What is Blues?

In his documentary, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Mississippi Delta Bluesmen, William Ferris presents multiple experiences that occurred as a result of blues music. The short film touches on a variety of narrations concerning blues. These narrations create a perspective about what really makes the blues. The blues is complicated in its identity because it has a diverse meaning. It ranges from a feeling to a musical style or musical form. Blues, in all aspects, has been a powerful musical genre for expression ever since truly emerging in the late nineteenth-century. It is important to understand blues has often articulated a story of troublesome dilemmas. Blues was created and flourished not only for the sound and structure, but also for the meaning behind the music.

Blues music in African American culture emphasizes the story being told within the lyrics and uses unique sounds and timbre of instruments to compliment the story.  Accounts of the blues in Give My Poor Heart Ease: Mississippi Delta Bluesmen extend from B.B. King to a barber in Clarkesdale, Mississippi. Therefore, the documentary shows that blues can be found anywhere and the blues can impact anyone. As shown in Give My Poor Heart Ease: Mississippi Delta Bluesmen, a common place to find the blues was within work songs. Work songs are considered by many to be the birthplace of blues. African slaves, transported to America by the slave trade, sang songs while working on southern plantations and continued even after African Americans were no longer enslaved. These work songs served a variety of purposes. Workers adopted singing while working as tools to coordinate work, produce efficiency, and provide entertainment. Singing the blues became common with monotonous labor. The work songs usually followed an antiphonic musical texture along with blues melodies.

The YouTube video above is a perfect example to demonstrate the purpose work songs served in terms of function and musical form. The video is of a song entitled “Rosie” recorded in 1947 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. “Rosie” was produced by inmates at the penitentiary who were required to cut down large trees. The rhythm of the song coordinates with the sound of axe blows. Correlating the rhythm and the chopping sounds of the axes created safer working conditions and higher productivity. When examining the texture of the song, you can hear a call and response texture creating an antiphony.  The theme of the song reveals a common prison theme that is being in love with a woman, but being separated by prison walls. The second verse of “Rosie” contains the lyrics:


“Stick to the promise, gal, that you made me                                                                        Wasn’t going to marry till I go free.”


These lyrics exemplify the kinds of issues blues sought to express and continued to express as blues music expanded. “Rosie” is an example of the influence daily life had on blues and how blues facilitated story-telling pertaining to trials and tribulations.




Another example of a work song in African American culture is “Can’t You Line ‘Em”. Workers laying railroad tracks created this song. It is similar to “Rosie” in that it has an antiphonic texture and the rhythm is used for coordinating work. “Can’t You Line ‘Em” also uses a blues pitch and improvised lyrics. The improvised lyrics provide the workers with expression of freedom and creativity.

While it is true that work songs followed a blues form and style, they are also considered blues in the sense of emotion. “Rosie” is a testament to the emotion factor blues played in African American culture. The fact that the lyrics are about a woman that was left behind shows that prisoners were saddened by this harsh reality and got the “blues”.  Multiple interviews in Give My Poor Heart Ease: Mississippi Delta Bluesmen also show during the time blues was becoming more widespread, emotion had to be a key ingredient. Music has long been a way to express different emotions, and the blues were no different.

The emotion-driven substance of blues continued throughout its development. If it were not for components such as work songs, artists seen in Give My Poor Heart Ease: Mississippi Delta Bluesmen, like B.B. King, might not have existed. As the popularity of blues increased in the time of B.B. King and beyond, it was also considered a style based on instrumentation and the way the music was performed. Blues will have a lasting impact on not only African American culture, but American culture as a whole. There is no clear explanation of the blues, but whether emotion, form or style it is all blues and the story behind it is significant.



Kopp, Ed. “A Brief History of the Blues”. August 16,2005.  <http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=18724#.ULVZ5M3Um_Y >.

Scaruffi, Piero. “Blues Music”. History of Popular Music. 2005.  <http://www.scaruffi.com/history/blues.html >.

Titon, Jeff. Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning. Print.

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