During the 1960s, many British singers and bands were infected with a “new” sound emanating from the cotton fields of the American South called the Blues. Reinterpreting this sound to fit their own styles produced a reintroduction of traditional Blues to an American generation of postwar baby boomers searching for a new style of music. The movement became known as the “British Invasion,” especially after it dovetailed with the anti-Vietnam War peace movement near the end of that turbulent decade. Even post-invasion British rockers were still being influenced by the original Blues sound. For instance, Elton John performed a 1982 song called “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” His lyrics hit all around a definition of the Blues, especially the part about demons:
Sir Elton’s song was a tip of the hat to the intense feeling blues music generates, but it never really answered the question: Why is blues music called “the blues”? Maybe it wasn’t intended to; perhaps the mystery of what the blues really is contains its greatest appeal. After all, the name of Elton John’s first band was “Bluesology.”
Serious blues researchers, like Debra Devi, have come up with more interesting interpretations. “The name of this great American music probably originated with the 17th-century English expression ‘the blue devils,’ for the intense visual hallucinations that can accompany severe alcohol withdrawal,” explains Devi in Huffpost online. “Shortened over time to ‘the blues,’ it came to mean a state of agitation or depression.”
Perhaps Devi is onto something there. “Blue” was slang for “drunk” in the American English lexicon by the 1800s. Even to this day, the link between “blue” and drinking is indicated by “blue laws” that still prohibit Sunday alcohol sales, in some American states.
“By the turn of the century, a couple’s dance that involved slowly grinding the hips together called ‘the blues’ or ‘the slow drag’ was popular in Southern juke joints. A rural juke would be jammed on weekends with couples getting their drink on, doing the pre-coital shuffle to the accompaniment of a ‘bluesman’ on guitar,” Devi continues.
Some sources say the “blue devils” expression dates far back into history. The New World Encyclopedia claims, “An early reference to ‘the blues’ can be found in George Colman’s farce Blue Devils, a farce in one act (1798). Later during the nineteenth century, the phrase was used as a euphemism for delirium tremens and also in reference to the police. Though usage of the phrase in African American music may be older, it has been attested to since 1912 in Memphis, Tennessee with W. C. Handy’s Memphis Blues. In lyrics the phrase is often used to describe a depressed mood.”
The “Blue Devils” name is also used in musical groups such as The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps (also known as “BD” and “Devs”), which is a world-class competitive junior drum and bugle corps based in Concord, California. The groups has won many international competitions and currently holds the world record for most consecutive wins (19).
Is the expression found in places other than in music? Since I am a fan of college basketball, I couldn’t help but notice the mascot of the Duke University team is the blue devil. Researching further I discovered the name comes from the French les Diables Bleus or “the Blue Devils,” which was the nickname given during World War I to the Chasseurs Alpins, the French Alpine light infantry battalion. I never imagined there would be a “connection” between basketball and the blues, but one never knows for sure.
Elton John sings “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”