Sarah Anne Stevenson
English Language and Comprehension
20 November 1999
West Africa was soon to be convulsed by the arrival of Europeans and become the advent of the transatlantic slave trade. Ships from Europe, bound for America, appeared on the horizon, and their captains and sailors-carrying muskets, swords, and shackles-landed on the coast, walked up the beach in their strange clothes, looked around, and demanded slaves. A horrific chapter in history had begun, and neither Africa nor America would be the same again. (Awmiller 14)
Approximately ten million Africans were brought across the seas to the Americas to be manipulated into slavery (14). It became apparent that these African men, women and children were meant to generate money. They were meant to work harsh labor, yet they were no longer meant to have a voice. A few Americans took the time to appreciate the hard work performed by the slaves; however, appreciation is a short step in the long road to equality. It was not until the late 19th century that America began to repair the damages done by this immoral trading of human beings. Once the slaves were ?freed? after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it did not do much to end the oppression and prejudice against their race. Their freedom did not give them a heart; it did not prove they had soul. This is where their music becomes significant, and this is Blues music (How the Blues Overview). Throughout their music, it took much less time for the black race to prove that they were not unlike the rest of humanity; in fact, they did have a voice, and a haunting one. Once Blues music was not only recognized, but also comprehended, admired and imitated, it opened the gates of immigration, and the nation to this day has matured in its ability to see gray.
Included in the mass of faceless slaves, the boats entrapped and migrated a large number of griots. A griot was an African version of the European wandering minstrel. They spent their lives traveling from village to village, playing the role of a musician, storyteller and wise man. They typically carried an instrument similar to a guitar or banjo (Awmiller 13). However, due to their rapid change in environment, they could no longer sing the songs that they used to sing in their old villages; they invented new songs. The griots invented new songs that addressed their new and terrifying circumstances:
Songs about being chained on the ships below deck like animals, about those who did not survive the brutal crossing to New World, and about the homes they would never see again. And once in America, there were other hardships to sing about: the ignominy of the auction block, the separation of family members, the remorseless treatment at the hands of landowners. (15)
Even though their masters, and most slave owners at the time, continued a wave of new laws and restrictions to suppress the threatening culture of Africa, these griots and these slaves used their new style of music to cry out against these blatant wrongdoings to their race. They needed an escape to retain the essentials of their culture, of their motherland of which they undoubtedly could not suppress the memories of values and of experiences known previously to them. By the end of the Civil War, these slaves had blended African and European influences to recreate their own culture. This neo-African culture included African-American styles of dance and storytelling, work and spirituality, conversation and community. ?By sifting among the many elements of this vibrant, life-sustaining world, we can trace the specific musical roots of what would be known, by the end of the century, as ?the blues??(15).
Blues music originated in the cotton fields of the southern United States where the majority of the slave hands were put to work. ?The earliest folk-blues were sung by nameless African-Americans living and working in the South?s cotton belt in the early 1880?s and 1890?s- in particular, the region from the Mississippi Delta to East Texas?(Barlow 3). It was believed that this began as a call and response style, which matured into the work song. From that standpoint, after the release of the slaves, the work song then matured into their Spirituals, and later was introduced to the whites through black-faced Minstrel of Medicine shows (How the Blues Overview). As the music matured and became more renowned, its influence became prominent in the music styles of the time, and in the intertwining relationships between the races. ?The music was a unique and cultural offering that whites could not deny. It was something new and intriguing to whites that shed a new light on blacks and their place in American culture and society?(Overview). The music did not seem to have the same color restrictions as the music previously performed. It drew blacks and whites together in a place where everyone could leave the Jim Crow laws at the door (Overview). This offered a new and beneficial lifestyle for the blacks as well as the whites. Maybe the interest was that the white people had found a new talent to exploit and from which to make easy money, or perhaps, maybe it was because the whites genuinely understood the cultural significance in the music and respected this talent of the black race enough to overcome racial and cultural differences.
?The white slave owners were intrigued by the slaves??music?[and] encouraged the slaves to sing and play?because they felt that the slaves were happier-and less rebellious-if they were allowed to make their music?(Haskins 9). While their music was obviously something these slaves were using to keep their African heritage, the whites believed that their music was an expression of happiness and contentment. They believed that their singing was an expression of their acceptance of their hard fate. Former slave Frederic Douglas wrote that the music of these slaves reflected an expression of the opposite:
?I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the North, to find persons who could speak of the singing among slaves as evidence of their commitment and happiness. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slaves represent the sorrows of his life; and he is relieved by them only as an aching heart is relieved by tears.?(Douglas 97)
?In the early 19th century, advertisements would point out the musical talents of these slaves who were for sale knowing that would put them in higher demand?(Davis 27-28). It was due to the whites? misconception that those slaves who displayed musical talent were typically given easier work and rewards for their talent and their seeming obedience of their labor. At times these slaves were bought specifically for their musical talent and were never subjected to harsh fieldwork. Sometimes, these black workers were invited to weekend parties, asked to perform, and were given whiskey, food and other rewards for their services. ?Blues music was not only an essential element of many religious and secular events for blacks, but it was a substantial source of entertainment for whites as well? (How the Blues Appreciation). This displays historically the establishment of the white man?s genuine appreciation for black music.
