What is or
are the Blues? - Being a series of definitions, descriptions and root sources
compiled by Max Haymes in 1998.
one by U.S. author James Cobb, is one of the most important and relevant
concerning the blues today:
There is precious little evidence that the commercially inspired fusion
of black and white music that lay at the heart of rock and roll has made a
significant contribution to inter-racial understanding or that the new
generation of white blues fans has much appreciation of the context of human
suffering from which this suddenly trendy music evolved. Still as they see the
promise of socio-economic advancement that was once assumed to be nothing less
than their national birthright give way to diminished hopes and frustrated
expectations, a number of Americans of every race in every region may one day
come to appreciate the difference between hearing the blues and feeling them. If
so, just as the blues once so clearly
chronicled the failure of Delta society to live up to its ideals (or to
celebrate ideals, consistent with the life experiences of the majority of its
members), their remarkable musical legacy may eventually transcend geographic
boundaries and racial barriers to focus critical popular attention on the
discrepancies between the real and ideal in not only regional but national life
as well.” (“The Most
Southern Place On Earth”. James C. Cobb. 1992? p.305.)
“...the blues idiom and tradition can be seen as a rejection, or, at
least, a re-evaluation of Western forms”.(”Black
Talk”. Ben Sidran. Holt, Rhinehart & Winston. New York. 1971. p.32.)
“I’m afraid I came to think that everything worthwhile was to be
found in books. But the blues did not come from books. Suffering and hard luck
were the midwives that birthed these songs. The blues were conceived in aching
W.C. Handy, “Father of the
Blues”. (New York, 1941), 80”. (“Beale St. Black And Blue”. Margaret
McKee & Fred Chisenhall. Louisiana State University Press. 1981. p.100.)
“You get anger, you get frustration, you get melancholy (in the blues).
There’s a stringent quality to them, there’s a strong quality to them.
It’s not sentimentality. It’s not boo-hooing. It’s a
been-down-so-long-down-don’t-worry- me kind of thing. It’s its own. That’s
the reason the word came into the language. It’s its own kind of sorrow, its
own kind of grief, its own kind of way of looking at life. I think they answer
I don’ t know of any other people with a segment of music so important in
their lives as the blues. I don’t know of any immigrant group. I don’t know
of any Polish parallel, I don’t know of any Jewish parallel. I think it’s
very significant that a very simple kind of rural expression catches the
attention of the world”.
Sterling Brown, author, poet,
critic and. teacher, in an interview at his home in Washington, D.C. June 6
1974.” (Ibid. p.p.l00-101.)
“At the pulsating core of their emotional center, the blues are the
spiritual and ritual energy of the church thrust into eyes of life’s raw
realities. Even though they appear primarily to concern themselves with the
secular experience, the relationships between males and females, between boss
and worker, between nature and Man, they are, in fact, extensions of the
deepest, most pragmatic spiritual and moral realities. Even though they
primarily deal with the world as flesh, they are essentially religions. Because
they finally celebrate life and the ability of man to control and shape his
destiny. The blues don’t jive. They reach way down into the maw of the
individual and collective experience.”
Larry Neal, “Any Day Now:
Black Art and Black Liberation.”, In
Woodie King and Earl Anthony (eds.), Black
Poets and Prophets (New York, 1972), 152.
the blues, there is really a bit of hidden gaiety. There’s a spirit of
willingness to go on living despite all the sorrow and weariness the singer
D. Williams, in an interview in the Press-Scimitar,
January 12, 1970.
quotes from McKee & Chisenhall. Ibid. p.101)
James Baldwin claims that while the blues express the pain of black experience
they also bring relief, even joy.
am claiming a great deal for the blues; I’m using them as a metaphor. . . . I
want to talk about the blues, not only because they speak of this particular
experience of life and this state of being, but because they contain the
toughness that manages to make this experience articulate. . . And I want to
suggest that the acceptance of this anguish one finds in the blues, and the
expression of it, creates also, however odd this may sound, a kind of joy."
not see the contradictions as problematical because his life experiences as a
black person in America often consisted of a joy born from pain.
“bluesman, grappling with the fundamental issues of his existence, takes
action against his fate by articulating his woes and thus, in effect, creating
himself anew,” according to Kimberly Benston. In other words, the blues
transcend conditions created by social injustice; and their attraction is that
they express simultaneously the agony of life and the possibility of
conquering it through the sheer toughness of spirit.’ That is, the blues are
not intended as a means of escape, but embody what Richard Wright calls “a
lusty, lyrical realism, charged with taut sensibility.”
Pearls-Blues Queens of The 1920s”. Daphne Duval Harrison. Rutgers
University Press. 1990. p.p.64-65)
Talking about the blues, Victoria Spivey once said: “To pay too much
heed to standardized blues tones and bars spoils the emotional impact inwardly
for yourself. . . You must feel in your heart most of all, not in your brains or
in the interest of your pocket. Let your manager worry about your pocket. Flat
tones, whether they be hard or soft, show the freedom in blues singing. You
should never know when they come out of you. The heart will tell the voice
Sally Plackskin. P36. 1968?)
