What is the blues? Is it merely a style of music with repetitive chord progressions and particular singing techniques? Or is it an expression of emotion put to words, music and rhythm? Is it simply a musical style that anyone can play and master? Is it a 'feeling', or as has often been said, simply a 'good man feeling bad'? Or is it essentially the music that grew out of the experiences of people of Afrikan descent in the Americas? When we look at history, we see the music that came to be known as the blues arose from the long hell of slavery and later Jim Crow. Does this history matter anymore, or is it just incidental in an era where large numbers of Black people know less about blues history than the average white hipster? Is it true that Black folk 'don't play the blues anymore', and if so, does that give others license to claim the house built by Black peoples' blood, sweat and tears as theirs? Does blues exist in a vacuum by itself or is it part of something larger? Is it art? Or is it life? Are the styles of playing blues music and the culture of the blues one and the same? How can there be so many different definitions for what is commonly understood as merely a musical style? Can anyone play the blues or is it deeper than a sequence of chords, no matter how expertly they are played? Does Black heritage matter anymore when playing blues music? By considering the history of the music and the people that made it, we can find answers to these questions. Our ultimate goal is to understand the history of the music and the people who created it as it relates to how we understand the term 'blues' today. The blues is a simple music, but the history behind it is not.
Ask anyone today what the blues is and be prepared for an answer that is determined by their identity, experience, upbringing, and historical awareness. Yes, culturally conscious Black folk will claim the blues as part of the legacy of the Afrikan diaspora, but many of those who can't claim this heritage will argue that the history is incidental and anyone can 'get the blues.' But is it that simple? I get sad and then I can play the blues? If I eat matzo and listen to Leopold Koslowski for six months, can I play klezmer just like the old masters? And if I do, can I claim ownership of the music in the same way as an Ashkenazi Jew who grew up in that culture? No. Can I get upset or angry if someone from that culture says it is not the same thing? No! I can only own my experience and this is what I bring to whatever style I choose to play. I can never claim the experience of the culture that gave rise to a music that does not represent my heritage. I can walk in the front door, sit down and enjoy the decorations and the furniture, but at the end of the day, it is not my house. I am a visitor. Though many white blues aficionados will cry racism, this is the truth of the blues and its relation to Black culture. Blues music can never be separated from Black culture and history. It can reasonably be proclaimed that klezmer is the music of European Jews, without opposition. It speaks to their cultural values and their unique history. But why is it viewed as so controversial to claim that blues music is an Afrikan art form that speaks to Black people's experiences in North America? Why is it so upsetting to some that Black people will want to lay claim to the products of Black culture? The answer can be found in America's history as a brutal, chattel slave nation founded upon white supremacy, as well as the contemporary denial of these dynamics and how they have influenced attitudes towards Black people and the products of Black culture. As Piedmont bluesman Jeff Scott once said, "To know the mystery you got to understand the history."
Ali Farka Toure famously said that to him blue is just a color, and that his music is older than the blues. This was disappointing to hear for so many western journalists who were ardently trying to manufacture a ready-made story about the Afrikan bluesman who learned from John Lee Hooker records. The blues was a reaction to the terrorism and dehumanization experienced by Black people in America. However, Afrikan descendants were playing music in the Americas for more than two centuries before white people began to refer to it as 'the blues.' All the major instruments used to play the blues, guitar, pianos, horns came into use in the twentieth century. Prior to this time, enslaved Black folk and their immediate generations in the latter part of the nineteenh century played banjos, violins, fifes, saws, bones, washboards, jugs and in a few isolated and protected spaces (e.g. Congo Square in New Orleans), the drum. Of course, this instrument of liberation was heavily banned when slaveholders saw how effective it was in the liberation of the Afrikan captives of Haiti and the founding of the first Black Republic in the Western world. It was originally European Americans, not Afrikans, who called the strange, foreign-sounding music played by Afrikan captives and their descendants, 'the blues.' In fact, when we look at the very term, we find that this expression was never used by Afrikans on the continent, and there was no concept of being 'sad and blue' in the way a European would conceive of it. Indeed, even the very concept of 'having the blues' is a thoroughly English term used to describe a feeling of depression or delirium. When English-speaking white Americans first heard the music of enslaved Afrikans, they remarked how uneasy the music made them feel. The airs of the music were using different scales, notes and rhythms that were vastly different from European music. We can safely say that none of these Afrikans ever began their music making by saying, "hey let's play some blues." No, the blues is the product of African experience in America. Bluesmen and women did not sing about Afrika but rather their experiences in the USA as Black people. The blues represents an unbroken chain from the Black people of today to their ancestral music in Afrika. It did not develop in a vacuum. Cheick Tidiane Seck, the renowned Malian keyboardist and arranger of jazz and Afrikan music tells us that the foundation of Black music in the Americas is the work song. LeRoi Jones underscored his point when he wrote,