In 1903 Mr. W.C. Handy, later referred to as the ?Father of the Blues,? hears his inspiration. He notices a ruggedly dressed old black man sitting on a bench, playing guitar. Handy wrote the notes of the old man?s down:
Rather than strumming and picking the strings, the man was sliding an open pocketknife up and down the guitar?s neck making the notes bend and slide, the strings moan and wail. The sound was so much like a human voice that you could almost say the guitar was crying. (Awmiller 12)
Gertrude ?Ma? Rainey, a professional vaudeville singer, told a similar experience. She heard a young woman singing outside her vaudeville tent, a strange and ?poignant song,? about her man who left her. In addition, further away, a white violin player named Hart Wand was playing a melody that an African-American employee of his father?s said gave him ?the blues? (12).
So, what is it that exactly constitutes the Blues? Cross rhythms were used extensively in the Blues. This was also prominent within the old West African drumming. This was popularly created by separating the melodic line from the groundbeat, which then puts the two in rhythmic conflict, and was done by a solitary musician singing or playing emphasizing the offbeat. Possibly the most prominent innovation was their melodic tendency to express rising emotions with falling pitch. This became such a trademark with the African expression of Blues, that it is now referred to as playing "blue notes." Finally, Blues musicians rarely used the same style of voice. Blues was a mixture of coarse guttural tones and slurs to falsetto and melisma, and this was all used to color the melodic line and give it identity and expressiveness; which all of these trademarks they innovated from their old West African music (Barlow 4). With this entire struggle from the white folks to weaken the African’s African heritage, it seems implausible to believe that the slaves’ music was what threw the first stone at the barriers between the blacks and whites.
It was the Minstrel and Medicine shows from the 1830’s that gave the whites their first opportunity to delve into the culture of the slaves and their music- in the beginning with the lingering alibi of show business. A minstrel show was a musical event where white folks got the chance to paint their faces black with burnt cork and perform in the persona of a black man. This gave the white Americans their first taste of the black man’s music in a harmless environment free of the black man. Many white American’s in blackface and black attire were able to travel around the country, spreading the musical style of the blacks they had heard before to others who may not have had the opportunity. This may have aided in the increasing popularity of a stereotyped black man, "…however, if it is true that imitation is the utmost form of flattery, then these shows were evidence of white’s attraction and fondness for black culture"(How the Blues Minstrel and Medicine). ?The first minstrel tune identified as such to make a dent
in the national consciousness was Tim Rice’s ‘Jump Jim Crow,’ published in 1830 … [first] sung by a black stable hand in Louisville, Kentucky"(Davis 36). These medicine shows were ?an entry into a world in which black could be white, white could be black, anything could be itself and simultaneously opposite"(37). There were many white men who thought the show?s purpose was to make a joke at the black man’s expense; however, most of the white actors performing at these shows sincerely wished to be able to portray the musical style, and obtain and imitate the culture possessed by the black race. Although this information of the black music and its culture was second hand, it insinuated the presence of the black man, and foreshadowed the arrival of black men and women musicians into the music business. Therefore, it seems almost ironic again that while some of these white men were trying to discriminate against the blacks with these shows, they were unknowingly aiding in the blacks capability to later repossess the same rights as the white men had. In fact, it was these black-face minstrel shows that later gave the blacks the right to play in the same shows.
After Minstrel shows, the Medicine shows then became popular around the turn of the century. They became the first shows to feature and entertain both white and black Americans. This was possibly the most influential in respect to race relations. These shows still offered the whites a chance to put on a black face; however, both the blacks and whites were finally agreeing on something-music. This is where country and blues came together, and both grew to be a highly vital and influential landmark in music history. These shows remained popular after the Civil War and onward after the Reconstruction period, a time span from 1860 until 1877(How the Blues Minstrel and Medicine). These shows confirmed the common objective of both races and secured the flourishing business between the two. While both black and white musicians borrowed freely from each other’s style of music, the black’s Blues music proved to be the most indispensable in style with its grainy vocal texture and its distinctive emphasis on rhythmic momentum. ?It was this distinction that made black entertainers indispensable and continued to cultivate white appreciation for black music"(Minstrel and Medicine).