In a celebrated book on African American music, the editors note that:
“Towards the end of his chapter, Sidia Jatta affirms that if there is anything
rooted in human society which transcends the barriers of race and culture it is
the language of music”. (“Repercussions”.
Geoffrey Haydon & Dennis Marks (Eds.). Century Pub. London. 1985. p13.).
And they include a quote by American poet, Henry Longfellow:” “Music is the
universal language of mankind”. This generality is especially appropriate to
the African-American music of our series, which is characterised above all by
its endless power of metamorphosis in response to life’s shifting
generality is also true regarding the music that is always there in the
background, re-surfacing unexpectedly and forming the basis of most modern music
- the Blues. The Blues is survival music but quality survival!
Pioneering U.S. blues writer, Sam Charters, in his quest for the origins
of the Blues, discovered that “Things in the blues had come from the tribal
musicians (in W. Africa) of the old kingdoms, but as a style the blues
represented something else. It was essentially a new kind of song that had begun
with the new life in the American South”. (“Roots
Of The Blues”. Sam Charters. Quartet Books. 1982. p.127.)
concluding the above book, subtitled “An African Search”, Sam Charters seems
to be saying that West African culture, and music in particular, was already
caught up in a great Europeanisation process and indeed also heavily influenced
by Western societies in general. The only links with the remnants of African
traditional styles of song were in the past, through the time machine of oral
transmission, which runs parallel with my own conclusions in Europe and the U.K.
of course, Charters only covered parts of West Africa and. mainly coastal areas
at that. He did make a journey inland to Senegal, but surprisingly, did no
recording there; surprisingly, since by his own admission he thought that his
search for the roots of the blues would bear more fruit inland away from the
Interestingly, an African composer/guitarist, Francis Bebey, born in the
same year as Charters, in Cameroon, uses words to explain his music which
describes the blues almost to a ‘t’. “In fact, African music..., is
without doubt one of the most revealing forms of expression of the black soul.
The effort to understand it may he hard, but the reward will be all the greater.
Under a rather forbidding exterior of unmelodious noise, peculiar notes and
scales, rudimentary instruments, and strange tonalities, lies the whole of
African life and the expression of all its many human qualities.” (“African
Music - A People’s Art”. Francis Bebey. 1969 p.16.).
And the African singer “...recreates a world of 1aughter and pain, mockery and
praise; and it throws open the gates of time to reveal a glimpse of the future
.“ (Ibid. p130.).
.So it is also with the blues singer.
“As an art form - or art forms - jazz music has developed more or less
concurrently with the blues and has been continually fed and revitalized by
it. It was the blues that sparked jazz into life, that separated it from the
music of the street parade or the ragtime pianist. And if there is any common
factor that unites the widely divergent forms of jazz that have originated,
flourished and in some instances already died… .it is the continued
stimulation of the blues. How he plays the blues, his instrumental adaptation of
the vocal blues, is still the criterion by which a jazz musician of almost any
school is evaluated.
If jazz has
depended on the blues for one of its essential qualities, the opposite is not
the case. The blues has been influenced very little by jazz: few blues singers
are aware of jazz musicians and their music, except as important figures who
have made their way in a predominantly white world. Louis Armstrong and Count
Basie will be known and their music enjoyed, and they typify, along with much
more blues-orientated musicians like Ray Charles, the achievements of a select
few of the Negro race. But if jazz had never existed the blues would have
flourished very well without it.” (“Blues
Off The Record”. Paul Oliver. The Baton
Press. 1984. p285.).
Radical, black U.S. writer, Richard Wright noted that “...the most
astonishing aspect of the blues is that, though replete with a sense of defeat
and down-heartedness, they are not intrinsically pessimistic: their burden of
woe and melancholy is dialectically redeemed through sheer force of sensuality,
into an almost exultant affirmation of life, of love, of sex, of movement, of
hope. No matter how repressive was the American environment, the Negro never
lost faith in or doubted his deeply endemic capacity to live. All blues are a
lusty, lyrical realism charged with taut sensibility.” (Richard
Wright in the Foreword to “Blues Fell This Morning”. Paul Oliver. Rev. Ed.
1990. 1st. pub. 1960. Cambridge University Press. p. xv.).
“The blues is in my blood, you know? I can’t play, can’t sing
nothin’ else. And I don’t want to,’ cause the blues is for me. It’s like
a shoe,...you take a number seven shoe you sure can’t wear a size four. You
wear the one that fits. The blues fit me.” (Muddy
Waters in “Jazz Monthly”, Jan 1959. Quoted in “Blues Off The Record”.
