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Why are “the Blues” called Blue?

“Having the Blues” can be an expression of being in a state of mild depression, or a specific genre of music.  But in both cases, why call them “the Blues”?

“Blue” as in “feeling blue”, has always been associated with melancholy, sadness and mild depression, and the music generally fits that emotional mood. The name for this American music form probably originated from a 17th-century English expression “the blue devils,” shortened over time to “the blues”, describing the intense visual hallucinations accompanying alcohol consumption and withdrawal; similar to the  “DTs” or” Delirium Tremors”; the physical reaction associated  with alcohol withdrawal.

Being “blue” became to mean a state of mild depression, and the link between “being blue” and drinking is also indicated by “blue laws” that prohibited alcohol consumption on Sundays. The links between music, drinking and depression are obvious. The musical form of “the blues” originated in rural “blue collar” taverns where the music was typically slow and melancholy and the musicians were often as inebriated as the patrons.

Today, musicians generally play “the blues” in the twelve-bar format introduced by William C. Handy in his 1912 sheet music “Memphis Blues”. Handy created a basic structure for blues music, which was originally a typical three-line blues verse that emerged from the improvised “call-and-response” songs of African slaves who eased the drudgery of their work in the fields by improvising songs using the natural rhythms of the task at hand.  The lead singer repeated a line twice, giving another singer time to improvise a response.

These improvised slave songs were actually more musically sophisticated than their European counterparts. African slaves used vibrato, tremolo, falsetto overtones, and more “primitive” vocal techniques along with more advanced polyphonic and contrapuntal rhythms that still resonate in traditional blues music.