The heart of jazz, the blues is a musical form now standardized as 12 bars, based on the tonic, dominant, and subdominant chords. The "blue notes" are the flatted third and seventh. A statement is made in the first four bars, repeated (sometimes with slight variation) in the next four, and answered or commented on in the last four. In vocal blues the lyrics are earthy and direct and are mostly concerned with basic human problems—love and sex, poverty, and death. The tempo may vary, and the mood ranges from total despair to cynicism and satire.
Basing his songs on traditional blues, W. C. Handy greatly increased the popularity of the idiom. Important vocal blues stylists include Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Lightnin' Sam Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, Bertha (Chippie) Hill, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Muddy Waters.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.