"…the music which formed the link between pure Afrikan music and the music which developed after the Afrikan slave in the United States had had a chance to become exposed to some degree of Euro-American culture was that which contained the greatest number of Africanisms and yet was foreign to Afrika. And this was the music of the second generation of slaves, their work songs. The Afrikan slave had sung Afrikan chants and litanies in those American fields. His sons and daughters, and their children, began to use America as a reference. The work song took it own peculiar qualities in America for a number of reasons. First, although singing to accompany one's labor was quite common in West Africa, it is obvious that working one's own field in one's own land is quite different from forced labor in a foreign land. And while the physical insistence necessary to suggest a work song was still present, the references accompanying the work changed radically….the lyrics of a song that said, 'After the planting, if the gods bring rain, / My family, my ancestors, be rich as they are beautiful,' could not apply in the dreadful circumstance of slavery." (Jones, p. 18-19)
Jones is on to to something when he asserts that the blues is a living relic of the Afrikan's long journey of identity from free man, to captive and then slave to something not quite approaching a true citizen, though definitely not respected as a human being. He reminds us that "Afrikans were thought of as beasts, and there was certainly no idea held among the whites that somehow, these beasts would benefit from exposure to the Christian God. As late as the twentieth century, there have been books "proving" the Negro's closer relationship to the lower animals that have been immensely popular in the south." (Jones, p. 32) It is also worth noting here that the well-known three fifths of a person designation in the constitution was never stricken from the text of that document. Indeed, even in the 21st century, Afrikans' claims to being citizens are at best tenuous if one only considers the history of their treatment by the criminal justice system. At the root of blues music and culture is the result of a determined reaction to the terrible circumstances in which Afrikans in America found themselves, a gradual unfolding of their responses to the reality of American chattel slavery, the dashed promises of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Spirituals did not properly emerge until the widespread efforts at Christianization at the beginning of the19th century, which was in truth a concerted effort to replace traditional Afrikan memory and culture with the concept of a white sky God in which one must die in order to experience salvation. Christianization of Afrikans was first and foremost about control and the maintenance of slavery. Heaven was always in the sweet by and by, long after slavery had robbed the Afrikan of his very life and had made the slavemaster that much richer. Christianity was very good for business. (For the white slaveowner, it was never about saving Black souls, but his own security. Even the Black preacher's sermon had to be approved by the slavemaster, lest he fuse the Christian concept of salvation with the human longing for total liberation on Earth and thus inspire the congregation to revolt.) Christianity also provided a limited form of social status among slaves, favoring those who accepted (at least on the surface) the white man's God with extra food, clothing or petty liberties and increasing their esteem (and jealousy) in the eyes of the other captives.
In this sense, Christianity fit well with the divide and conquer schemes of the oppressor. So it is not surprising that the first wave of conversions occurred among house servants of the late 18th century, as they were the one group who lived their lives in close proximity to the ruling white class and mimicked their ways to improve their standing vis a vis other enslaved Afrikans. This group historically went to great lengths to demonstrate to their masters that they were better than the lowly 'field nigger' who was scorned by both slavemaster and house slave. It was always the rough field hand who retained the most Afrikan cultural traits and manners that were despised by their brothers and sisters in the 'Big House' as being backward because these Afrikans did not wholly swallow the poison of the white man's religion and dared to hold on to the most meaningful aspects of traditional spirituality. The 'superstitions' and 'witchcraft' that characterized these non-Christianized or unassimilated Afrikans' spiritual life was something that many house servants sought to avoid, given the fact that in slave society, everything that was Black was demonized and everything white was deified. Any hint of status, however small or insignificant, could only come from association with white Christianity. So it is that the Afrikan who had been 'refined' by the acceptance of the white man's religion and culture looked down on those who insisted upon engaging their reality from an Afrikan perspective. In modern times we have witnessed 'respectable' Black Christians who readily malign the traditions of their ancestors as being 'satanic' or 'devilish', if only because white people did not approve. The same dynamic was at play whenever a Black Christian denigrated and refused to acknowledge the heritage of the blues as being nothing more than "the devil's music." There were always potent reminders of Black folks' roots in a foreign culture that could not be ignored, if only because this culture would not die, even when planted in hostile, alien soil. This is the soil from which the blues grew and gradually took shape, a continual process that began with the first Afrikan captives and is ongoing even today. Also included in this slightly more privileged class would be laborers skilled in various essential trades (e.g. foremen, horse wranglers, carpenters, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, cooks and others) whose worldview was more expansive than the average field hand, if only because the psychological effect of having valued knowledge and a limited degree of freedom expanded their understanding of the white world and the possibilities available to them that were not enjoyed by other Afrikans. A great number of these individuals were fully literate at a time when it was prohibited to teach a slave how to read. (Mighty insurrectionists such Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser all came from this class of men.)
