Essay: The History of Blues

This essay will briefly discuss the history of the blues and the social and political environments from which the genre emerged. The Deep South of the US (states like Oklahoma, Mississippi, Central Georgia, Virginia and the west of Texas; also known as the Mississippi-Delta) will act as a focalised region for this study. As well as the potential origins of blues this essay will focus specifically on stereotyping within the genre. It would be possible to write a lot more about the Jim Crow laws, the great depression, the history of the music and the native countries of black slaves, their living situations and the different countries of blues, but I have to keep focus on the main question:

Popular music histories suggest that music genres may reflect or respond to the social and political environments within which they emerge. You should critically discuss this idea in relation to one of the unit lecture topics. (Blues)

In response to the above question it can be said; observing particular stereotypes is an important part of recognising the social environment in this music, because it shows different point of views and the way sources and a genre can be subjective.

As a starting point for the social and political environments of blues certain events in United States history should be mentioned: In 1865 the civil war ended. This war, a bloody battle between the Northern and Southern states, concluded as a victory for the Northern states. The conditions of the slaves, from mostly Africa, Middle- and South-America, emancipated. The federal government introduced a period of reconstruction but this only lasted until 1877, when a rebellious white elite adopted a series of laws in the southern states that made discrimination tolerable by local governments and civilians. The conditions in the South rapidly changed and segregation, violence and racism were the order of the day. It is uncertain when these laws, the Jim Crow laws, called after an unemployed black man, were truly adopted but general consensus is they started in 1890, when the separated-train transport was introduced in New Orleans, Louisiana. Unfortunately, there is no documentation about the ‘birth’ of blues, but most scholars do agree that it occurred during this period. Evans (2003. p20) is one of these scholars.

Between 1890 and 1910 new sounds – melodic, instrumental, and verbal – began to penetrate the repertoire of African American music hitherto dominated by spirituals, functional songs of work and play, narrative folk ballads, banjo tunes, and fast-paced instrumental dance music. Drawing from all these older forms, as well as the simultaneously emerging ragtime and jazz, these sounds coalesced fully by the end of this period to the point where they could be recognized as a distinct genre of music called the blues.’

Evans talks about how different musical genres, played mostly by African-Americans, came together and so created the musical genre blues. In ‘The Beat Goes On’, Michael Campbell (1996. p38) tells us more about how British folk entered into the native musical culture. “Settlers from England, Ireland and Scotland brought a rich folk tradition with them. Many of these fiddle tunes, songs and ballads entered the native tradition here (in the USA)”. David Monod (2007. p179) tells how many authors have agreed on some basic facts about the birth of blues. “Blues is a folk music; African-American; non-commercial; a product of segregation and plantation society, and perhaps even of an ancient oral tradition.”

Especially in the statement of Monod we have a clear link between the birth of blues and how it is a product of the segregation and social environments of the African-Americans in the Deep South of the US. Monod also says the following in his text “Ev’rybody’s Crazy ’Bout the Doggone Blues’’, “The blues is a psychological state — an approach to and a reflection on experience — rather than a temporally defined poetic or musical art.” (2007. p180) W.C. Handy, musician, bandleader and first composer of commercialised blues explains in an interview in the early 1920s, how blues is a social kind of music that you have to be ‘in the mood’ for: “Most white people think that the Negro is always cheerful and lively … But he isn’t, though he may seem that way sometimes when he is most troubled. The Negro knows the blues as a state of mind, and that is why the music has that name.” For his part, Handy is said to have only been able “to write the blues” when he was “forc[ed] to feel the blues [by] participating … in a larger current of black working-class feeling.” A lot of recent scholars contextualised these blues lyrics and the social environments are extra clear in their songs. They have a close link to the Northern migration, the industrialization of agriculture, and the impact of Jim Crow laws on the black community. Bruce Bastin suggests that the music should be seen as a product of specific “psycho-social-historical” forces; a personal and communal response to the changing patterns of repression and powerlessness among the poorest segments of South-eastern black society rather than as an established tradition.” (2007. p181/182) This statement shows clearly how blues is a product of its history, not just a piece of art like Monod says, but an evolving story of cause and effect.

When we talk about the social environments of blues it is really easy to fall into stereotyping. We think about depressing and sad songs. But blues never started as a depressed kind of music. In fact, comedians performed the first blues songs on the vaudeville stage. (Monod, D. 2007. p184) The blues we call nowadays authentic blues, where actually “a plea imitation of the blues that ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were singing in tent shows and on the black vaudeville circuit” (Campbell, M. 2006. p52)

When talking about the history of a musical genre, as well as the social environments, it becomes clear that it’s subjective. Some scholars talk how the blues performers where comedians, and not the depressing sound that most of us bare in mind. When we take a closer look at the lyrics from, for example Virginia Liston, Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith, we do hear the singers struggling. Bessie Smith sings; “Then I began to feel so low, I didn’t have a friend, no place to go” (Bessie Smith – Nobody knows you when you’re down and out. Youtube.com) Campbell confirms this in ‘The Beat Goes On’; “Happy blues songs are the exception to the rule.” (1996. p92)

