Blacks in Blues Music
Biographer Lawrence Jackson wrote that author Ralph Ellison was exposed to the blues and classical music from an early age, eventually playing the trumpet and pursuing a degree in music at Tuskegee (McLaren Pp). When he moved to New York to pursue his writing career, Ellison was exposed to the musical developments in jazz and often attended the Apollo Theater, the Savoy Ballroom, and Cafe Society Downtown, and although he admired such figures as pianist Teddy Wilson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, he did not particularly admired Dizzy Gillespie’s Bebop, considering its use of Afro-Cuban influences as a “strategic mistake” (McLaren Pp). Ellison, writes Jackson, was more concerned with the “homegrown idiom” (McLaren Pp). That homegrown idiom that Ellison referred to was the blues, a music born in the fields of the South by black workers who used their African musical heritage to give birth to a new sound. This new sound would become a major part of American music and would eventually become a catalytic influence on music the world over, while at the same time remaining definably “black.”
In “The Music of Black Americans” Eileen Southern writes that “we know even less about the origin of the blues than we know about the beginning of ragtime” (Southern 330). According to Southern, W.C. Handy was the first man to popularize the blues, after he was struck with the possibilities of utilizing it in musical compositions in 1903 when he heard a man singing a song in a Mississippi train station (Southern 330). Handy recalled that the man was a “lean, loose-jointed Negro” clothed in rags with a face that reflected the “sadness of the ages” and as he sang and plunked on a guitar, Handy recognized the song type, and earthy kind of music that he had known as a boy in Alabama (Southern 330).
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was the earliest professional blues singer who remembered first hearing the blues in 1902 while touring in Missouri with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels (Southern 330). Rainey said she heard a local girl sing a song about the man who had deserted her, and its plaintive poignancy haunted Rainey, who learned the song and used it in her act (Southern 330). The song became so popular with the audiences that Rainey began to specialize in the singing of such songs, and claims to be the one who gave them the name “the blues” after being asked time and again about the kind of song she was singing, and finally answered in an inspired moment, “it’s the blues” (Southern 330).
However when old timers across the country were asked about the blues origins, most scoffed at Rainey’s story (Southern 330). An old fiddler in New Orleans said, “The blues? Ain’t no first blues! The blues always been” (Southern 330). Bunk Johnson, a pioneer bluesman said, “When I was kid (1880’s) we used to play nothing but the blues” (Southern 330). Even New Orleans street vendors used the blues, advertising their wares by playing blues on toy horns bought from Kress’s dime stores (Southern 330).
Those early anonymous blues singers were often wanderers, sometimes blind, who carried their sorrowful songs from one black community to another, singing in “railroad stations, on the street corners, in eating places, in honky-tonk night spots, and even on the trains,” and could also be found singing at social affairs, dances and picnics (Southern 331). However, from the time of its origin, the blues was generally associated with the lowly where it was warmly received in the brothels and saloons of the red-light district, but rejected by respectable people (Southern 331).
As an aural music, the blues has few absolute features, intended to take on its shape and style during the performance, and generally, but not always, the blues reflects the personal response of its inventor to a specific occurrence or situation (Southern 331). As Southern writes, “By singing about his misery, the blues singer achieves a kind of catharsis and life become bearable again … Most often the blues singer bemoans the fickleness or departure of a love one” (Southern 331). The blues singer doesn’t need an audience for his singing, although others may listen if they wish, and most often find that they have shared his experiences in one way or another (Southern 331).
The antecedents of the blues were the mournful songs of the stevedores and roustabouts, the field hollers of the slaves and the sorrow songs among the spirituals, such as “Lay This Body Down” (Southern 332). Other early blues types can be found in the collections of secular folksongs that began to appear in print during the first decade of the twentieth century, “of which many obviously dated back into the nineteenth” (Southern 332).
