The Second Blues Revival: What's Changed, and What's Stayed the Same

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The blues is one of the few musical genres that can be called distinctly “American” in both origin and development. It evolved from the work songs sung in the cotton fields of the Antebellum South, into the distinct singer-guitarist performers of the Mississippi Delta, and then into the hard-rock adaptations of white British and American bands. The blues has undergone – and continues to undergo – great change while adapting to the tastes of the current mainstream musical scene. The blues of the Mississippi Delta – aptly named “Delta blues” – popularized the genre both among young blacks in the South and whites that had never before heard it. Men like “Blind Lemon” Jefferson, Ishmon Bracey, and Robert Johnson combined passionate vocals with complex (and often improvised) guitar playing to sing of their woes, anger, and sexual encounters. By making the blues known to an audience nationwide, they laid the foundation for the genre adaptations that were to come.

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Robert Johnson's “Ramblin' On My Mind”, recorded in 1936.

The first great “blues revival” began in the United Kingdom in the mid-1960s. There, bands like John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, the Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and later groups like Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin), drew on the blues greats of the '40s and '50s and, by boosting the volume and adding both guitar distortion and electric feedback, began a musical movement that dominated the Western musical charts for half a decade. They were, in turn, influenced by men like John Lee Hooker, T. Bone Walker, Elmore James, B. B. King, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Albert King, and myriad others that emerged in the '40s and '50s, who were the first to experiment with the blues played on amplified electric guitars. From the new “electric blues” came an even newer creation: “blues rock”, combining the crunching guitar riffs and faster tempos of rock with the inspired guitar leads and passionate singing of the blues. The blues they played was simple, pure, and hard-hitting.

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“Johnny B. Goode” performed live by Chuck Berry in 1958.

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Elmore James, known as “King of the Slide Guitar”, performing a cover of Robert Johnson's“Dust My Broom” in 1959.

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John Lee Hooker's “Boom Boom”, 1962.

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Jimi Hendrix's “Red House”, 1966.

The blues music performed up to this point was always in the format of a 12-bar blues. At most, the song could have influences from jazz or the hard rock that was emerging at that time (perhaps most evident in the Jimi Hendrix example) – but nothing more. The acoustic country and Delta blues from before World War II still held some sway over the so-called “blues boom” or “blues revival” of the time, but was largely pushed onto the backburner.

After the first years of the 1970’s, however, the blues seemed to disappear. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died before New Years' Eve, 1970; Led Zeppelin had transitioned to the emerging progressive rock movement and Cream had broken up; Eric Clapton (perhaps the most famous white blues musician of the '60s) made forays into the genres of soft and even pop rock; the major progenitors of modern blues often continued to perform and tour, but with not nearly as much publicity as they had once enjoyed.

There were few blues stars and hits between the late 1960’s and the second blues revival, the most notable, perhaps, being Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band, Double Trouble. Throughout the 1980’s he led the resurgent wave of Texas blues from the front, drawing great inspiration from Hendrix, Buddy Guy, the “three Kings of the blues” (B. B. King, Albert King, and Freddie King), and many others. Vaughan's style of blues – blues two-point-five? – mostly utilized the 12-bar blues structure and many traditional blues techniques and play styles, but also included influences from '80s rock and metal, flamenco, and other more exotic genres. Still, he was the definitive foreshadowing act of the blues revival of the 2000s.

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Stevie Ray Vaughan's “Pride and Joy”, 1982.

It can widely be recognized that the first popular act of the so-called “second blues revival” were the duo known as the White Stripes. In 1999, the husband-and-wife combo  released their eponymous debut album, featuring tracks that were obviously of blues inspiration – “Suzy Lee” and “Do”, for instance – that were curiously influenced by the punk of the '80s and garage rock of the '90s, with shrill screaming of guitars accompanied by Jack's wild vocals. Few of their songs, if any, utilized the 12-bar structure, most using more rock-influenced chord progressions. Later songs, like “Seven Nation Army,” “Blue Orchid,” and “The Hardest Button to Button,” were popular in their own right, without utilizing the traditional blues progression, while still incorporating blues concepts (lots of bending on guitar and powerful, soulful vocals). Instead of just using distortion (which Jack White does indeed like a lot) and delay, there was suddenly use of octaver pedals (allowing the guitarist to change the octave he's playing in at the flick of a switch, imitating both rumbling bass guitars and shrill soprano screams), flangers, and other more exotic effects. One notable exception to this “White Stripes rule,” however, is the seven-minute-long “Ball and Biscuit:” a slow and plodding 12-bar blues influenced by the classic works of the '50s, the hard blues of the '60s, and the grunge and hard rock of the '80s and '90s.

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The White Stripes proved that a blues song can be popular without traditional structures – “Seven Nation Army”, 2002.

Right on the heels of the White Stripes were the similarly-arranged duo from Ohio, the Black Keys. Influenced by both Delta blues players and more modern hard rock, the Black Keys echoed the White Stripes in deviating from the 12-bar blues style, instead relying on songs with pop or rock styles. Though few remnants remain today of the Black Keys' original blues influences, one can still listen to their first songs – heavily distorted, loud pieces of “I-don't-care,” showing that the Keys could take the blues and make it their own. Later compositions included strong influences from hip hop, pop, and even psychedelic rock, all before their work in the 2010’s marked a complete and final shift away from their roots.

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Less pop, more rock, and fuzzier than the White Stripes' biggest hit – the Black Keys' “Thickfreakness”, 2002.

Arguably the most influential of the blues revival musicians today – and still sticking to his blues roots, unlike the long-dead Stripes and radically-transformed Keys – is the Texas bluesman Gary Clark, Jr. Clark further built on the recent realization that blues didn't have to be pure 12-bar songs; rather, he drew strong influences from the soul of the '70s and even contemporary R&B. His sound was at once explosive, smooth, and revolutionary. He has received worldwide recognition for both his technical skill and his feel for soul and the blues. His playing style, and even his guitar tone, sounds as if it's been ripped right off of a Hendrix record – in a good way, of course.

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Gary Clark, Jr. trying his hand – and succeeding gloriously, if I say so myself – at Hendrix's rendition of “Catfish Blues”, 2012.

As the decade continues to roll along, we will certainly see new blues artists emerge from the underground circuits of run-down blues clubs and suburban garages. However many different influences the blues may take along the journey into the future, it will forever remain the genre of the soul – of the greatest expression of human emotion there will ever be in music.

Photo credit: mysticsons.com