A. blues performer smiles at a JazzFest crowd.


Explore the blues in Louisiana,  the basic bedrock component of American popular music.  

The blues is a basic bedrock component in American popular music.  Since the latter nineteenth century it has flourished in its own right, while deeply influencing various jazz, rhythm & blues, rock, Cajun-zydeco and country-music styles. Broadway musicals, classical compositions and rap songs have also touched on the blues.             

The blues partially evolved from African-American folk tradition. Field hollers, sung solo, served as personal laments and presented social commentary. Verses were rarely uniform in length, and bent and stretched notes were common. These African-rooted traits diverge from the standardized structures of Western music.                         

Work songs found a leader singing out a line which was repeated by laborers who kept time with tools such as axes, to make sure that everyone toiled in tandem. This call and response tradition is also African-rooted. While some field-holler and work-song lyrics were improvised, many drew from “floating verses” that appeared in numerous other songs, in varying combinations. This tradition remains prominent in blues and other genres to this day.                                

But the blues did not emerge solely in such rough-edged settings. It also evolved in sophisticated urban circles, in written form, with standardized notation by composers such as W. C. Handy. Blues was an important component in the repertoire of the Crescent City pianist, composer and singer Jelly Roll Morton. Lonnie Johnson, another New Orleanian, shone as a deft guitarist, skilled songwriter and suave vocalist. Johnson became a major national-level artist in his own right and by playing on record by the likes of Louis Armstrong. The blues was a major factor in the R&B of Fats Domino, the jazz of vocalist Blue Lu Barker and the powerful singing of Marva Wright. Today guitarists Mem Shannon and Ernie Vincent help keep New Orleans blues alive.

The entire state is home to both a rich blues history and a community of talented contemporary performers. The Baton Rouge harmonica player Slim Harpo scored a national hit in 1965 with “Baby Scratch My Back,” while the renowned guitarist Buddy Guy started out in Pointe Coupee Parish before attaining stardom in Chicago. At this writing the capital city blues torch is carried by such artists as guitarists Larry Garner and Chris Thomas King. In Shreveport, Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) played the acoustic twelve-string guitar, solo, with more hard-rocking force than many full bands; his legacy lives on there in the guitar mastery of Buddy Flett.

Acclaimed blues musicians from Lafayette include guitarists Paul “Little Buck” Senegal, and Sonny Landreth, who both exemplified the blues-zydeco connection through their work with Clifton Chenier. So did Carol Fran, who covered the whole spectrum of blues, jazz, swamp-pop and songs in French. Nellie Lutcher, the most prominent musician to ever emerge from Lake Charles, played the blues as part of her eclectic repertoire; today, so does Marcia Ball, from nearby Vinton. Monroe contributed the late singer Mighty Sam McLain and the guitarist/pianist Kenny Bill Stinson. From Angie to Zwollie, and all points in between, Louisiana blues is thriving.

Authored by Ben Sandmel

Local Blues Legends

Listen to Louisiana Blues Music