dropzone, I’m glad you started this thread because I’ve been wrestling the past few hours with the same basic idea. I have been watching the series, too, and have had a variety of reactions to it. I agree with your observation, to start with.
Last night’s episode about Rap and Chess and the reviving of a 60’s band to do a fusion of Rap and Blues along the lines of Electric Mud made me wonder just what boundaries or limits can legitimately be placed on The Blues as a meaningful description of a specific type of music.
As early as my teenage years I thought I had an idea of what “the blues” referred to, both as a mood and also as a kind of music. I even heard some blues that early and liked some of what I heard, while rejecting a large part of it as nothing much more than noise. I guess the blues players/singers I had a strong affinity for back then were Jimmy Reed and Leadbelly.
Somewhere along the way the various offshoot genres got me confused to the point that if there is still a “pure blues” act I don’t know what it would be. And then it would have to occupy some subgenre, wouldn’t it?
Just where do “the blues” stop and such things as R&B, Rock, Rap, Country, Gospel, Jazz, Folk, whatever start?
To deny that “the blues” have influenced essentially all of the American musical forms would be silly. As far back as the latter decades of the 19th century, ragtime and jazz were borrowing ideas and techniques from what has been labelled by some as “primitive” or “country” blues. Then as blues moved out of the Delta upriver to St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, and eventually over to New York and the eastern USA, the variations and extensions helped to blur the disctinctions still further.
You had the likes of Gershwin and other Tin Pan Alley composers merging Blues with European music (often with a heavy Jewish flavor) to produce the Great American Songbook that jazz and pop took over for several decades, only to have Rock replace with a different offshoot of “the blues.”
To point to one particular player/singer as being a “pure blues” performer would most likely reveal one’s penchant for one particular sound or style and would do little to convey much meaning to someone else whose version of what “the blues” means involved another sound. There’s just too much latitude in the terminology, or too little, to be precise and meaningful.
In my younger years I worked in a record shop, and our categorization scheme was pretty simple, especially so in light of today’s categories. We had Classical, Jazz, Folk, Pop, Children’s, Spoken Word, and maybe a few other slots like Country, Rock, Novelty, Opera, and maybe four or five others. But I believe we had whatever would have passed for “Blues” music along with other Folk music. Maybe Pop. Rarely Jazz.
Within the next 10-20 years from then, I’ve heard of at least 50 genres and subgenres, and have begun to feel very out of touch with what those labels even mean. For instance, can anybody draw a good distinction between “Rhythm & Blues” and “Rock & Roll”? Is that as simple as Black and White versions of the same basic sound, or is there more to it than that?
And with the attempt to identify the various component styles of “Latin” and “World” music, this whole genre thing has become way more complex than helpful – at least for me.
As to the points you raise in the OP, I suspect the future for Blues, Jazz, Old-time Country, Bluegrass, and any other “bag” will be a blend of those few performers who manage somehow to keep the ingredients of the “pure style” (however that may be defined) alive, and a much larger group who find ways to blend various styles (old and new) with the basic Blues to come up with even more fragmentary genres. At least we’ll find some new labels for what some new act is doing.
But as the last of the old-timers die off, only their recordings will bear testimony to what the style was like 50-100 years ago. Thankfully, more and more of those recordings now exist than they did when I was a kid. And documentaries like the series on PBS will be available for the ones really interested in the old music. At least I hope that trend continues.
All in all, I rate this Blues series a much better effort than the Ken Burns thing on Jazz. I mean to tell our local station that very thing, since they’ve posted a phone number for that purpose. They do seem to be trying to put some things on Public TV to make it worth watching again. It hasn’t been that way except at fundraiser time for years. But since the state/city started leaving the funding to the viewers, things have gotten better. This series is the best so far in that category.