The first popularizer of the blues was Memphis bandleader W.C. Handy, a guitarist and cornet player who was employed in the northern Mississippi town of Clarksdale. One evening in 1903 he missed his train at the small town of Tutweiler and fell asleep. As Handy wrote in his biography, "A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar…the effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. 'Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog,' the singer repeated three times, accompanying himself on guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard." [note: The song refers to the town of Moorhead, Mississippi, where the the Southern and the Yazoo and Mississippi railroad ('The Yellow Dog') intersect.] Blues music was already a hallmark of Black culture and Handy's publication of Memphis Blues in 1912 and St. Louis Blues in 1914 increased its popularity, moving it from its obscure rural origins to the attention of a wider audience. It was during these years immediately prior to WWI that rural Black southerners began their exodus to the northern cities, spurred by the rapid industrialization. The catalysts were the promise of well-paying jobs in northern factories as well as the increased freedoms they hoped to enjoy. Luxuries such as walking about town after ten p.m and the integration of public transportation were important drivers of this massive, voluntary displacement of southern 'negroes' to the growing cities of the north. At this time, the south was still firmly entrenched in the agricultural economy, where the value of a Black man or woman was directly related to their labor and the benefits the white economy derived from it. The short-lived elation brought about by Reconstruction was crushed by the alliance of convenience among whites where poor whites were politically empowered by the planter class to be used as a buffer zone and a means to control the Black population and their increased economic aspirations. As LeRoi Jones writes, "the South would always remain in the minds of most Negroes, even without the fresh oppression of the post-bellum Jim Crow laws, the scene of the crime." (Jones, p. 95) Those who had left the South often regarded it as a place to escape from, such was the intensity of the lynchings, abuse, and disenfranchisement imposed by wealthy whites and effected by their poorer white brethren as a means to maintain a new social order where the Black man would be made to know 'his place.' The terrorism and destruction suffered by Blacks at the hands of whites in cities like Wilmington, Tulsa's 'Black Wall Street' and Rosewood in Florida attests to the fact that even when Black folk kept to themselves and developed their own economies they were seen as a threat to be eliminated by their white neighbors. In these incidents, fear of the economic power of Black communities ran in tandem with the racial hatred that had been a part of the white American psyche since the inception of chattel slavery nearly four hundred years prior. The despair that came out of these experiences was chronicled by the blues; it is no mere coincidence that this new Black art form came about during these turbulent times as a way to give meaning and expression to the pain Black people were subjected to.
