Blues | The Canadian Encyclopedia



African-American folk and pop music with a vocal and instrumental tradition; also a song form. Though by origin and nature a folk music, the blues enjoyed wider popularity with the advent of commercial recording.


African-American folk and pop music with a vocal and instrumental tradition; also a song form. Though by origin and nature a folk music, the blues enjoyed wider popularity with the advent of commercial recording. "Race records," as 78-rpm recordings made in the 1920s and 1930s by blues singers were known, were among the earliest pop records. The basic elements of blues have remained constant: the tonic, sub-dominant, dominant-seventh, tonic harmonic structure, typically in 12-bar cycles; the prevalence of "blue notes" (eg, flattened thirds and sevenths); and the highly emotional content of the music, originally as a personal expression of the grievances and frustrations of African-Americans in terms ranging from despair to humour.

Blues Performance Style

Blues performance styles underwent significant change with the migration of segments of the black population within the US. Three distinct styles resulted, and all continue to be explored. Country or "Delta" (Mississippi/Louisiana) blues usually involves a single, male musician (such as Robert Johnson) accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar; it is this type of blues that first emerged at the turn of the 20th century, although it was not recorded as a distinct genre until the mid-1920s. "Classic" blues, mainly performed by female singers (such as Bessie Smith) accompanied by jazz musicians, emerged circa 1910 and as a recorded form in 1920. After World War II, urban or "electric" blues emerged (such as by Muddy Waters), usually featuring a small band employing amplified instruments, as well as harmonica ("blues harp"), drums, and sometimes piano. A popular variant of the electric blues is commonly associated with Chicago. The 12-bar "chorus" form common to the blues is also used in jazz, "jump blues," Rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll, certain rock music subgenres (including hard rock and heavy metal), and frequently in country music. In addition, the "call-and-response" performance technique of the blues has strongly influenced soul, funk, and rap music (all predominantly African-American in origin), as well as some rock music.

Blues in Canada

The blues did not gain widespread popularity with Canadian performers until the early 1960s, but Canada's first exposure to the genre likely occurred decades earlier through US radio and touring blues artists. Most major US blues musicians have appeared in Canada. Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines performed circa the late 1930s on the "Elder Moten Hour," a gospel radio show based in Windsor, Ont. Other country or Delta blues musicians played in Canadian coffeehouses or at folk festivals in the 1960s-70s, and the urban blues musicians (usually from Chicago or Detroit) in nightclubs and at jazz festivals (eg, during the 1980s, at the Festival international de jazz de Montréal).

Blues Festivals, Societies, Awards
Canadian festivals devoted exclusively to blues or blues-related genres have included Harbourfront's Soul 'n' Blues Festival, established in 1986 in Toronto; Toronto's Waterfront Blues, begun in 2005; and others in BC (Burnaby, Hornby Island, Maple Ridge, Nanaimo, Pender Harbour, Rock Creek, Salmon Arm); Alberta (Calgary, Edmonton); Manitoba (Beausejour); Ontario (Barrie, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Orangeville, Oshawa, Ottawa, Port Credit, Sarnia, Thorold, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Windsor); Quebec (Carleton, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Donnacona, Lachute, Mont Tremblant, Montreal, Quebec City); New Brunswick (Fredericton); and Nova Scotia (Halifax, Lunenburg, Truro). Blues societies have flourished, most notably the Toronto Blues Society, established in 1985 and honoured as blues organization of the year at the 1986 W.C. Handy Awards in Memphis. In 1997 the society founded the Maple Blues Award, Canada's only national blues awards program. Blues categories have also been presented at the Juno Awards (beginning in 1994), the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards (beginning in 1999), the Western Canadian Music Awards (beginning in 2004), and the East Coast Music Awards.

