Culture and Recreation


Is blues music older than jazz?

Only slightly (and only if your definition of jazz doesn’t include ragtime). Really, the two musical traditions developed side by side, with blues emerging about the first decade of the 1900s and hitting the height of its early popularity in 1920s Harlem, where the songs were seen as an expression of African American life. Great blues singers like Ma Rainey (1886–1939) and Bessie Smith (1894 or 1898–1937) sang of the black reality—determined but weary. During the Harlem Renaissance the music was a symbol for African American people who were struggling to be accepted for who they were. Poet Langston Hughes (1902–1967) saw the blues as a distinctly black musical genre, and as helping to free blacks from American standardization.

As the first person to codify and publish blues songs, American musician and composer W. C. Handy (1873–1958) is considered the “father of the blues.” The Florence, Alabama, native produced a number of well-known works, including “Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues” (which is one of the most frequently recorded songs in popular music), “Beale Street Blues,” and “Careless Love.”


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