title page of I Got the Blues (1908), by Antonio Maggio
The blues is a melancholic music of black American folk origin, usually employing a basic 12-bar chorus, the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords, frequent minor intervals, and blue notes.
It originated in the southern United States towards the end of the 19th century, developing from African American folk songs such as the work songs chanted on plantations, spirituals and hollers. In the 1940s, as African Americans migrated to cities in large numbers, the blues found a wider audience and gave rise to rhythm and blues and rock and roll.
The adjective blue has long been used to signify, of a person, the heart, a feeling, etc., depressed, sorrowful, miserable. It was originally a metaphorical use of blue meaning, of the skin, bruised, as in the expression black and blue, discoloured by bruises. This is explicit in the first known instance of this usage, which is found in Merlin, a Middle-English metrical version of the French romance Estoire de Merlin, completed in the first half of the 15th century by Henry Lovelich, a London skinner; this romance tells that after Arthur’s time a great plague gave rise to the name of “Bloye breteyne” (= Blue Britain) because the British people’s “hertes bothe blw and blak they were” (= “hearts both blue and black they were”) with sorrow.
The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1342-1400) used the metaphor in The compleynt of Mars (circa 1385):
Ye lovers, that lye in any drede,
Fleeth, lest wikked tonges yow espye.
Lo, yond the sunne, the candel of jelosye!
Wyth teres blewe and with a wounded herte
Taketh your leve.
You lovers that are in fear, flee, lest wicked tongues discover you. Behold the sun yonder, the candle of jealousy! With blue tears and with wounded heart, take your leave.
The adjective blue is also used to signify, of a period, event, circumstance, etc., depressing, dismal. In The Short French Dictionary (1701 edition), Guy Miège (1644-1718?) wrote:
’Twill be a blue day for him, ce Jour là lui sera fatal [= that day will be fatal to him].
Blue is also taken as the colour of the plague and other harmful things. The English playwright, poet and critic John Dryden (1631-1700) wrote the following in All for love; or, The world well lost (1678):
Now, my best Lord, in Honor’s name, I ask you,
For Manhood’s sake, and for your own dear safety,
Touch not these poison’d Gifts,
Infected by the Sender, touch ’em not,
Miriads of bluest Plagues lye underneath ’em.
These uses of blue and the belief that mental depression was caused by demonic possession gave rise to the term (the) blue devil(s), meaning, literally, malignant demon(s) causing despondency, and, metaphorically, despondency itself. The author of A Dissertation upon Laughter, published in The Grand Magazine of Magazines; or, A Public Register of Literature and Amusement of September 1750, wrote, probably jocularly, of these demons:
[Laughter] is a most healthful exercise, gives briskness to the blood’s motion, makes a proper and lively distribution of the animal spirits, and is a more powerful exorcism of those blue devils, which too often possess our poor mortal fabric, than what can be performed by a conclave of cardinals.
The English novelist and playwright Frances Burney (1752-1840) used the blue devils in its metaphorical sense in her diary:
25th June 1781
He has lately, I hear, taken also to making a rather too liberal use of his bottle, thinking, I suppose, that generous wine will destroy even the blue devils. I am really sorry, though, for this, as it may be attended with serious evil to him.
The expression also designates the hallucinations experienced by an alcoholic. In Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830), the Scottish poet and novelist Walter Scott (1771-1832) wrote of
the dissipated and intemperate habits of those who, by a continued series of intoxication, become subject to what is popularly called the Blue Devils, instances of which mental disorder may be known to most who have lived for any period of their lives in society where hard drinking was a common vice. The joyous visions suggested by intoxication when the habit is ﬁrst acquired, in time disappear, and are supplied by frightful impressions and scenes.
Elliptically from the blue devils, the blues means a feeling of depression or deep unhappiness. It is first recorded in a letter dated 11th July 1741 written by David Garrick (1717-79), English actor, playwright and theatre manager:
The Town is exceeding hot & Sultry & I am far from being quite well, tho not troubled wᵗʰ yᵉ Blews [= the blues] as I have been, I design taking a Country Jaunt or two for a few Days when Our Engines are finish’d, for I found great Benefits from yᵉ last I took.
The blues became a common motif in American folk song. For example, in Songs from Dixie Land (1900), the American lyricist Frank Lebby Stanton (1857-1927) published the following in the section titled The Philosopher:
When a Feller Has the Blues
When a feller has the blues,
’Taint no use to ask his views
’Bout the country—how it goes:—
Ef it hails, or ef it snows—
Cotton up or cotton down—
Worl’ stopped still, or whirlin’ roun’,—
Never keers fer any news—
That poor feller with the blues!
This recurrent theme led to the inclusion of blues in the titles of several musical works and to the adoption of the word as the name of the genre. In Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850-1920 (2010), Peter C. Muir, pianist, composer and lecturer, explains that a piano work titled I Got the Blues (1908), written and published in New Orleans by Antonio Maggio, is the first both to include the word blues and to use a twelve-bar blues sequence. Its title page announces that the work is Respectfully Dedicated to all those Who have the Blues, which implies that the music, essentially upbeat ragtime, will dispel the blues of the performer/listener. In fact, writes Muir, “there was general understanding in mainstream culture of the 1910s that blues music was therapeutic in intent”. In 1915 for example, an article in the Chicago Daily Tribune stated:
That is what ‘blue’ music is doing for everybody—taking away what its name implies, the blues.
And the first verse of Kansas City Blues (1915) tells how
it soothes when you hear
Those old Blues called the ‘Kansas City Blues.’