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Origins of the blues

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Origins of the blues

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Little is known about the exact origins of the music we now know as the blues [1]. No specific year can be cited as the origin of the blues, largely because the style evolved over a long period of time and existed in something approaching its modern form before the term blues was introduced, before the style was thoroughly documented. One important early reference to something probably closely resembling the blues comes from 1901, when an archaeologist in Mississippi described the songs of black workers which had lyrical themes and technical elements in common with the blues [2].

The most important direct antecedent of the blues was the spiritual, a form of religious song with its roots in the camp meetings of the Great Awakening of the early 19th century. Spirituals were a passionate song form, that "convey(ed) to listeners the same feeling of rootlessness and misery" as the blues [3]. Spirituals, however, were less specifically concerning the performer, instead about the general loneliness of mankind, and were more figurative than direct in their lyrics [4]. Despite these differences, the two forms are similar enough that they can not be easily separated many spirituals would probably have been called blues had that word been in wide use at the time [5].

Aside from the spirituals, African American work songs were an important precursor to the modern blues; these included the songs sung by laborers like stevedores and roustabouts, and the field hollers of slaves [6].

There are few characteristics common to all blues, as the genre takes its shape from the peculiarities of each individual performance.[7] Some characteristics, however, have been a presence since prior to the creation of the modern blues, and are common to most styles of African American music. The earliest blues-like music was a "functional expression, rendered in a call-and-response style without accompaniment or harmony and unbounded by the formality of any particular musical structure".[8] This pre-blues music was adapted from the field shouts and hollers performed during slave times, expanded into "simple solo songs laden with emotional content".[9]

Many of these blues elements, such as the call-and-response format, can be traced back to the music of Africa; author Sylviane Diouf has pointed to several specific traits, like the use of melisma and a wavy, nasal intonation that suggest a connection between the Muslim music of West and Central Africa and the blues [10]. African American composer W. C. Handy wrote in his autobiography of the experience of sleeping on a train traveling through (or stopping at the station of) Tutwiler, Mississippi, and being awakened by:

... a lean, loose-jointed Negro [who] had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar. ... The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. . .. The singer repeated the line ("Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog") three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

African Muslim roots of certain elements of the blues have been posited by writers including the researcher Paul Oliver and the ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik, who describe how the knife technique Handy witnessed is a common one in West and Central Africa cultures, regions where Islam is strong and where the kora is often the stringed instrument of choice.

Robert Johnson, a Delta blues singer, is generally held responsible for the standardization of the 12-bar blues. Robert Johnson, a Delta blues singer, is generally held responsible for the standardization of the 12-bar blues.

Blues later adopted elements from the "Ethiopian (here, meaning "black") airs" of minstrel shows and Negro spirituals, including instrumental and harmonic accompaniment.[11] The style also was closely related to ragtime, which developed at about the same time, though the blues better preserved "the original melodic patterns of African music".[12] Songs from this early period had many different structures. A testimony of those times can be found for instance in Henry Thomas' recordings. However the twelve-, eight-bar, or sixteen-bar structure based on tonic, subdominant and dominant chords became the most common.[13] Melodically, blues music is marked by the use of the lowered third and dominant seventh (so-called blue notes) of the associated major scale.[14] What is now recognizable as the standard 12-bar blues form is documented from oral history and sheet music as appearing in African-American communities throughout the region along the lower Mississippi River during the decade of the 1900s (and performed by white bands in New Orleans at least since 1908). One of these early sites of blues evolution was along Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee.

One of the first professional blues singers was Ma Rainey, who claimed to have coined the term blues; however, author Eileen Southern has pointed out several contrasting statements by old-time musicians. She cites Eubie Blake as saying "Blues in Baltimore? Why, Baltimore is the blues!" and Bunk Johnson as claiming that the blues was around in his childhood, in the 1880s [15].

The most important reason for the lack of certain knowledge about the origins of the blues is the earliest blues musicians' tendency to wander through communities, leaving little or no record of precisely what sort of music they played or where it came from. Blues was generally regarded as lower-class music, unfit for documentation, study or enjoyment by the upper- and middle-classes [16].

Some scholars and performers have claimed that the tune associated with the song "Joe Turner" is the basis for all folk blues [17].

References

  • Southern, Eileen (1997). The Music of Black Americans. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. ISBN 0393038432.
  • Garofalo, Reebee (1997). Rockin' Out: Popular Music in the USA. Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 0205137032.
  • Ferris, Jean (1993). America's Musical Landscape. Brown & Benchmark. ISBN 0697125165.
  • [[18] Muslim Roots of the Blues]. SFGate. URL accessed on August 24, 2005.
  • Schuller, Gunther (1968). Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195040430.
  • Ewen, David (1957). Panorama of American Popular Music. Prentice Hall. ISBN 0136483607.
  • Oliver, Paul (1970). Savannah syncopators : African retentions in the blues. Studio Vista. ISBN 0289798280.

Notes

  1.   Southern, pg. 332
  2.   Southern, pg. 334
  3.   Southern, pg. 333
  4.   Southern, pg. 333
  5.   Southern, pg. 333-334
  6.   Southern, pg. 334
  7.   Southern, pg. 333
  8.   Garofalo, pg. 44
  9.   Ferris, pg. 229
  10.   SFGate
  11.   Garofalo, pg. 44 Gradually, instrumental and harmonic accompaniment were added, reflecting increasing cross-cultural contact. Garofalo goes on to cite others mentioning the "Ethiopian airs" and "Negro spirituals".
  12.   Schuller, cited in Garofalo, pg. 27
  13.   Garofalo, pgs. 46-47
  14.   Ewen, pg. 143
  15.   Southern, pg. 332
  16.   Southern, 332-333
  17.   Southern, pg. 336 Southern does not specify which bluesmen and scholars have made this claim, but does note see also in regard to Joe Turner in Evans, Big Road Blues, pp. 46-47

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