Blues on Canadian Radio
Several of the genre's most important figures appeared in an historic 90-minute CBC program, "The Blues," first telecast 28 Dec 1966 on "Festival." In 1987 CBC Radio introduced the long-running national program "Saturday Night Blues" from Edmonton, with Holger Petersen (of Stony Plain Records) as its host. Compilations of the show were issued in 1991 and in 2006. Aside from the CBC, Canadian radio exposure for blues has largely remained limited to special-interest programs on college and community stations.

Blues Performers

Black Blues Performers in Canada
A minority of resident Canadian blues performers have been black. Among these were the US-born musicians Lonnie Johnson (singer, guitarist - b New Orleans 1889, d Toronto 1970 - who spent the last five years of his life in Toronto after an illustrious and influential recording career in the 1920s under his own name and with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Eddie Lang, Victoria Spivey, and others); Clarence "Big" Miller, and George "Wild Child" Butler (Windsor, Ont). The younger US bluesmen Dimitri Cornell (also known as Cornell Paschal) and Kenny Neal were both based in Toronto intermittently during the 1980s, the home also of their contemporaries, the guitarists Tony Springer (Wild T and the Spirit) and Buzz Upshaw. Mel Brown (b Jackson, Mississippi 7 Oct 1939, d Kitchener 20 Mar 2009) & the Homewreckers were based in Kitchener, Ont; singers Jackie Richardson (b Pennsylvania) and Shakura S'Aida in Toronto; Harrison Kennedy in Hamilton, Ont; and Dawn Tyler Watson in Montreal. Some black folk performers (eg, Al Cromwell, Faith Nolan, and Jackie Washington), gospel singers (eg, the Sojourners), and jazz and pop singers (Eleanor Collins, Phyllis Marshall, Molly Johnson, and the US-born Salome Bey, Jodie Drake, and Almeta Speaks) have made blues a part of a larger repertoire.

Blues Performers 1960s-80s
The growth in popularity of blues among Canadian performers in the early 1960s - almost all of whom were white - coincided with the rise of such British bands as the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, which had considerable success with recordings directly inspired by classic US blues performances. Initially, Canadian bands followed the example of the British groups; the Ugly Ducklings, for example, took the early Rolling Stones as their model. Later bands, however, turned to the original musicians, usually in the urban blues style, for their lead.

The popularity of most Canadian blues musicians was at first limited to a city, province or region. Some, however, enjoyed a national reputation as a result of tours and/or recordings. These have included the Downchild Blues Band, Paul James, King Biscuit Boy, Dutch Mason, Matt Minglewood, and Powder Blues. Blues has also been an important component in the music and/or repertoire of The Band, David Clayton-Thomas, Crowbar, David Essig, Amos Garrett, Ronnie Hawkins, Jeff Healey, Colin James, Offenbach, Ken Whiteley, and David Wilcox.

Other Canadian blues or blues-rock bands, singers, chansonniers, and instrumentalists active at various points from the late 1960s through the 1980s included Stephen Barry, Dan Bigras, Gerry Boulet, Robert Charlebois, Bob Harrison, Jimmy James, Plume Latraverse, Sylvain Lelièvre, Jorn Reissner, Bob Walsh, and Jim Zeller in Montreal; Carl Tremblay in Quebec City; the Blue Angels, Drew Nelson, Heaven's Radio, and the Saints and Sinners in Ottawa; Tony D (DiTeodoro) and the Phantoms in Ottawa and Toronto; the Cameo Blues Band, Rita Chiarelli, Morgan Davis, Jack DeKeyzer, Luke (Gibson) and the Apostles, Larry Goodhand, the Hock (Rick Walsh), the Kendall-Wall Blues Band, McKenna-Mendelson Mainline, Michael Pickett, Gene Taylor, and Whiskey Howl in Toronto; Guitar Mikey and the Real Thing and Jude Johnson in Hamilton, Ont; The Nationals in Cambridge, Ont; Black Cat Bone in Guelph, Ont; Big Dave McLean (Muddy Tones), Brent Sam Parkin (Houndog, The Stingers), and Gérald Laroche in Winnipeg; Jack Semple in Regina; Johnny V and the Houserockers, John Rutherford, and Ray Lemelin in Calgary; Hot Cottage, Dean Cottrill, Lester Quitzau, Lionel Rault, Rusty Reed and the Southside Shuffle, and Three Times the Blues in Edmonton; the Black Snake Blues Band, Harpdog Brown and the Bloodhounds, Jim Byrnes, David Gogo and the Persuaders, David Raven, Hans Staymer, and the Wailin' Demons in Vancouver; and Uncle Wiggly's Hot Shoes Blues Band in Victoria, BC. Long John Baldry, a central figure in the British blues revival of the 1960s, moved to Canada in the mid-1970s and was active in several cities.

