The Blues? It’s the mother of American music. That’s what it is – the source. — BB King
Europeans involved in the slave trade stripped as much culture from their human cargo as possible but music was so deep rooted in the African men and women that it was impossible to tear it away from those who survived the horrific journey.
In West Africa, where the slaves came from, every ceremony was celebrated with singing and dancing and the music went with them to work into the fields of North America.
Initially the music took the form of Negro spirituals and field hollers. What came to be known as “the Blues” drew on both forms and spread throughout south USA as itinerant songsters carried what they learned from place to place and entertained people for a profit.
After the failure of Reconstruction in the ten year period after the end of the American Civil war, institutionalised racism defined the South. After Union troops left white supremacists moved quickly to maintain their power structures. “Jim Crow” segregation laws spread to 14 states in the period between 1890 and 1910. This meant so-called “separate but equal” facilities enshrined by the US Senate in law in 1896.
Of course facilities were far from equal. And racist laws were backed up with weekly lynchings. Grinding poverty and shifting seasonal employment affected black people the most. Fiercer competition for jobs in the depression of the 1890s meant racism took this particularly brutal form.
What came to be known as Blues music grew up in this transition period from a slave plantation economy to a sharecropper plantation system of smaller farms based on debt bondage. Black sharecroppers would in theory own a share of land but given that tools, clothes and accommodation had to be paid to the landowners from the share very few actually owned any land. Most ended up owing the landlord more than they received from the work.
In 1894 there were massive strikes in the North over unemployment. The jobless were on the move. In response the Democrats wound up supporting segregation in the South — share cropping peonage, railroad construction using black labour, and convict-lease to landowners predominated.
It was this mixture of unrealised hope from the end of slavery, continued real oppression and a greater possibility of individual freedom of expression that led to the creativity of the Blues.
Initially the black church was an outlet for black frustrations, with many black musicians such as the Reverend Gary Davies and Son House being preachers as well as musicians. Blues and Gospel developed along parallel lines. But the Church proved inadequate as a protector, and with the prospect of industrial work in the north two major migrations north took place at the outset of both world wars.
The music reflected and articulated the emotions that went with the oppression and now, the dilemmas of staying with kin in oppression in the South or moving North away from family to look for work. The music was a safe means of escape. It eventually became universally popular as people the world over identified with the hopes and frustrations of the blues men and women.
Blues lyrics tended to avoid direct reference to oppression because that could mean death. Instead oppression was expressed in coded lyrics and dissatisfactions of specific aspects of life, or stories of heroes like John Henry and Stagolee.
Early blues musicians did not create with a mass audience in mind, so it was very personal and resonant in sound. The rural south of America lacked good transport and communication links and there were no obvious fortunes to be made by the bluesmen. They made livings as farmers and played for tips on Saturday nights. These circumstances meant the blues were partly a product of folklore, word of mouth and one-to-one tuition with borrowing of links and styles between the bluesmen.
The Blues really thrived in the Delta region of Mississippi, where work was particularly hard — sharecropping, building levees to hold back the river, cutting timber and building railroads to carry crops to new markets; mining towns, tobacco plantations, work camps and prisons. The Blues thrived in the places that black workers went to relax — the saloons, gambling dens, brothels, Saturday night parties and fish fries. It was shunned by the Churches, both because of where it was performed and the subject content of much of the lyrics. Many Churches denounced it as “Devil’s Music”
Improvisation reflected a need in these kinds of places for images of strength against adversity. It was also encouraged by some landowners and work gang leaders on the levees and railroads, as it improved productivity (Some gang leaders even gave instruction on call-and-response work songs)
The legend about the blues being heard first by band leader and composer WC Handy in a railroad station in Tutwiler is worth retelling. Handy recounted it in his book: Father of the Blues:
“A young man approached him carrying a guitar. His clothes were rags, his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. The tune stayed in my mind”. “Going where the Southern crosses the dog” — the bit of lyric Handy made out — referred to a railway intersection.
Arguments rage over when this actually took place — 1895, 1903 or even 1905 — and whether it was the first time anyone had ever heard the sound, a sound whose range came to cover the poetic, frank discussions of sex (often just spoken about instead of sung), wails, moans and humming. Vocals reflected the artist’s feelings of anguish, and the guitar wailed along, sometimes hard and visceral, sometimes soft and playful.
The when of Handy’s encounter is not important. What is important is that band leaders like Handy started to incorporate the sound into their sets as the sound proved popular and profitable, and in the 20s the phonograph replaced sheet music allowing for recorded sound. Initially the records were sold as “race” records and were only bought by blacks, until a more open and democratic radio changed this in the fifties.
The first blues singers to record were women, most notably Ma Rainey and the “Queen of the Blues”, Bessie Smith. They were backed up by the top jazz musicians of the time, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton.
Portable sound recording equipment in 1925 led the companies to send out talent scouts to record in the major cities of the South, in motel rooms, churches and auditoriums and even prisons. Communist Party members Alan and John Lomax were key figures in recording many of the early blues men and women.
Guitars would be purchased by black musicians from pawn shops, as they were eager to escape sharecropping, making tips on corners or in bars. The guitar replaced the banjo, as the instrument of choice as it suited the singers’ vocal range meter and distinct blues notes. Distinct geographical areas produced skilled players with sounds specific to the region — Texas Blues, Piedmont blues and Delta sounds. The latter sound transferred northwards with economic migration, principally to Chicago, where it would evolve into electric blues.