On The Blues In The 21st Century

Blues in 2019 – indeed for the last couple decades – has been in an odd spot. If the music strays too far from tradition it becomes its own genre – it’s not blues anymore. The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll. On the other hand, blues is accused of not evolving or keeping up with the times. Well, critics, you can’t have it both ways.

A vocal subsection of the blues community is to blame, though. There are traditionalists who have a very narrow definition of what blues is, and what blues should be. In my opinion, that’s counter to the history of the music. Blues evolved from field calls to acoustic troubadours, to full-on electric bands. Up until perhaps the 60s, blues melded with other genres like jazz and ragtime much more easily. Other genres influenced blues, and vice versa It had evolved. It was blue collar music for the people. It was spiritual. It was party music. It was a music of humanity, expressing a deep connection with the ups and downs of life. It was the soundtrack to both rural and urban life. It evolved with the changing times of 20th century America and the great migration of black folks from the rural south to the industrial north. Blues has enjoyed periodic resurgences in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. All that said, I do think blues has and does continue to evolve. There’s a lot of great, contemporary blues written both by melding in contemporary influences, as well as addressing modern-day themes.

New Blues

A lot of blues artists make music firmly in the traditionalist camp – there are still songs written about mules kicking in stalls. That’s fine, there’s a place for it. I still enjoy Muddy, the Wolf, T-Bone, Robert Johnson and all the godfathers of the genre and if someone really does a cover of one of those classic songs well then that’s wonderful. Blues has survived so long in part because the classic songs are timeless. The themes are as relevant today as they were in the 30s, 40s, 50s… That said, blues made in the 20th century blues was timely! Those artists were expressing their now. I’d like to see more of that, and that’s how blues stays relevant and vital in the 21st century.

Gary Clark Jr’s “This Land” is a great example of what I’d consider modern blues. It blends in some modern influences in the music, lyrically it tackles contemporary issues, but it still retains enough elements of blues to be an evolution not a complete departure.

Gary Clark Jr.’s “This Land” – modern blues

One can also write new blues in a traditional style. The lyrics and approach can be very relevant and contemporary while retaining a more classic feel. There are lots of folks out there in the blues scene today doing it, but a great example is a song from Joe Bonamassa’s latest record titled “Just ‘Cause You Can Don’t Mean You Should.” Let’s see more of this!

Traditional Style, Modern Approach and Lyrics

What Makes It Blues?

What makes a music “not blues” anymore? To me, blue is defined by rhythm more than anything else. There are a million I-IV-V rock songs, but they’re not blues due to the lack of swing, they’re played very straight on the beat. Of course, blues is more than shuffles, but there’s always a swing. I think a lot of people get hung up on the chord progressions. There’s more to it than that. There’s also a lot more variety in blues than just I-IV-V. Go listen to T-Bone Walker. Listen to BB. Listen to early blue where the overlap with ragtime and jazz was more pronounced. This is a deeper topic, and I’ll cover it more in the future. For now let’s just say it’s a gray area, open to personal interpretation.

So Blues Isn’t Dead…

The real issue clouding blues’ evolution is its place in popular culture. This is the case for lots of music and indeed lots of art and media. Is blues dead? Is jazz dead? Is classical? Is rock dead? Is the guitar dead? Are drums even more dead? If you think those are true, then what isn’t dead? As long a people are creating and listening to blues, it’s not dead. Of course it doesn’t hold the same share of public mindset that it used to, but that’s okay, nothing stays at the top forever. If you look at the nature of the music business in this decade – the era of streaming and Instagram – blues is doing as well as any other popular 20th century music. Look at the myriad blues festivals out there, small and large? Look at the use of blues in advertising and movie soundtracks? As noted above, if blues needs anything it’s more contemporary songs. It doesn’t need to turn into EDM or hip hop. Adding those influences to blues might be great if it’s done well, but it can stay true to its roots and still evolve.

Keeping Up With New Blues

If you’re on Spotify, their “In The Name of the Blues” playlist is a good mix

There’s also the weekly Smokestack Lightnin’ radio show, which broadcasts out of WUCF in Orlando, Florida. Fortunately they stream online. They tend towards more traditional blues, but still great to hear new stuff. They’ve been at it for a long time and it’s a real treasure.

If you’re hardcore, you might subscribe to one of the many blues-specific magazines out there like Blues Music Magazine, Living Blues, Blues Matters, Blues Blast, etc. Worth at least checking out an issue.

A simple google search will reveal a myriad blues festivals in every part of the country, all year long. There are a bunch of blues cruises. There are blues clubs, like my local Central Florida favorite, The Alley. There are lots of great, young blues artists out there. My message to them is: keep the spirit of the blues going strong by writing powerful, emotional and contemporary music that connects with people.

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