Blues music, the most representative musical form of the 1920's in United States, emerged from the same musical and social fabric as each other early form of black American music; the pains of black people amid change> As such, blues music was reflective of the black American struggle to achieve success in life. (Jones, Blues People: 63) These musical forms all emerged as responses to social, economic and often state-sanctioned rejection and repression. The circumstances of the black American in America's history post-Emancipation greatly shaped the development of these, America's first indigenous musical products.
Though Blues music shares many similarities with Negro Spirituals beyond its development from common experience, blues music had a more human, earthward focus in terms of what success meant and what hopes were envisioned. According to writer, activist and historian Leroi Jones, also known as Amiri Baraka, the Jordan the blues spoke about was a much more human accomplishment than that of the spirituals.
As these musical forms were sung in English and became increasingly popular to diverse audiences, Baraka asserts that the blues were indicative of "adaptation to, and adoption of, America" by people of African descent in America. (Jones 66, 82) In its final form, the blues usually consisted of 12 lines in total with 3 line stanzas, and four bar lines. The words occupied the first half of each line and left the second half to be echo or respond to the first of the line with music or singing. (Jones, 68)
Blues music was the developed largely with the influence of folk musical ancestors which included work songs, spirituals, shouts, hollers. Another chief influence on the development of blues music was the introduction of leisure time into the lifestyle of the black American. It perhaps deserves the greatest credit for the emergence of the blues. Whereas in work songs where human grunts kept time in the song, labor was absent from the blues. (Jones, 68) For an example, click here. As you will hear, since the singers are also workers engaged in labor, these songs were always sung a capella.
The early or "primitive" blues did not exhibit the same structure as its more refined, "classical" manifestation. The early blues often displayed a form more common to the English ballad and was sometimes "eight, ten or sixteen bars" (Jones, 62) Jones asserts that the blues's early form emerged directly from African "call and response." Elements of this call and response tradition can also be seen in the form of the work songs.
Jones continues that the three line structure was a feature that came from the field shout or holler where the first two lines are repeated either because the shouter could not think of another line or because they particularly liked the line. Like work songs, labor was often the major motivation for demonstrating a field holler or shout and the shouts and hollers themselves were often characteristic of individuals.
The last main influence on the development of blues music was the development of work opportunities for traveling entertainers. As the traveling musician became more and more common, the blues became increasingly more standardized and came to include adding more instruments. The first blues instrument to become really widespread was the guitar and was followed most closely by the harmonica and banjo. Later, with the increased popularity of this musical form, instruments like the piano and various wind instruments like trumpets, trombones and saxophones were incorporated. The addition of more instruments signified blues's entrance into the world of musical performance and entertainment, making the folk expression it originated as into a far more public affair. (Jones, 82)
Other public musical forms that were quite similar to the traveling form the blues would eventually take on included "the rag" or ragtime, vaudeville, folk songs and travelling minstrelsy.
An example of the early traveling blues is the song "Good Morning Blues", by Leadbelly. In the song's introduction, he declares: "Good Morning, Blues./ Blues how do you do?...I'm doing alright, Good Morning, how are you?" The lyrics here suggest that the blues both follow the persona to bed and are present to greet him when he wakes up. As the song is beginning, the singer introduces the nature and function of this blues. The speaker says:
Now you lay down at night. You roll from one side of the bed to the other all night long. You can't sleep. What's the matter? The Blues gotcha…Well you put your feet under the table and look down at your plate. You got everything you want to eat. But you shake your head, you get up, you say, "Lord, I can't eat and I can't sleep." What's the matter? The Blues gotcha.
In Leadbelly's introduction, we see that the Blues functioned as more than a somber sounding musical form that radiated a pervading sense of tragedy or discontent, but was simultaneously a description of and participation in this lived reality. The song is both about this man's blues and the blues itself. Singing the blues created a workable distance between the person singing and the bite of the actual emotion, enabling black Americans to sing in the face of their despair, harnessing the emotion and channeling this to create beauty. The singer becomes the animator of the emotion and not merely subject to its consequences. A singer sings the blues. As one can see, the blues clearly served as a sort of coping mechanism for the monotony of black life several years after Reconstruction.
Making this observation sheds light on how the blues were both reflective and representative of black life in America. The blues reflected black life as the lyrics recounted personal loss and emotional despair while they also represented the emotion in how each song was performed. Through the sound the performer crafted, the bodily gestures in addition to the cheerless lyrics, the performer made you believe he or she had the blues, whether they were up or down.
