Fall Edition, Volume 1, Issue 4: An Abbreviated History of Blues Music

 

By: Harold Aldridge, Jr.

W. C. Handy (1873- 1958) Father of the Blues photographed by Carl Van VechtenW.C. Handy has long been touted as the “Father of the Blues,” though he is one of many Black musicians who played the American music that came to be known as the Blues. He is, however, correctly credited with giving the Blues its contemporary-classical form. In his autobiography, Father of the Blues, Handy wrote that Southern Negroes sang about everything, and they accompanied themselves on anything they could get a musical sound or rhythmical effect out of. In that way, he stated, those Black men set the mood and stage for the music we call Blues. (Handy, 1991).                                                          

Handy told the story of his first encounter with the true deep Delta native music. He stated that, in 1903, while waiting for a train connection in the Delta town of Tutwiler, Mississippi, a lean, poorly dressed, loose-jointed Negro (who was also at the train station for a connection) started playing his guitar near Handy while he slept. Handy awoke to listen to this guitar player as he slid his pocket knife over his guitar strings with one hand while he plunked the strings with the other hand to accompany his vocals. According to Handy, it was the weirdest music he had ever heard. He was mesmerized by it and thought that the music of that loose-jointed plantation Negro was a haunting “Native music” that he could never forget.



No one knows precisely when or exactly where Blues music was first sung or played. No one knows how this particular form of American music came to be called ‘the Blues.’ However, some ethnomusicologists seem to think that this style of musical expression was originally formed in the Delta area of Mississippi. According to most historians, Blues music did not come directly out of Africa nor was it directly influenced by ScotIrish ballads. It was created and developed by Black folks who were captured, chained, and dragged from Africa to the shores of America, sold as slaves, and transported to plantations throughout the South to toil in captivity for the rest of their lives. Stripped of their cultures and religious customs, they were forced and expected to adopt Christianity with the promise of a heavenly afterlife which the slave holders hoped would keep the African imports subservient. (Tanner & Hilderbrand, 1998). Instead, worshiping the Christian God provided the slaves with an opened outlet by which they could vent and express their anguish and pain until it became a cathartic respite. In that process they created spirituals—gospel songs that were different from the slave masters’ church hymns. And, many of their songs were infused with subtle and coded messages of secret meetings and were actually protest songs against their oppression. 

According to most historians, the Blues evolved from a combination of field hollers, work songs, chants, spirituals, diddly-bow music, ragtime songs and country reels. It was considered by many to be profane, devil’s music. While working long days in the fields, slaves often used field ‘hollers’ to communicate with each other across the plantations. They devised work songs with call-and-response patterns to entertain themselves and to take their minds off the misery of what they were doing. The vocal and rhythmic expressions helped to pass away the long hours of never-ending labor. The field slaves also used chants in which syncopated timing was utilized to maximize the strength, power and efficiency of all involved in the task at hand. Historians also suggest that Blues developed in the deep Delta region of the American South where the strongest presence of African influence was felt, and at no other place throughout the South did the music sound blacker and more African (Davis, 1995). West Africa, in fact, is viewed as the influential source of the vocal inflections and sliding notes that are found in American Blues music. Frequently, a Blues singer will employ other skills and techniques such as falsetto, shouting, whining, moaning and growling. In addition, there are irregular vocal accents used along with the polyrhythmic density of one chord drone sound in the music pitch, followed by the call-and-response, all of which can be traced back to ancient African traditions. (Tanner, Hildebrand, 1998/Davis, 1995/Warren & Warren, 1970).

West Africa, in fact, is viewed as the influential source of the vocal inflections and sliding notes that are found in American Blues music. Frequently, a Blues singer will employ other skills and techniques such as falsetto, shouting, whining, moaning and growling. In addition, there are irregular vocal accents used along with the polyrhythmic density of one chord drone sound in the music pitch, followed by the call-and-response, all of which can be traced back to ancient African traditions. (Tanner, Hildebrand, 1998/Davis, 1995/Warren & Warren, 1970).

Blues melodies are thought to be based on the European Major music scale, modified when the 3rd, 5th and 7th notes (degrees) of the scale are flattened (diminished), creating what are called ‘blue notes.’ These alternative inflections—blue notes—change the major scale to the modified Blues (African) scale. Some theorists do, however, argue that the Blues or African scale is not a modified version of the European Major scale, but an unwritten scale of its own.

Interestingly, Blues music and Spiritual music both use the Blues (African) scale in the same way. Although, as genres, Blues and Spirituals have independent lives of their own, both have the same basic rhythm and syncopatic patterns of expression in the use of variations, “West Africa, in fact, is viewed as the influential source of the vocal inflections and sliding notes that are found in American Blues music.”

“After the Civil War and the Emancipation of the slaves, spiritual songs were changed from being songs of protest to songs that were inspirational for the future.

To learn more, order you copy of Shades Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 4 


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