Although the blues typically concerns itself with the problems and experiences of the individual, it is impossible to convey precisely the sentiments of the blues, and as Handy observed, “the blues, like all Negro folksong, was drawn from a well of sorrow … But not a well of despair” (Southern 333). There is almost always a note of irony or humor in the blues, “as if the singer is audaciously challenging fate to mete out further blows” (Southern 333).
Like other black folksong, blues lyrics are rich in imagery, and generally of a very earthy quality (Southern 333). And in addition to its lyrics, the blues is distinctive for its three-line stanza, “an apparent throwback to African origins, for the three-line stanza is uncommon in American and European folksong repertories” (Southern 333).
According to many bluesmen and scholars, the tune associated with the “Joe Turner” blues was the prototype for all folk blues (Southern 334). As one writer pointed out, “the old Joe Turner and almost any other blues of an unsophisticated type may actually be played or sung together without any serious difficulties being encountered: because there is so little difference between the tunes” (Southern 334). The Joe Turner tune was used all over the South with a number a texts, including, “Goin’ Down the River ‘Fore Long” in Kentucky, and “Goin’ Down That Lonesome Road” in Georgia” (Southern 334).
When William Christopher Handy, 1873-1958, published his first blues composition, the “Memphis Blues” in 1912, he created an unprecedented vogue for that kind of music (Southern 336). It was originally written in 1909 as a campaign song for one of the mayoral candidates, Edward H. Crump, in a Memphis election, and upon its first performance, became an instant success (Southern 336). Two years later, Handy published the world famous, “St. Louis Blues,” a composition that has carried the blues all of the world (Southern 336).
Although Handy was the first man to write a blues composition and the first to popularize the blues, two blues pieces actually appeared in print prior to his “Memphis Blues” (Southern 338). The “Baby Seals Blues,” written by the rag-pianist Artie Matthews, was published in August, 1912, and the “Dallas Blues’ written by the white songwriter Hart A. Wand, was published the following month (Southern 338). Handy’s blues piece came out three-week later, followed by his “Jogo Blues” in 1913, “St. Louis Blues” in 1914, and “Joe Turner Blues” in 1915 (Southern 338). In 1915, Matthew wrote another popular blues, “Weary Blues,” and that same year, Ferdinand Joseph Morton published his “Original Jelly Roll Blues” (Southern 338).
These early pieces, along with some traditional folk-blues melodies, provide the basic repertory of stock melodies that have been drawn upon “innumerable times by jazz composers” (Southern 338).
Alan Lomax writes in “The Land Where the Blues Began” that the blues has been “mostly masculine territory,” although women do sing the blues, but “down in the land where the blues began, the majority of the real ….blues singers wore pants,” for no “truly respectable Delta woman was supposed to sing the blues even in private” (Lomax 358). According to Lomax, most men, sooner or later, gave up their sinful ways, including the blues, and joined the church (Lomax 359). In fact, “music and the ministry were the principal professions available to men of wit in the Delta,” and many of the most ambitious tried both, including Son House, Big Bill, and Muddy Waters (Lomax 359).
As the dance halls grew bigger to accommodate the crowds of prosperous times, pianos and small combos began to replace the lone guitarist, and soon a generation of piano wizards appeared who devised an African, orchestral way of playing this parlor instrument (Lomax 359). The tonality of the music began to change with these influences, and the African-like scales, which had sounded the cool melancholy of the blues, were muted (Lomax 360). With the electronically amplified instruments that Muddy Waters and other urban bluesmen introduced, electronic tone replace that of steel and wood, “and the guitar began to lose its human voice, ” yet through all these changes … “the power of the Mississippi bard endured” (Lomax 360).
According to Lomax, “with few exceptions, only women in show business, women of questionable reputation, publicly performed the blues, women like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie” (Lomax 360). These female blues singers toured the black vaudeville circuits or performed in city nightclubs, basically in protected venues, “on stage, out of reach of their admirers … And between performances, relaxed in backstage areas out of bounds to the public … they did not sing in the street or play in jukes and barrooms” (Lomax 360).
