the long history of the word ‘blues’





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.
     in contemporary English:
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 (3rd edition – London, 1690), the Swiss-born lexicographer Guy Miège (1644-circa 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 (London, 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 (theblue devil(s), meaning, literally, malignant demon(scausing 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 (London) 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 (London, 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 devilsthe 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

(first verse)
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 (University of Illinois Press, 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”. This is clear in Blues Is Jazz and Jazz Is Blues, by Gordon Seagrove, published in The Chicago Sunday Tribune of 11th July 1915:

She leaned across the table while the waiter slunk away and in a pleading voice said something to the Worm. The Worm was her husband. You may have guessed this before. Anyway what she said was this:
“Ortus,” she murmured, looking into his tired eyes, “if you don’t fox trot with me shortly, I shall bring suit for divorce. Our life cannot go on this way.”
“Don’t I give you clothes—all you want?” the Worm returneed [sic]. “Huh? Don’t I now? Don’t I love—you—”
“Stop!” she cried, deathly white. “You don’t understand me. Clothes—bah! Coverings for the skin!—Love—a mockery! You do not realize that I have a soul—that I have two feet—that I want fox trotting.”
“You know I can’t dance. Why last wee—“
“Enough!” she cried imperiously drawing a veil over her snow white shoulders which always appear in scenes like this. “You may consult my attorney tomorrow. You have failed me in the fox trot—I cannot go on—”
She stopped. The music had started. Suddenly from above the thread of the melody itself came a harmonious, yet discordant wailing, an eerie mezzo that moaned and groaned and sighed and electrified, a haunting counter strain that oozed from the saxaphone [sic].
The Worm stopped. His eyes shone with a wonderful light—the light that lies in the eyes of a man who has had two around the corner. His mouth moved convulsively. The years fell away from his shoulders leaving only his frock coat.

The Worm had turned—turned to fox trotting. And the “blues” had done it. The “jazz” had put pep into the legs that had scrambled too long for the 5:15.
What mattered to him now the sly smiles of contempt that his friends had uncorked when he essayed the foxy trot a month before; what mattered it whose shins he kicked?
That was what “blue” music had done for him.
That is what “blue” music is doing for everybody—taking away what its name implies, the blues. In a few months it has become the predominant motif in cabaret offerings; its wailing syncopation is heard in every gin mill where dancing holds sway.
Its effect is galvanic. Cripples take up their beds and one-step; taxi drivers willingly suffer sore feet because of it; string halt becoms [sic] St. Vitus’ dance in its grip.
Maybe you, poor soul, in your metropolitan ignorance, do not gather just what the “blues” are. Worry not; neither does the average person that plays them, and it was only after weks [sic] of toiling that the true definition was obtained.
The first sortie after the definition was made in a song publisher’s arena, where beautiful actresses try their voices and the manager’s nerves.
“Halt!” cried the seeker after the definition, fixing a dark haired piano player with a relentless eye. “What are the blues?”
The young man recoiled and shuddered. “I don’t know,” he said. “All I can do is play ’em. A kind of a wail you might call it. Still I couldn’t tell you positively. But, say! I can take any piece in the world and put the blues into it. But as for a definition—don’t ask me.”
At the next place a young woman was keeping “Der Wacht Am Rhein” and “Tipperary Mary” apart when the interrogator entered.
“What are the blues?” he asked gently.
“Jazz!” The young woman’s voice rose high to drown the piano.
A tall young man with nimble fingers rose from the piano and came over. “That’s me,” he said. And then he unraveled the mystery of the “blues.”

“A blue note is a sour note,” he explained. “It’s a discord—a harmonic discord. The blues are never written into music, but are interpolated by the piano player or other players. They aren’t new. They are just reborn into popularity. They started in the south half a century ago and are the interpolations of darkies originally. The trade name for them is “jazz.”
“There’s a craze for them now. People find them excellent for dancing. Piano players are taking lessons to learn how to play them.”
Thereupon “Jazz” Marion sat down and showed the bluest streak of blues ever heard beneath the blue. Or, if you like this better: “Blue” Marion sat down and jazzed the jazziest streak of jazz ever.
Saxophone players since the advent of the “jazz blues” have taken to wearing “jazz collars,” neat decollete things that give the throat and windpipe full play, so that the notes that issue from the tubes may not suffer for want of blues—these wonderful blues.
Try it some time—for that tired feeling—the blues.

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