Something new was growing from the same tree, the same roots and the same soil as before. It was a long time in coming. When Charley Patton wrote 'Pony Blues' in 1916, this was a new music, a young man's music. It was not his grandfather's music. No doubt the elders of his community at Dockery Plantation had vivid memories of the horrors of slavery and the disappointment of post-Reconstruction, where within the span of a few decades Black people briefly gained a measure of political power before it was quickly and savagely eliminated. (Indeed, in many hamlets of the South, the conditions that existed in slavery changed very little, if at all.) Many Black people of this generation were also staunch Christians and most likely frowned upon this new secular movement which graphically described the Black man and woman's present reality instead of offering a vision of a heaven where, as the spiritual said, they could 'lay their burdens down.' In the span of a few generations, Black music in America had transformed itself from old Afrikan melodies, dances and rhythms retained from the homeland, to spirituals and shouts and the religious music of the Great Awakening found in the Sankey and Methodist hymnals, and finally to the blues. As has always been the case, the music of Black folk displayed a constant ability to change according to the material and spiritual circumstances confronted by Afrikans in America. Jones reminds us that "rhythmic syncopation, polyphony, and shifted accents, as well as the altered timbal qualities and diverse vibrato effects of African music were all used by the Negro to transform most of the "white hymns" into Negro spirituals The pentatonic scale of the white hymns underwent the same "aberrations" by which early musicologists characterized African music. The same chords and notes in the scale would be flattened and diminished. And the meeting of the two different musics, the white Christian hymn and the Negro spiritual using that hymn as its point of departure, also produced certain elements that were later used in completely secular music." (Jones, p. 47)
What we begin to see when we look at blues history is that the music did not suddenly emerge fully formed but rather was the product of a process where outside influences, traumas and aspirations were absorbed and profoundly altered according to an African way of looking at the world. The country blues of Charley Patton's youth prior to WWI had been drastically changed once the era of the classic blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey dawned in the early 1920's. What once was a rural music played on banjos, guitars and fiddles became an urban music whose instrument of choice was the piano. This new creation developed right alongside the earlier forms that spawned it. W.C. Handy's biggest contribution in this ongoing transformation was that he packaged the blues for a newer audience during the time of the society and dance bands that did not play this obscure music of the common Black man in America prior to Handy's interest in the music. The influence of the 19th century minstrel shows and later, the Negro theater, was profound, introducing new instrumentation such as strings and horns into the music, and it was also at this point that the concept of the professional blues singer emerged. Thus the era of the development of the classic blues where singers and orchestras were paid for their blues performances had begun. Prior to this time, blues was an individual, secular music. It was not 'performed' per se, rather it was sung for pleasure, to pass the time or to relate important events, ideas and people. And no one thought of making a 'career' in the blues as one might do today; singing the blues for money was unheard of. The era of the 'classic blues singers' of the nineteen-twenties heralded a new age where the music began to be performed and commercialized by a nascent white owned record industry. Blues also represented a means of survival by operating like a pressure release valve for all the abuses suffered under white domination. By singing the blues, a Black man could express himself and present his worldview frankly and in his own manner of speaking. Modern bluesman Little Milton summed it up best:
"W.C. Handy created sequences — verse, chorus, et cetera. But the old timers didn’t really play that way. John Lee Hooker, he didn’t play by bars, he didn’t count — he just made a change whenever he felt like it. He didn’t necessarily rhyme all his words, neither. Whatever he was thinking, whatever came up, that’s what he was singing. I think Handy was trying his best to make the songs seem as professional as possible, yet also simple to play, so he put bars to the music where you could count. Twelve bars with a turn-back."
It wasn't until the music was marketed as race records to Black folk in the period after the first world war that this term began to be used to market Black people's popular folk music. There were other styles of Black secular music, but the blues as standardized and popularized by W.C. Handy became such a money maker (for the white controlled record industry) who exploited this distinct cultural movement so that before too long this term became a general term for the music of southern Black folk. It was fueled by the white record industries' realization that Black people would gladly pay good money on a weekly basis to hear the latest hit record (Black folk are still doing this, even in the post-blues, internet era). It is remarkable that this one term, 'the blues' encompasses all the different stylistic and regional variations of the music, from Northeast and Southeast Texas, to Southern Louisiana and New Orleans; from the Florida panhandle and Alabama to Mississippi; to Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland; and to Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Missouri. Every region had its own blues flavor, its own blues tradition. Wherever there were Black people who labored with their bare hands we find the blues. When we hear the down-home blues sound of Malaco records artists and the uptown sounds of Chicago Blues, the Piedmont Blues of the Southeastern states and the Delta Blues of Mississippi, we can tell there is a big difference between these styles, even today. Geography and local circumstances directly contributed to the development of original, local blues styles. Before too long, the phonograph record propelled these regional styles beyond their immediate borders, influencing blues singers in neighboring areas. A man could learn the style of another without actually having to sit down with him in person. There is a reason why Robert Johnson's 'Hellhound on My Trail' sounds so similar to Skip James 'Devil Got My Woman': Johnson had heard the record. This was contrasted with his performance of Son House's 'Walking Blues', which Johnson learned directly from Son House, one of his biggest local influences. Indeed, bluesman Honeyboy Edwards once told me that Robert Johnson could play popular show tunes, tin pan alley numbers and jazz songs that would not have been popularly known in their native Mississippi without the aid of the phonograph. Such was also the case with many of the early bluesmen, also known as 'songsters', like Mance Lipscomb, who regularly played non-blues songs such as 'Shine on Harvest Moon' and 'Frankie and Johnny', interpreting them with a blues sensibility. The new technology of radio played the same role, introducing new music beyond its geographical confines.
