THOSE who attend blues festivals and concerts regularly would have observed that a lot of blues played these days has been influenced byelectric blues and blues-rock. Before the blues went electric, however, different styles emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, right up to the beginning of the war. These early styles have been broadly clubbed under the term 'pre-war blues'. This period in fact produced some of the richest blues ever heard. They were the roots.
The earlier form of pre-war blues, popularized by 'Father of the Blues' W C Handy, was essentially a fusion of blues with jazz and ragtime, a style that had flourished in the earlier part of the 20th century. Those days, the blues was played informally in bars, but soon evolved to provide entertainment in theaters and juke joints. As the recording industry grew in the 1920s, country blues became the norm, with performers like Bo Carter, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tampa Red, Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake and Lonnie Johnson attaining great popularity. These musicians often improvised, either without accompaniment or only with a banjo or guitar.
While there was earlier a distinction between rural and urban blues, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Son House combined the two successfully. The lively Memphis blues style, which developed in the 1920s and 1930s near Memphis, Tennessee, was influenced by jug bands such as the Memphis Jug Band or the Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers performers using unusual instruments like washboard, fiddle, kazoo or mandolin.
Many blues musicians based in Memphis moved to Chicago in the late 1930s or early 1940s and became part of the urban blues movement, which blended country music and electric blues. Prominent artistes were Big Bill Broonzy, Leroy Carrand Tampa Red. The era also witnessed the rise in popularity of the slide guitar. Some musicians, like pianist Memphis Slim, incorporated the jazz style swing into their music. An important style to evolve in the 1930s and early 1940s urban blues was boogie woogie. While the style is often associated with solo piano, boogie-woogie was also used to accompany singers and, as a solo part, in bands and small combos.
Another development in this period was big band blues, a well-known tune being Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’. In the 1940s, the jump blues style suddenly grew in popularity. Evolving from the boogie woogie wave, jump blues was strongly influenced by big band music, and used saxophone or other brass instruments and the guitar in the rhythm section to create a jazzy, up-tempo sound.
The Great Depression had a profound effect on the blues performers. The beautiful, melancholic simplicity of blues music would touch many souls during those dark days, and in some ways would sum up the feelings of a nation. For many blues connoisseurs, the pre-war era produced some of the most innovative forms of the blues. Even today, pre-war blues has its own charm.