guide to blues harp
The origins of the blues - and the place of its origin (more specifically than "the American south") - are a bit shrouded, and at any rate are a matter of definition.
Certainly African-Americans brought musical traditions with them from Africa, and even improvised versions of African instruments (the banjo being
the most famous example). And certainly, these musical traditions, though they were repressed in some contexts, starting blending
very early with European-American musics of all kinds, and in particular Christian religious music. At the broadest sweep, the blues derives from this
blending, but you've got to understand that both traditions goinf in were remarkably various, that they blended in innumerable ways and then the blends blended and
so on, so that any simple proclamations should be resisted.
But what we think of as the blues no doubt emerged somewhat before the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, and probably was quickly disseminated from its point of origin,
which may have been, but may not have been, the Mississippi Delta, or may have been, or not, East Texas, by traveling musicians. From the very earliest known blues, after all,
wandering is a theme. Elements of the final mix: work songs (including prisons and chain gangs), field hollers, spirituals, minstrel show material. The blues is characterized by a twelve-bar structure which closes each time in a specific way, though probably originally it was more varied and improvisational. That
aspect can be heard later in the work of such artists as John Lee Hooker and Lightnin Hopkins. From the beginning of blues recording in the twenties, recording has
been a primary form of dissemination, and resource for learning and repetoire, even in the most rural areas. It's worth knowing that the music we retain was
largely produced by professional musicians, sophisticated in their knowldedge and sensitive to the tastes of various audiences. Despite its "sadness" blues is essentially a part and dance music
and often mostly an occasion for celebration.
Some quotations bearing on the blues.
I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which weas then altogether without my
feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of sould boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for a
deliverance from chains. The hearing of those sounds always depressed my spirits and filled my soul with ineffable sadness. (1865)
The Negro folk song - the rhythmic cry of the slave - stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience, born this side of the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half
despised, and above all it has been persistently misunderstood; but notwithstanding it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people. (1903)
In its origin, modern blues is the expression of the emotional life of a race. In the south of long ago, whenever a new man appeared to work in any of the laborers' gangs, he would be asked if he could sing. If he could, he
got the job. The singing of these working men set the rhythm of the work, the pounding of the hammers, the winging of scythes; and the one who sang most lustily soon became strawboss. One man set the tune, and sang whatever sentiments lay closest to his heart.
He would sing about steamboats, fast trains, "contrairy" mules, cruel overseers. If he had no home, he sang about that; if he found a home the next day, he sang about needing money or being lonwesome for his gal. But whatever
he sang was personal, and then the others in the gang, the song had fifty verses, and the singing lasted all day through, easing the work, driving rhythm into it. (circa 1920)
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