Major blues musicians active in Canada in the 1990s and 2000s have included Back Alley John, Ray Bonneville, Carter Chaplin, Rita Chiarelli, Carlos del Junco, Fathead, Trevor Finlay, Sue Foley, J. W. Jones, Steve Kozak's WestCoast Blues Revue, Teddy Leonard, Garrett Mason, the Johnny Max Band, Dave McLean, Mendelson Joe, Paul Pigat, Victor Polyik, Paul Reddick, Terminal Station, the Twisters, Dawn Tyler Watson, Suzie Vinnick, and VP and the Hammerheads.

Several singer-guitarists and ensembles in Canada have also taken up the country or acoustic blues style, among them David Essig, Ken Hamm (Thunder Bay, Ont, and later Cedar, BC), the Jackson Delta Trio (Peterborough, Ont), Rick Fines, Paul James, Colin Linden, Harry Manx, Big Dave McLean, the duo of Denis Parker and Roger Howse (St John's, Nfld), David Rea, Chris Whiteley, Ken Whiteley, and David Wilcox.

Women Blues Performers

The pianist Jane Vasey (of Downchild); the guitarists Judy Brown, Sue Foley, and Ellen McIlwaine; the singer/drummer Maureen Brown; the multi-instrumentalist Treasa Levasseur; and the singer-songwriter Georgette Fry have broken the long-standing blues tradition that women should be limited exclusively to singing. Many of these musicians have appeared in the Women's Blues Revue, a concert series begun by the Toronto Blues Society circa 1986, and on the retrospective recording Women's Blues Revue Live (2006). Women blues musicians have frequently been honoured by the Maple Blues Awards. In 2000 Sue Foley was the first woman to be awarded a Juno in the blues category.

Aboriginal Blues Performers

The blues has been an effective mode of expression for marginalized or alienated groups, and in Canada has resonated with Aboriginal communities. "Rez Blues" (or "Reservation Blues"), a subgenre combining Native themes with urban blues and R&B, has established a particularly strong presence in southern Ontario, where US blues radio shows gained popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. Notable Aboriginal blues musicians to emerge in the 1990s and 2000s have included Jani Lauzon, the Pappy Johns Band, Murray Porter, the Ronnie Douglas Blues Band, The Soul Kings, Slidin' Clyde Roulette Band, Jared Sowan, Texas Meltdown, and Wolfpack. Performance showcases have included "Real Rez Bluez," begun by Elaine Bomberry in 1993 and adapted for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network in 2004; and the 2002 radio documentary "The Aboriginal Music Experience."

Blues Songs in Canada

The blues song form has been popular with Canadian jazz composers - eg, Moe Koffman's Swinging Shepherd Blues, Oliver Jones's Blues for Chuck, Oscar Peterson's Blues for Big Scotia, and Vic Vogel's Blues for Duke. Some jazz pianists in Canada have made a reputation as interpreters of the form, among them Wray Downes, Mike Taylor, and Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne.

Popular Canadian Blues Songs
Popular blues songs composed by Canadians have included Downchild's "I Got Everything I Need (Almost)" (Don Walsh) and "Shotgun Blues" (Don and Rick Walsh), recorded by the Blues Brothers ("Jake and Elwood Blues," of whom "Elwood" was the comedian Dan Aykroyd) for the million-selling album Briefcase Full of Blues.