Although nowadays when people think of blues, a guitar immediately comes to mind, the music was never confined to one particular instrument. One could play the blues on anything: mandolins, violins, horns, pianos, harmonicas, pan pipes, washboard, jugs, spoons, bones, saws and diddley bows have all been used to play the music. Like any complete art form, it is bigger than the instrument it is played on because it is complete unto itself, a way of looking at reality through the life experience of Afrikan descendants in the New World. Blues is the style and the soul within the music, the rhythm and the sway, the word, the sound and the power. When we realize the vast difference between the various blues styles, it is obvious that when we say 'the blues' we are talking just as much about a song form as we are a style of making music. This communicates to musicians playing with one another what to expect when playing a song. Any proficient vocalist need only say 'play a slow blues in B flat' and the roadmap is made clear. They already know the characteristics of the music they will make: it will be repetitive, have a 'groove', the lyrics will follow a certain form or meter, seventh or dominant ("blue") notes will be prominent in the arrangement, and so on. The music still bears the mark of W.C. Handy, no matter where it is played. This is just one meaning among several that are applied to the term. In fact, the term has been used in so many different ways such that nowadays it has actually become confusing. When ones talk about the "blues" what are they really talking about? Are they referring to the blues music industry, which since its inception has relied on Black talent to exploit but who have been historically excluded from the immense profits this culture has generated? Or are they talking about the Black musical art form as it exists among Black people? Or is it a simply a reference to any music played in a style that could be called blues because it is guitar based, repetitive and features seventh chords and other hallmarks of the music? Or yet still, is it a reference to the music itself: the lyrics, the actual song forms (e.g.AAB, AB) that make a blues song? Or is it just a look, a style or an attitude expressed in music? These are the questions that we need to answer.
There is a popular t-shirt worn by blues fans that says, "Not Black, Not White, Just Blues." Though I have never seen a Black blues fan wear this shirt or share this sentiment, I am sure there is a Black blues fan somewhere who agrees with it. It is sort of the blues equivalent to "All Lives Matter." Both are simple, yet ignorant phrases designed to serve an agenda that ignores Black value and throw water on the fire. It denies the origin of the music and at the same time ignoring the very real impact of white money, control and participation. It implies that culture and heritage have no place when it comes to blues, that no one culture or group can lay claim to it. We have often heard it said that the blues is 'universal', that 'everyone gets the blues.' But this is misleading. When we look at European rhetoric about its own culture, one enduring, yet baseless argument is that only it can claim to be 'universal', while other cultures are viewed as 'minority', 'parochial', or 'local.' There are of course basic commonalities shared by all human beings. But differences in food, spiritual concepts, marriage and many other hallmarks of culture can not be glossed over. There are clear similarities shared by the world's cultures, but differences between them are by no means 'universal'. For example, Afrikan societies had no word for jail, but Europeans did; in Medieval Europe bathing was considered unhealthy, while Afrikans' everyday spiritual traditions were the embodiment of the idea that 'cleanliness was godliness'; after cutting their hair or nails, Afrikans would ritually bury it. Literally throwing a part of one's self into the trash as Europeans did was thought to invite misfortune. One can say confidently that humans around the world are nearly genetically the same, but human culture and traditions vary widely. So saying that one 'has the blues' is quite different from asserting that one feels a kinship or a connection to the history, people and culture of the blues. Loving the music is exclusive of understanding or relating to the circumstances behind the development of the music. The bigger issue is that the deep feeling that is the blues has been trivialized to the extent that one can claim to know what the blues is but have no consideration for the profound feelings of loss, displacement, alienation and abuse that was Black people's everyday lot in the Western world under slavery and Jim Crow.
More thoughts on the blues coming soon....