employment available to Black workers in the early 20th century. Just as “field hollers” and hawking shout-outs were earlier, boogie-woogie rhythms were highly personalized.
Meade “Lux” Lewis (1905-1964) was one of the driving forces behind the popularity of boogie-woogie and its rolling beat. Born in Chicago, “Lux” started out playing violin, but turned to piano in the ‘20s. In 1927, he recorded the enormously popular “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” a pull-out-all-the-stops cascade of sound, and a now-legendary piece in the blues catalog. His musically sophisticated tunes also included “Whistlin’ Blues,” “Bear Cat Crawl,” and “Low Down Dog.”
By the mid-1930s, the song had fallen into obscurity, until Lewis was rediscovered while working in a car wash. Producer John Hammond reissued the song, and Lewis gained a brief nationwide fame before boogie-woogie faded from the charts.
In the late 1930s, Lewis joined fellow boogie-woogie masters Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson in a series of star-studded “six-handed” performances, and his three film appearances include an uncredited role as a bar piano player in the 1946 Jimmy Stewart classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Lewis died tragically in a car accident in Minneapolis when he was only 58.
Louis Jordan’s jumping sax
Jump blues was a highly danceable mix that blended blues, jazz, swing, and boogie-woogie. The style originated—just as boogie-woogie did—amid hard economic times, although jump blues was reaching widespread popularity as boogie-woogie was winding down. During and after World War II, full swing bands were too expensive, so bands scaled down to simply a rhythm section and often a single soloist. The smaller size enabled musicians to concentrate on innovating with a more fast-paced and uninhibited “jump” sound.
Louis Jordan (1908-1975), saxophonist, singer, movie performer, and bandleader of the Tympany Five, as well as an accomplished all-around entertainer known as the “King of the Jukebox,” is credited as the originator of this style. Jordan’s talent shone on numbers like “Jumpin’ at the Jubilee,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” and “Caledonia,” and he became one of the most popular and successful Black artists of the 1940s and ‘50s.
The vibrant, bouncy rhythms and clever lyrics of his songs—not to mention his high-energy, engaging stage presence—made the Arkansas-born Jordan wildly popular with audiences of all backgrounds. In fact, he is one of the few African American artists to gain widespread acceptance among white fans of his era. He had at least four million-selling hit songs over his career, and in earnings and name recognition ranked near Duke Ellington and Count Basie among African American musicians of his day. Numerous critics consider “Caledonia” (1945) to be the immediate ancestor of rock and roll. Jordan is also often credited as the father of rhythm and blues and rap.
The growth of Chicago blues followed right along with the growth of the Black population of major northern cities. During the Great Migration that began in the final years of World War I and that continued into the 1970s, some 6 million African Americans picked up everything and moved from the rural, segregated South to the industrial and at least nominally more accepting cities of New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago. And they took their music with them.
Alongside New Orleans and Austin, Texas, Chicago remains one of the three key cities involved in the development of the blues art form. The blues musicians who moved north continued the evolution of the sound as it played out in people’s everyday lives on street corners, in open-air markets, at rent parties, and a host of other community events.
Buddy Guy’s electrified Chicago
The rough-and-tumble action along the city’s streets was further inflected by emerging technologies that amped it up with an electric beat, forming the nexus of a new kind of club atmosphere. Chicago’s South Side saw numerous Black-focused blues clubs spring up, including big names such as Smoke Daddy, Ruby Lee Gatewood's Tavern, and Blue Chicago.
Also think Buddy Guy’s Legends. Buddy Guy, now age 84, is among Chicago’s blues greats. Born in Louisiana in 1936 as George Guy, the legendary guitarist is world-famous for his lightning electric riffs, accompanied by his deeply felt vocals. In the 1990s, Guy’s popularity soared again after an already distinguished four-decade career, and he continued touring and performing live until the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020. His hits include “Stone Crazy,” “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” and “Leave My Girl Alone.”
When barely into his teens, Guy made his own guitar and learned to play by listening to the radio, copying previous legends such as John Lee Hooker. After performing in New Orleans clubs, he relocated to Chicago in his early 20s and was discovered by yet another legend, Muddy Waters. Guy continued learning from the best, as he worked alongside performers like Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and Koko Taylor. He is the recipient of multiple Grammy awards, including a 2015 Grammy for Lifetime Achievement.
Rolling Stone magazine caught up with Guy in June 2020, when he noted that he was then in the longest hiatus of his career due to the nationwide shutdowns of performing arts venues. Guy’s club also suffered damage amid rising protests against police brutality. But the bluesman remained upbeat, saying that the outpouring of people into the streets demanding justice might be just what the country needs to finally set things right.