Excerpt from a Paper delivered to the “Mosaic Of Texas Culture”
“Blues Come To Texas Lopin’ Like A Mule”. Hardin-Simmons University in
Abilene, Texas. 3/4 April, 1997. By
is primarily a VOCAL music as sung by working-class blacks, who originated from
the Southern states. These include Georgia, Alabama, both Carolinas, Tennessee,
Mississippi, Northern Florida, and East Texas. Here in the late 1990s, the Blues
have become multi-racial and can be heard from Tokyo to London to San Francisco
Bay. The Blues is on the one hand a state of mind; and there again it is a
persona of nebulous human form with supernatural tendencies. As writer, Giles
Oakley, puts it,” the blues singer does not pass “Go” and does not collect
200”. (“The Devil’s
Music”. Giles Oakley. B.B.C. Rev. Ed. 1983. p.?).
words of the Blues singer, the Blues can be:
low-down shakin’ chill,
An’ if you ain’t never had ‘em, child I hope you never will.
“Blues ain’t nothin’ but
a woman lovin’ a married man,
Can’t see ‘im when she wants to, gotta see ‘im when she can.
“Gettin’ caught in a rain
of soup an’ ain’t got nothin’ but a fork”.
It affects a
person so that it:
“hurts my feet to
an’ my lovin’ tongue to talk”.
extreme cases, as Lonnie Johnson graphically describes:
“Blues an’ the Devil, is
your two closest friends;
The blues will leave you with murder in your mind,
That’s when the Devil out of Hell, steps in”.
(Devil’s Got The Blues” Lonnie Johnson. 1938.)
The blues is
everywhere, not only in the wind, as Oakley says, but in the singer’s house:
“Woke up this mornin’,
blues all in my bed,
Went to eat my breakfast, an’ blues is in my bread.”
can be a potential enemy:
“The blues got after me,
dodgin’ from tree to tree.”
“Good mornin’; Mr. Blues,
Mr. Blues how do you do?
I ain’t doin’ nothin’, an’ I would like to get a job from you.”
than succumb to total depression, the blues can uplift a person’s spirits. For
above all else, the blues is a music of survival. Although a singer generally
uses the first person “I” as in “I woke up this morning” or “My baby
caught the train and gone”, any black listener could identify with these lines
and the singer knows this. And she/he can draw on an almost unassailable feeling
of solidarity with the rest of the black community. This inner strength helps
develop a central philosophy of the Blues, which sustains an individual
throughout their life. This is born out by statistics which showed that numbers
of suicide cases were much lower among the working-class blacks than their white
counterparts in the first half of this century. Part of this central philosophy
is an inherent sense of humour. As portrayed by Memphis guitarist, Furry Lewis,
“I went to the I.C. train, leave my head on the I.C. track;
I.C. train, leave my head on the I.C. track.
Then I see it comin’, Lord, an’ I snatched it back.”
(“Cannon Ball Blues”. Furry Lewis. 1928.)
sense of solidarity in the Blues is reflected upon by a guitarist/harp blower
from Georgia, named Buddy Moss during the Great Depression:
“Some people talk about money, but I ain’t got none.(x2)
But I’m so g1ad I ain’t the only one.”
(“Cold Country Blues”. Buddy Moss. 1933.)
from celebrated white jazzman Mezz Mezzrow, captures the spirit of the Blues
completely: “..it was a celebration of life, or breathing, of muscle-flexing,
of eye-blinking, of licking-the-chops,
in spite of everything the world might do to you. It was a defiance of the
undertaker. It was a refusal to go under, a stubborn hanging on, a shout of
praise to the circulatory system, hosannas for the sweat-glands, hymns to the
guts that ache when they’re hollow. Glory be, brother! Hallelujah, the sun’s
shining! Praise be the almighty pulse! Ain’t nobody going to wash us away.
We here, and we going to stay put - don’t recognize no eviction notices from
the good green earth. Spirit’s still in us, and it sure must get to jump.” (“Really
The Blues”. Milton ‘Mezz Mezzrow & Bernard Wolfe. Random House. NY.C.
of the Blues were all-important to the black listener. (“Blues
Come To Texas Lopin’ Like A Mule”. Max Haymes. 1997.)
The following is quoted by Carl Sandburg:
let it rain,
Wet my little dress!
So that corn will be cheaper
And I can fill my belly.”
translation from hieroglyphics on an ancient Egyptian temple is among the oldest
known songs of working people. (“The
American Songbag”. Carl Sandburg. Harcourt, Brace & Co. New York. 1927.
“When I sing the blues, when I’m singing the ‘real’ blues, I’m
singing what I feel. Some people maybe want to laugh; maybe I don’t talk so
good and they don’t understand you know? But when we sing the blues - when I
sing the blues it come from the heart. From right here in your soul, an’ if
you singing what you really feel it comes out all over. It ain’t just what you
saying, it pours out of you. Sweat runnin’ down your face" (Muddy
Waters talking to Paul Oliver in “Backwoods Blues”. Compiled by Simon
Napier. 1968. p.13. From “Blues Unlimited” magazine.)
used in Blues Transcriptions
bs.= string bass
b.bs.= brass bass (tuba, etc.)
im.bs.= imitation bass (T-chest bass, etc.)
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