Blues music is sometimes called the twelve bar blues because traditionally, a verse is twelve bars long. A bar is the same thing as a measure; it determines the length in time of the music. The Blues is entirely an American invention, having originated in the latter years of the nineteenth century in Mississippi and Texas. It soon moved to Chicago and became a central part of the music scene there. W. C. Handy, known as the father of the Blues, first chronicled this musical form in 1902 and his song “Memphis Blues” is thought to be the first twelve bar blues song published in 1912.
Blues music led to the development of Jazz, another purely American invention. It was also central to the beginning of what we now call rock and roll. Examples of jazz and rock and roll pieces that use the twelve bar blues structure are John Coltrane’s “Equinox” and the iconic “Rock around the Clock” recorded by Bill Haley and the Comets.
The true origins of the twelve bar blues, however, do not come from this country, but from West Africa. The twelve bar structure was used in African culture for centuries as a musical expression of grief and many other emotions. In West Africa mourners died their clothes blue and perhaps this is where the name “the Blues” came from. When African Americans began to be brought to this country as slaves they brought this musical form with them. This would have begun in the mid-seventeenth century. Of course, none of this was written down. It was part of the oral and cultural tradition of a proud race that was systematically being enslaved. It was not until the work of pioneers like W. C. Handy and the advent of musical recording in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that the Blues came to be recognized as a distinct musical form.
African-American slaves used this music as they worked in the fields. Long before blues music was being played in clubs and on stages it was sung in the agricultural fields of this country. It employed the sixteen bar structure. It was based on a call and response form that was known as the “field holler.” It was sung as a way to organize the work and to give the people a respite from the horrors of slavery. It was also used to express a sense of rebellion and resistance.
This West African tradition, which has now developed into what we call “the Blues,” has added to the diversity and richness of American culture. But most important, it is a tribute to the durability of the human spirit.
Lynn Jinks is an attorney with Jinks, Crow & Dickson, P.C.