Next to the stereotypical lyrics, there is a strong view of the stereotypical blues performer. We see a black man, with worn clothes and a guitar. But how accurate is this? If we take a look at the 1941 memoirs of W.C. Handy, who called himself ‘The Father Of The Blues’, Handy tells about the first time he heard the blues. Apparently this man was a gangly blind singer in a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi. “His clothes were rags, his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages.” (Monod, D. 2007. p191) And with this example he gives an ideal image of how the early blues artist stereotypes looked. But we can question the memoirs of Handy, says Monod. First of all; He wrote his memoirs 40 years after the event and second; Handy had an influential record producer ‘who was mounting his widely advertised concert history of African-American music’. In an interview from 1938 Handy even contradicts himself by saying the first blues he heard was in the 1890’s from a man in Indiana. (Monod, D. 2007. p192) A further stereotype in the blues, is the more common notion of blues being solely ‘black’ music but according to Monod (2007. p191) both white and black Southerners where familiar with the Celtic and African folk songs.

The blues roots lay, next to folk and slaves songs, in sacred songs, especially the gospel performance. Like W.C. Handy explained; the music was meant to sound “like a darkie sorrow song”. “The plaintive sound of diminished chords appears to have been widely associated with the church singing tradition.” (Monod, D. 2007. p189) You even saw the gospel traditions back in the blues performance. A newspaper in April 1913 reported the following about a performance from Virginia Liston;

Her singing voice was not that of a nightingale or a mocking bird, but it suited her notion of the ‘Blues.’ She carried the audience with her as if by a hypnotic spell. Men and women answered her and seemingly all unconscious of the fact, or because they could not help but answer her. She sang and swayed. Had she been an evangelist, the audience would have been drawn to her feet. As it is some forgot and worked in words of praise such as the ones that are heard in churches.’ (Monod, D. 2007. p190)

This quote shows a very powerful social situation. Imagine; a crowded pub, or maybe theatre, full with dark men and women, listening, singing along and answering the questions the performer on the stage is asking. According to the newspaper, Virginia Liston was practically an evangelist.

From the early 1920s the social presentation of the African-American performers changed. It was made clear that the artists where without question Africa-Americans. Although the record companies did not know how many black farm families owned phonographs before World War II. One Mississippi researcher noted in the early 1940s that “plantation Negroes, even though they may be in very dire economic circumstances have large collections of jazz records together with victrolas.” (Monod, D. 2007. p197) The blues singers were presented as urban and sophisticated. For example, Ethel Waters and Lucille Hegamin were both described as “colored contralos”’. (Monod, D. 2007. p199)

The Great Depression took place in the USA around the mid nineteen thirties, during which time the social and political environments of blues came together. Because of the Depression a lot of blues orientated record companies closed and there was a mass-migration to the Northern states, like Philadelphia. The bars in these states where so crowded, that the blues musicians had to change their folk acoustic music to electric guitars. Robert Johnson is one of the first performers who changed the blues. A decade later the performer Muddy Waters changes the electric guitar parts of Robert Johnson into rhythm; and the music genre Rhythm and Blues (R&B) emerged. When Elvis Presley in 1954 mixed R&B with rock, suddenly blues was ‘dead’. But how exact is this? It took ten more years, not until 1964 that the Jim Crow laws were overruled. It is hard to imagine that the blues artist just stayed silent the last years of the Jim Crow decades. The theory that Keith Negus (1996. p146) uses for rock music can also be used for the blues genre. Blues artists became pastichists (an old and new genre combined) and synthesists (combination of different genres to make a new kind of music). The influence of this mixing of forms can be heard in many living contemporary musicians. The Rolling Stones are called after the song like a Rolling Stone, from Muddy Waters. Eric Clapton, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, just a few names of still famous artist nowadays who are inspired by the early sounds of blues.

Conclusion

The Civil War, the Jim Crow laws and the Great Depression are all political environments that made the ‘birth’ of blues possible. These political choices where the cause of reconstruction, but later on also segregation and racism. The political environments fed through into the social environments, making blues “an approach to and a reflection on experience” as David Monod states. According to Bruce Bastin blues is a psycho-social-historical music. Making a combination between the social and historical environments. But we have to watch out for stereotyping and claiming that blues died. In the end blues just changed, and can still be found in the social environments and different sorts of music nowadays.

Bibliography

Evans, D. 2003. The developments of blues. Cambridge University Press. The Cambridge companion to blues and gospel music. Moore, A (ed).

Monod, D. 2007. “Ev’rybody’s Crazy ’Bout the Doggone Blues’’ Creating the Country Blues in the Early Twentieth Century. Department of History, Wilfred Laurier University. Volume 19, issue 2. Pages 179 – 214.

Campbell, M. 1996. And The Beat Goes On, an introduction to popular music in America, 1840 to today. Schirmer Books. An imprint of Simon & Schuster Macmillan, New York.

Campbell, M. 2006. The Beat Goes On, popular music in America, second edition. Thomson Schirmer.

Bessie Smith – Nobody knows you when you’re down and out. 12 October 2009. Recorded 15th May 1929. Watched on 5th of December. Available from:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FX8ptPn3P9I&feature=related

Negus, K. 1996. ‘Histories’ in Popular Music in Theory. Cambridge, Polity Press.

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