Hudson William Ledbetter ("Leadbelly"), c.1920s. Courtesy of Photofest.
What exactly is "the blues"? More than a century and thousands of volumes of literature after its advent, agreement still remains elusive. Son House, the legendary Mississippi Delta guitarist, claimed "the blues ain't nothing but a low-down, aching chill," while blues queen Ida Cox insisted it was "nothin' but a good woman feelin' bad." In his landmark 1976 tract Stomping the Blues, scholar Albert Murray opted to dissect the age-old inquiry, differentiating between the "blues as such"—heartbreak, loneliness, poverty—from "blues music," which produced "irrepressible joyousness," "downright exhilaration," and "rapturous delight in sheer physical existence" (Murray). Even limiting a definition to technical characteristics is tricky: while the classic 12-bar blues pattern marks much of the output of famous guitarists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton, it does the same for songs by Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix, musicians intimately influenced by but not defined as bluesmen. In the end, it may be most expedient to identify the blues in terms considered least objectionable: a secular African American folk music whose relevance lasted roughly from the end of the nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century.
Murray, Albert. Stomping the Blues. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1976.