Publications and Record Labels

Canadian publications devoted to the blues include Blues Magazine (Toronto 1975-9); the Toronto Blues Society Newsletter, introduced in 1985; Blues Local (Marieville, Que, 1989-90); and Blues & Roots Montreal, established in 1991. Blues columns also have appeared in Coda. WestCoast Blues Review (Victoria, BC) debuted in 1993 and was replaced circa 1999 by Real Blues. Blues-related record labels in Canada include Disques Bros and Justin Time (Montreal); Electro-Fi and NorthernBlues Music (Toronto); Fat Tone (Vancouver); and Stony Plain (Edmonton).

Selected Discography

Long John Baldry. Baldry's Out. 1979. Cap ST-6459

- Rock With the Best. 1982. Cap ST-6490

- It Still Ain't Easy. 1991. Stony Plain SPCD-1163

Stephen Barry. Live. 1979. Fix It in the Mix FM-101

- Blues Under a Full Moon. 1990. Justin Time JTR-8419 (CD)

Blues Brothers. Briefcase Full of Blues. 1978. Atlantic KSD-19217

Ray Bonneville. Gust of Wind. 1999. Stony Plain SPCD 1256

Mel Brown & the Homewreckers. Neck Bones & Caviar. 1999. Electro-Fi Records 3363

Jim Byrnes. I Turned My Nights into Day. 1987. Stony Plain SPL-1107

Morgan Davis. Morgan Davis. 1989. Stony Plain SPCD-1148

Jackson Delta Trio. Acoustic Blues. 1989. JC-0012384 (CD and cass)

Ronnie Douglas Blues Band. Big Brother. 2001.

Sue Foley. Love Comin' Down. 2000. Shanachie SH 8036

-Where the Action Is. 2002. Shanachie SH 8038

-Change. 2004. Justin Time JTR 8508-2

Georgette Fry. Let Me Drive. 2002. Spare Ribs Records

The Jeff Healey Band. See the Light. 1988. Arista AL 8553

Colin James. Sudden Stop. 1990. Virgin VL43107

Paul James. Paul James Band. Other People's Music OPMPJ-1

- Rockin' the Blues. 1989. Stony Plain SPCD-1135

- Acoustic Blues. 1990. Stony Plain SPCD-1155

Lonnie Johnson. Stompin' at the Penny with Jim McHarg's Metro Stompers. 1965. Col ELS-310

Harrison Kennedy. High Country. 2007

Colin Linden. Colin Linden Live!!!!. 1980. Ready LR-011

Phantoms. Pleasure Puppets. (1990). Spy CD-1006

Roxanne Potvin. Careless Loving. 2003

-The Way it Feels. 2006. Alert Music 6152810416

Saturday Night Blues. 1991. CBC Variety VRCD-1014/Stony Plain SPCD-1172

Saturday Night Blues: 20 years of blues and boogie. 2006. CBC Records TRCD 3019-2

Shakura S'Aida. Blueprint. 2007

Skin Tight Blues: First Peoples Blues Compilation. 2002. Sweet Grass Records SGBcd 2002

Slidin' Clyde Roulette Band. Let's Take A Ride. 2007. SCR2007

Jared Sowan. Eclectically Yours. 2006. Sunshine Records SSCD-4523

Hans Staymer. Hans Staymer Band. 1975. RCA KPL1-0087

Time Bomb. Sue Foley - Deborah Coleman - Roxanne Potvin. 2007. Ruf 1129

VP and the Hammerheads. Hypnotized. 2004. Fat Tone Records

Kenny Wayne. Can't Stop Now. 2008. Electro-Fi EF3407

Whiskey Howl. Whiskey Howl. 1972. Warner WSC-9012

Wolfpack. Every Li'l Thing. 2003.

Women's Blues Revue Live. 2006. Toronto Blues Society TBSCD003

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