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Blacks & Blues: Songs Of Struggle

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robert-johnson

juke (of West African origin, akin to Wolof dzug, to live wickedly) – a roadside drinking establishment that offers cheap drinks, food and music for dancing, often blues music.


the blues (Middle English, short for blue devils, a feeling of despondency) – 1. depressed spirits; despondency; melancholy.  2. a song, originating with African-Americans, that is marked by the frequent occurrence of blue or flattened notes. 3.  the genre constituting such songs.

“Having the blues” was a ubiquitous expression that had been around as a description for melancholia since the “blue devils” of Elizabethan England.  The term became associated with the body of work that is the basic vocabulary for all American popular music around the turn of the last century.  The blues’ evolution started with West African chord structures and poetic forms that developed in the cotton and rice fields of the Mississippi Delta, Georgia and the Carolinas and Texas into African-American work songs and spirituals.  By mid-19th century the form had coalesced into dance tunes called “jump-ups,” and by the turn of the 20th, the blues as we know it had taken shape.  The first true blues was performed by singers who would engage in call-and-response with a guitar – the performer would sing a line, and the guitar, often played with a bottleneck or knife sliding up and down the strings, giving the instrument an eerie, voice-like moan, would answer.  Both the call-and -response format and the imitation of vocal sounds by instruments are direct influences from West African music.

Early blues was irregular and followed the patterns of speech.  As the style evolved, a standard form was set: a statement was made in the first four bars, repeated (sometimes with a slight variation) in the next four, and answered and commented on in the last four.  The story of a typical blues is autobiographical, frank and earthy, and mostly concerned with basic human problems – money, hard luck, traveling, love and sex — and any combination thereof.  The tempo can vary widely and the mood can be perversely upbeat or range from total despair to cynicism and satire.

There are three distinct regional styles of the blues: Delta blues, Piedmont blues, and Texas blues.  Delta blues is the most influential and familiar of the three, with talking vocal lines and rhythmic guitar accompaniment. Charley Patton, Son House, Johnny Shines and Robert Johnson all played blues in the Delta style.  The blues of Georgia and the Carolinas, or Piedmont blues, is strongly influenced by ragtime and Anglo-Irish folk music.  Blind Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller were representative of this style. Texas blues features high, clear singing and the guitar is plucked instead of strummed. Blind Lemon Jefferson was the most well-known Texas bluesman.

A researcher visiting the Mississippi Delta from Harvard’s Peabody Museum wrote the first published descriptions of the blues in 1903.  At around that same time, W.C. Handy and Ma Rainey, two seasoned professional African-American entertainers of the era, told similar stories of discovering this strange “new” music that they had heard around the back of the show tent (in Ma Rainey’s case) or waiting for a train at the station (in Handy’s).  Both performers incorporated blues tunes into their acts and noticed the overwhelming response from audiences.  Ma Rainey forged a link between rural blues of the South and classic city blues and influenced blues singers from Bessie Smith to Ruth Brown, Etta James and LaVern Baker to Janis Joplin. W.C Handy went on to become known as “The Father of the Blues,” and in 1909 he debuted his “Memphis Blues,” the first published blues.

The blues jumped off of front porches and out of juke joints, which were the fonts of plantation booze and music that spawned the likes of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, and it jumped onto the wire as radio broadcasts out of the Delta and sound recordings spread the music across the South.  The first known blues record was Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” released in 1920.  The Depression and the World Wars loaded the blues onto trains and buses with thousands of African-Americans as they headed North to seek a better life.  When the blues hit Chicago and Detroit it got electrified as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker picked up electric guitars.  Country blues became urbanized and amplified, and gained a corresponding sophistication and edginess as city blues evolved, laying the groundwork for a musical revolution that would provide the formal basis for all succeeding American musical styles, including rock and roll.

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– Meredith Rutledge for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

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