What is distinctive about the blues lyrics of the 1920’s and 1930’s in relation to other forms of American popular music was its “intellectual independence and representational freedom,” writes Angela Y. Davis in “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” (Davis 3). Blues lyrics were filled with provocative and sexually pervasive imagery, openly addressing both male and female sexuality (Davis 3). Moreover, the birth of the blues was evidence of new realities within the black populations because the music was performed solo, therefore, it marked “the advent of a popular culture performance” (Davis 4).
The word “blue” has been associated with the idea of melancholia or depression since the Elizabethan era and American writer, Washington Irving, is credited with coining the term “the blues,” as it is now defined, in 1807 (Baker pp). The beginning of the blues musical tradition can be traced through oral tradition as far back as the 1860’s (Baker pp).
The focus of African music is rhythmic rather than tonal, therefore, traditional African musicians were more interested in the variety of possible shadings around it than in replicating the pure tone itself (Eastman pp). Moreover, the modal scales that Africans employed did not fit precisely into the standard European diatonic scale, so in order to “accommodate to the tuning of European instruments, black American musicians created the so-called ‘blue notes’ — the flatted fifth and seventh notes of the eight note diatonic scale” (Eastman pp).
With stringed instruments, American players
purposely ran knife blades or annealed bottle neck “slides” along the metal strings of the fretboard to distort or extend the “pure” tones that instruments were designed to produce.
Often instead of, or in addition to, regular strumming, bluesmen slapped and pulled at guitar, fiddle or bass strings to increase this
“dissonant” effect (Eastman pp).
Charley Patton originated the Delta blues sound that is known today (They pp). Born sometime between 1881-1891 in Edwards, Mississippi, he lived and worked on Dockery’s Plantation, where he mentored such legends as Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Pops Staples, and Howlin’ Wolf (They pp). In 1929, he traveled to Richmond, Indiana, to record “Pony Blues” for the Paramount label, followed by many other sessions until his death in 1934 (They pp). Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, was born in Shiloh, Louisiana in 1888, and was among the first of the great American balladeers (They pp). Although he lived the life of a traditional Delta bluesman, he was also famous as a folk singer, “having originated such tunes as “Goodnight Irene,” “Midnight Special,” and “Rock Island Line” (They pp).
Although the “Blues” has been adopted by musicians around the world, it remains the indelible creation of the American blacks, evolving from a heritage spanning decades. No longer confined to barrooms and jukes, the blues has become the main fabric of American music, from which jazz, rock, and even country evolved. There are numerous blues festivals to be found most anytime and anywhere. Lurgan, Ireland hosts one back by the Craigavon Borough Council (Festival pp). And every year there is the “Rhythm & Blues Festival” in Newport, Rhode Island (Rockport Pp). And Madison, Wisconsin hosts the annual Madison Blues Festival on Lake Monona (Kassulke Pp).
McLaren, Joseph. “Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius.”
Research in African Literatures; 12/22/2004; Pp.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans. W.W. Norton & Company.
1983; pp. 330, 331, 332, 333, 334, 336, 338.
Lomax, Alan. The Land Where the Blues Began. Pantheon Books. 1993; pp.
358, 359, 360.
Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey,
Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. Vintage. 1999; pp. 3, 4.
Baker, Robert M. “Brief History of the Blues.”
Eastman, Ralph. “African Influence in the Development of American Music as
Illustrated in Early Delta Blues Performances.” http://www.gse.uci.edu/Lessons/blues.html
“They Call Him the Father of the Blues.”
“Festival wins pounds 3,000 grant.” The News Letter. 8/9/1999; Pp.
The Rockport Company Sponsors Rhythm & Blues Festival in Newport, Rhode
Island.” PR Newswire; 4/26/1996;Pp.
Kassulke, Natasha. “Festival Singing the Blues.” Wisconsin State Journal;
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