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Country blues

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Country blues

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Country blues (also folk blues, rural blues, or downhome blues) refers to all the acoustic, guitar-driven forms of the blues. After blues' birth in the southern United States, it quickly spread throughout the country (and elsewhere), giving birth to a host of regional styles. These include Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, Texas, Piedmont, Louisiana, Western, Atlanta, St. Louis, East Coast, Swamp, New Orleans, Delta and Kansas City blues.

According to Richard Middleton (1990, p.142) folk blues "was constructed as a distinct discursive category in the early decades of this century [20th], mostly as the result of the activities of record companies, marketing 'old-fashioned' music to rural Southern 'folk' and newly arrived urban dwellers." Also contributing to the documentation of the genre were John and Alan Lomax, Samuel Charters, Paul Oliver, David Evans, Jeff Todd Titon, and William Ferris (all bourgeois, as pointed out by Middleton).

Country blues were constructed from "a much more heterogeous, fluid musical field" participated in by black and some white people including ragtime, early jazz, religious song, Tin Pan Alley, minstrel, and other theater songs (Oliver 1984 and Russell 1970). Blues was "defined...functionally - it was 'good time music' - or experientally - blues was a feeling - rather than by reference to any formal characteristics or stereotypes," though, "at the same time, many of those characteristics (pentatonic melody, blue tonality, typical chord progression and stanza patterns, call and response) could be found in other forms and contexts too: in hillbilly and Country music, gospel song, ragtime, jazz and Tin Pan Alley hits."

Titon (1977, p.xvi) points out, however, that "downhome blues not sound like the folk songs of singers like Leadbelly...yet...early downhome blues is best regarded as folk music...despite the dangers of the implication that if downhome blues is folk music, then downhome black Americans must constitute a folk group." (Middleton 1990, p.144)

Countering the idea of country blues as folk music is the blues individualism. Abbey Niles wrote that the blues have to do with "the element of pure 'self'." W.C. Handy wrote that they are able to "express...personal feeling in a sort of musical soliloquy" (both quoted in Levine 1977, p.222), and Robert Palmer (1981, p.75) states that the singer's "involvement becomes both the subject and substance of the work."

"The blues was the most highly personalized, indeed the first almost completely personalized music that Afro-Americans developed. It was the first important form of African-American music in the United States to lack the kind of antiphony that had marked other black musical forms. The call and response form remained, but in blues it was the singer who responded to himself either verbally or on an accompanying instrument. In all these respects blues was the most typically American music Afro-Americans had yet created and represented a major degree of acculturation to the individualized ethos of the larger society." (Levine 1977, p.221)

Middleton describes the rural blues artist as a wanderer and social outsider whose lyrical themes not surprisingly include loneliness, alienation, and travel. He and Keil (1966, p.76) suggests that blues artists may have served as "licensed" critics containing "unflinching the context of its time and place...was positively heroic. Only a man who understands his worth and believes in his freedom sings as if nothing else matters" (Palmer 1981, p.75).

Szwed (1969, p.118-9) argues that the "Blues arose as a popular music form in the early 1900s, the period of the first great Negro migration north to the cities...The formal and stylistic elements of the blues seem to symbolise newly emerging social patterns during the crisis period of urbanisation...By replacing the functions served by sacred music, the blues eased a transition from land-based agrarian society to one based on mobile wage-labor urbanism."


Notable country blues musicians

Son House
Charley Patton
Tommy Johnson
Robert Johnson
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Willie McTell
Sleepy John Estes
Fred McDowell
Robert Pete Williams
Skip James
Bukka White
Barbecue Bob
Kokomo Arnold


  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0335152759.
    • Levine (1977).
    • Palmer, Robert (1981).


  • Deep Blues (1991). Directed by Robert Mugge.
  • American Patchwork: Songs and Stories of America, part 3: "The Land Where the Blues Began" (1990). Written, directed, and produced by Alan Lomax; developed by the Association for Cultural Equity at Columbia University and Hunter College. North Carolina Public TV; A Dibb Direction production for Channel Four.
  • Out of the Blacks into the Blues, part 1: "Along the Old Man River" (1992). Produced by Claude Fleouter and Robert Manthoulis. Neyrac Film; distributed by Yazoo Video. ISBN 1566330165.


  1.   Band A3 - Folk-Songs of America: The Robert Winslow Gordon Collection, 1922-1932 (The American Folklife Center, Library of Congress). URL accessed on November 18, 2005.

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