Critical Perspectives on the Blues

Robert Russell By Robert Russell, 2nd Apr 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Music>Blues

Numerous books have been written about the history of the blues. This article looks at three authors that provide remarkably original and insightful views about the history of blues and the African American experience. Alan Lomax, Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), and Andrew Ward. Ward actually recounts the pre-blues experience of the Jubilee Singers.

Introduction

The blues is a unique American art form that emerged from the African American experience in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. In his book "Blues People" the African American social critic Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones) argues that the blues reflects the evolution of African Americans. Baraka argues that the experience of the African slave in the new world was one of complete disorientation. Africans were forced to adapt the circumstances of their new environment, not only in terms of the institution of slavery but also in terms of language, spirituality, and other cultural factors. African slaves struggled to maintain their cultural heritage but over time the memories of their cultural past faded as new generations of slaves were born in America.

Blues reflects the experience of the African American. On the one hand, the roots of the blues are African, in terms of its melodies, rhythms, and notes. On the other hand, the musical element of the blues was also influenced by European musical ideas and instrumentation. The lyrical content also reflects the synthesis of the African American experience. Some of the experiences and characters sung about are traceable to African myths and ancestry while other lyrical content relates the specifically American experiences of the African American. In many cases, the lyrical content serves as a type of code. Spiritual themes, adopted from Christianity, are used to symbolize a life free form suffering and oppression. The blues is foundation for many other types of American music ranging from jazz to rock to hip hop.

Three Books on the History of the Blues

A number of insightful books have been written about the history of the blues. "Blue People" is an excellent book to start with because it puts the history of the blues in context. Baraka wrote the book in 1963. The full title is "Blues People: Negro Music In White America." Baraka, was a New York City writer and activist. He studied philosophy and religion at Rutgers University. 1963 was a significant year in the history of the blues. White audiences were discovering blues for the first time. The original Mississippi blues artists such as Son House, Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt were invited to perform at major festivals such as the Newport Folk Festival. All of these artists had lived in relative obscurity and had not recorded since the 1930s. "Blues People" puts the blues revival of the early 1960s under a critical microscope

A second insightful book about the history of the blues is Alan Lomax's "Land Where the Blues Began." Alan Lomax was one of the premier folklorists of the twentieth century. As a young man he crisscrossed the United States numerous times with his father John Lomax, another important folklorist, documenting and recording American folk music. The Lomaxes discovered and recorded Leadbelly at Angola Prison in Louisiana in the 1930s. Alan Lomax visited the Mississippi Delta several times in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He documented his experiences in "Land Where the Blues Began." The book provides a window into the culture and lifestyle of African Americans in the Mississippi Delta of the 1930s and '40s. This was a fertile time in the history of the blues. Lomax had hoped to find and record Robert Johnson on one of his trips but Johnson was killed a few years prior to Lomax's visit. Lomax did discover and record a number of important blues musicians including Son House, Honeyboy Edwards, and Muddy Waters. Lomax revisited the Mississippi in the 1970s and 1980s to make five films for about the blues. Lomax's films were created for the PBS series "American Patchwork."

It is common knowledge that Nashville Tennessee is often referred to as "Music City" but most people mistakenly assume that the name refers to country music. The reference actually dates back to Civil War, and it refers to a group called the Jubilee Singers. The Jubilee Singers were an African American singing group from Fisk University. Fisk was one of the first all black schools in the United States. The Jubilees were organized as a fundraising effort. They toured extensively across the United States and Europe singing Negro spirituals. It was the first time white Americans and Europeans heard African American music performed by African Americans and many white Americans, including Mark Twain, were awestruck. The music of the Jubilees represented a blending of African and European musical sensibilities. The experiences of the Jubilee Singers and their cultural influence is carefully documented by Andrew Ward in "Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers, Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America." The story of the Jubilee Singers, as told by Ward, is a nice complement to the story told in "Blues People." It provides critical insight into the evolution of African American music in nineteenth century America and, as such, helps us to better appreciate and understand the origins of the blues.

Tags

Alan Lomax, History Of The Blues, Jubilee Singers, Robert Johnson, Roots Music

Meet the author

author avatar Robert Russell
I play guitar professionally in a Cajun/zydeco band named Creole Stomp. We are a nationally touring band that have been together ten years. I also have a PhD in philosophy.

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