Artem Bryzgalov

I came to the blues backwards. As a child, I had the privilege of being played a few John Lee Hooker numbers, but if you asked me about blues more than five years ago, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you much beyond what you get taught in GCSE history. So, what do I mean by approaching the genre backwards? I came to blues through rock’n’roll, and part of what motivated me to get to know blues music was hearing people like Keith Richards talk about Muddy Waters in a tone usually reserved for religious icons. Five years down the line, my blues obsession is alive and well, hence my enthusiasm to put across a conception of how the blues developed and outline some of its key figures, whilst also touching on its global outreach.


Both in the terms of its rhythmic and lyrical patterns of call and response, blues music can be traced back to various forms of West African music, influences that were brought to America through the slave trade. These influences later combined with African American work songs and spirituals that led to the development of blues in the American South. One of the earliest known styles of blues is Delta blues, played by artists around the Mississippi Delta, often involving the use of harmonica and slide guitar. Important artists in this movement include Geeshie Wiley, Son House, and perhaps most famously Robert Johnson (although what is probably most famous about Robert Johnson is not so much his music, but the legend that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a suspiciously quick acquisition of the ability to play the guitar). 

Chicago Blues

Delta blues then blended into Chicago blues, as many Southern African Americans left places like Mississippi to escape both extreme poverty and racial discrimination, moving to places like Chicago, where the blues sound developed through the use of the electric guitar. One of the first blues players to go electric was T-Bone Walker, who can also lay claim to being the first person to play electric guitar with his teeth. Also important were Buddy Guy and his resident harmonica player Junior Wells, as well as Muddy Waters. Known fittingly as the King of Chicago Blues, Muddy Waters is arguably the most influential of these Chicago blues players, both in terms of his fantastic songwriting and his performing abilities. He was also responsible for getting Chuck Berry his first record deal, and his voice sounds like it should have its own atmospheric field.

“The blues had a baby…and they named it Rock and Roll” – Muddy Waters

The development of blues into rock’n’roll can be exemplified through artists like Bo Diddley and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. If you’ve never heard of Bo Diddley, it is pretty likely that you’ve heard the distinctive rhythm he deployed: ‘shave and a haircut, two bits’, a rhythm that draws heavily on Afro-Cuban influences, and is now widely used in rock, pop and hip-hop music. Another important musician in the development from blues to rock is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who is now unjustifiably overlooked in many accounts of this transition. The Godmother of Rock and Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe blended blues and gospel strains in her vocal style and played a huge influence on more well-known rock pioneers Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Just look up her performance of ‘Didn’t It Rain’ or ‘Up Above My Head’ and you’ll get why she was so brilliant and influential. If this wasn’t enough, she was also a fantastic guitar player, and reportedly one of the first to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar (a Gibson SG for any guitar nerds), which perhaps contributed to Jimi Hendrix’s wish to “play like Rosetta”.

Ramblin' Blues


Mountain View

Nostalgia in Music

It is impossible to overstate the huge influence blues music has had on the world and its music: from Britain to Iran, blues has influenced an extremely diverse list of artists. In Europe, ‘American Folk Blues Festival’ tours brought blues artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters to Britain. One stop on this tour in 1962 was a performance in Manchester (featuring T-Bone Walker), which turned out to be a legendary event in the development of British rock’n’roll. Think of any of the most influential bands of 1960s and ‘70s Britain, and it’s likely at least one member attended one of these festivals. Moving away from Europe, Malian bands (e.g. Tinariwen) cite artists like Jimi Hendrix as an influence and combine these American blues influences with musical traditions of the Tuareg people of the Sahara. There have also been amazing collaborations between American blues artists, like Taj Mahal and Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, as well as recent collaboration between Mo Rodgers and Baba Sissoko in an album entitled Griot Blues. Blues music has equally touched many Iranian artists including Rana Farhan, who combines blues with classic Persian poetry in her excellent album I Return.

Though I’ve described the history behind blues’ music, my guess is that the genre will continue to provide a never-ending source of passion and inspiration for musicians all over the globe. To reference once again that apparently immortal philosopher Keith Richards: “I loved rock'n'roll – but then we found the blues”.