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Why is “blues music” blue? This unique American music genre probably originated from 17th-century English expression “the blue devils”, describing the intense visual hallucinations that often accompanied alcohol withdrawal. Over time it was shortened to “the blues”, meaning a state of agitation or depression.
“Blue” was slang for “drunk” in the 1800s, and the link between “blue” and drinking is still described today by the “blue laws” that still prohibit alcohol sales on Sunday in some states. By the turn of the century, a dance style that involved where two dance partners slowly grinding their hips together called “the blues” or “the slow drag” and was popular in Southern “juke joints”. Weekends would see well inebriated couples doing this “pre-coital shuffle” to the accompaniment of a “bluesman’s” guitar.
The blues played today is the twelve-bar format introduced by William C. Handy in his 1912 sheet music “Memphis Blues”, but the original blues musician didn’t play it that way. Handy created traditional music sequences — verse, chorus, refrains, et cetera; but the original “blues musicians” didn’t play it that way.
They didn’t play by bars, they didn’t count, they made changes whenever he felt like it, and they didn’t always rhyme their verses: whatever he was thinking, whatever came up, that’s what he sang.
Handy imposed artificial structure on blues music; but the traditional verse used by the original blues musicians emerged from the songs made up by slaves in the fields. They did what they would have done at home: improvising songs to the rhythm of the tools and the tasks they were working on.
The instrumental blues solo, mostly unimportant in West African music, became central to the blues of the American blacks; perhaps reflecting the nation that idolized the “individual” more than the “tribe”.