Further, in that these songs were often performed in cooperation with an audience, the arena of the performance enabled those gathered to project their personal hurts and struggles onto the song, such that the blues worked to support the collective, not just the singer. Music aided in a community's social cohesion in that it encouraged a collective and relational sense of striving against common or mutual troubles.
To make this notion more concrete, "Good Morning Blues" gestures toward the idea that the materials that many blacks had accumulated after Emancipation did not accomplish their sense of what their pre-slavery visions of freedom might be like. Instead, as you hear in the song, a sense of longing for hopes beyond their grasp and grief over their lamentable circumstances permeated their lives and music.
Ledbelly declares: "I would eat my breakfast, but [the blues] was all in my bread" Though the bread was now purchased by this man's personal income, the blues of de facto slavery and inequality kept the fruits of his labor from being sweet. The song suggests that there was something missing from that dream the minds of slaves throughout America had collectively imaged; something yet missing for these individuals to achieve a fulfilled life. It was this reality that turned even the singer's bread blue.
Similar to spirituals like "I've been in the Storm" by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the blues gave an individual the ability to sing a bitter fact of life in such a way that would corral a portion of its sting. The songs often recounted the hardships and hopes of the people, like not having money or troubles with one's partner, while working to distance that person from his or her own hardships. The differences between the blues and spirituals come in terms of how they are performed, what sort of cultural value white society ascribed to each initially, and what sort of language the singer uses to talk about their hopes and aspirations.
Generally, the key differences between the spirituals and the blues fell on either side of Western ideas of cultural respectability. First, the spirituals which draw from the black American Christian legacy of struggle was ultimately first favored by whites and high class blacks over the blues. The spirituals themselves were not even regarded as respectable until choirs like the Fisk Jubilee Singers were heard by international audiences. Soon after their music garnered international acclaim, white and black high class audiences alike took to them readily. In this phenomenon, we see that American ideas of what consisted of Culture were ultimately European in origin.
With the popularity of the Negro spirituals for their inspirational sound, formal presentation and content, a disdain for the blues by bourgeois intellectuals ensued. To find the roots of this disparity, one needs look only to the differences in how the two were performed. The language employed in Negro Spirituals is that of the Bible and is spoken through the medium of Negro dialect. While this is the case, one need only listen to a song like "Go Down, Moses" to hear that these songs were performed in an extremely formalized manner. Some popular singers of Negro spirituals during this time were Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes.
When listening to a song like "Backwater Blues" by Bessie Smith or "C.C. Rider" by Ma Rainey, one can hear that a typical blues song must be sung in a way that recreates or mimics the sadness the lyrics convey. In order to achieve a sense of intimacy with the struggle this song seeks to embody, the lyrics are sung in dialect, colloquially, in contrast to the spirituals. Additionally, whereas the spirituals are often described as inspirational since they have an other-worldly perspective and look ultimately to divine help, the blues are usually described as a typically earthward-focused musical form. (Jones, Blues People: 63-64).
The last key matter to consider is that of content. As mentioned earlier, spirituals are a Christian faith-driven musical form and as such, they hold a traditional notion of strict morality. As such, they exclude topics such as sex or other intimately personal matters. Finally, while the spirituals are secured by an ultimate hope in salvation with God, the blues, though they at times use phrases like "O, Lordy" as spontaneous "ad libs", they do not focus on God for curing their ailments. Instead, the music is a very personal, very human expression of seeking to cope with the difficult circumstances of life amid second-class citizenship.
The point of this comparison is not to cast the blues in opposition to the spirituals, though their relationship by some is often characterized as antagonistic. Rather, this comparison seeks to draw attention to their similarities, namely, that they help us to track the mood and condition of black American thought during this period in history. Since both the blues and the spirituals emerge from the same musical and spiritual fabric, as Jones notes, it is valuable to understand them as they exist: as related ways of articulting the obstacles and determinations of black Americans at the turn of the twentieth century.
In all the musical forms mentioned in this genealogy, participation is central to the success of the music. Each piece of music is achieved through an interworking of several voices, rhythms, tempos; calls and responses. Our understanding of the relationship between seemingly oppositional forms like that of the spirituals and blues would do well to incorporate this notion of diversity of expression in how we articulate what exactly it means to be a community.
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