This is now years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and it was around this time that some white citizens were beginning to see their former slaves as important contributors to American culture. ?Whites began recording the blues in the early 20th century thus extending the typical relationship between blacks and whites in a positive direction?(White Interest). As both races began to work together, they began to develop the same ideals and goals, and realizing it or not, began to change history to better the future for humanity. The black musicians had already been playing in the medicine shows and for some time had begun to travel around and perform for the white folk who appreciated their music. The white businessmen took notice of this and, after a while, decided to market this private operation. The blues music of the blacks was gaining popularity throughout the United States, and white business saw this as an opportunity to make a profit. (Thank heavens for capitalism!) Although this seems to possess a negative affect on the black race and their music, it really helped develop their rights, especially in the music business and their ability to grow as musicians. The record companies sent out scouts to find these talented musicians and record them. With the success of one blues artist, there came the success of the rest. This flourished in the 1920’s especially. With the successes that these blues men were having, it was
decided that they probably did know a few things about music. These record companies, owned by white men, were hiring these black Blues musicians to be consultants on which albums to promote and the style in which to promote it. Despite displaying a stereotypical black, advertisements were selling their Blues albums. It was displaying to the public that these black men and women did have talent and were being viewed more as (nearly equal) human beings, and less and less as simple workers. "Making music is a circumstance under which people of both races could mix without raising very many eyebrows"(Integration of Musicians). This later assisted to break open civil rights barriers due to the slow change in the national consciousness of the time. ?Rumor has it that the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan managed Jaybird Coleman, an early Blues harmonica player"(Integration of Musicians). It was about this time period, around the late1930?s, that Blues no longer was being played strictly by black musicians, but was being imitated, accurately, by white Blues musicians. Some white musicians imitated the black music style of Blues so well that in some instances it is undecided today who was white and who in fact was truly black upon listening to old recordings. This proves that this imitation was done now strictly by admiration, and no longer was being imitated by the whites simply as a spoof as much as the Minstrel music was. In addition, not only were the whites imitating the Blues music, but also the country music style of white music was being integrated into the black style of Blues. This proves that the culture between the blacks and whites was beginning to mix and blur, and this was due to the affects of the intrigue of Blues music.
Although it was socially acceptable for the Blues musicians to write, compose and produce their music, it was frowned upon, until the late 1950’s, that the teenage generation be exposed to black Blues musicians. However, white Blues musicians were another story. The distribution of Blues music was eased into the public by using white covers of black artists (Covers and Dances). Ironically enough, the white covers of these black artist?s music never climbed as high on the top-seller list as the ones originally put out by the black musicians themselves. In 1956, white musician Pat Boone did a cover of the black Blues artist Little Richard’s ?Tutti Frutti" that reached number 18 on the bestseller chart. However, when Little Richard put out his own release of "Long Tall Sally" later in that same year, before Boone put out his cover of it, Little Richard already had it at number six. This simply proves that, however attempting to slow the eventual rise of black artists, they were in fact hastening the inevitable. "Nothing did more than the cover phenomenon to facilitate a mass market for r&b and extend the opportunities for black artists??(Ward 44). These covers simply expedited the process of the mass exposure of the public, and this quickly developed a curious fondness for Blues and its African culture. Eventually, it did not matter who was singing, as long as it was performed well. This Blues phenomenon created a neutral ground for both blacks and whites to share and, henceforth, improve their relationship. Although the black slaves had long been freed, notably there remained in the southern United States an excessive number of restrictions on the black population. These were the infamous ?Jim Crow? laws. However, when the blacks and whites got together at dances, these seemed to begin to falter and then disappear. The dances would begin with the officials stringing a rope dividing the dance floor in half to keep the races from mingling. "As the evening wore on, the music was able to swallow up the Jim Crow laws … [and] it was always the whites who instigated the crossover because a black man doing so risked being lynched"(How the Blues Covers & Dances). Another beautiful display of this liberalism was when the radio became integrated. About 80 members of the Ku Klux Klan were beating down the doors of an Alabama radio station for playing the talent of black Blues artist Shelley "Playboy" Stewart. Their aim that night was to kill the owner sitting inside. The owner, Ray Mahoney, suggested that the Ku Klux Klan did not think that "The Playboy" was good enough to play for them. All 800+ of the white kids inside jumped out the doors of the station and proceeded to assault the Klan, the same race as they, to fight for one black man (Integrated Radio). Literally, they saved the poor black man’s life that night; symbolically, they helped save the entire black race from such persecution. While this sort of activity seemed to happen while the music was playing, and playing good, this remains symbolic of the whites? willingness to deconstruct the racism and prejudice prominent of the time.
After Elvis, the barriers between black and white music were broken down entirely. The majority of white teenagers, and those within other age brackets, began to see the significance of the Blues in music and lifestyle, and all were worshipping the music and its musicians-white and black. It was because of Blues music that white kids ventured into black areas and had a sense of ?fair play? long before the civil rights movement (Blues and Rock). As there will always be, there were those people who were disgusted with this sort of music, behavior, belief, and lifestyle. However, historically and recently, this is disregarded as ?conservative fluff" and discarded in a hurry. Once the Blues got this far, there was no mercy and no turning back. It seemed as though Blues music did more for the civil rights movement than Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education (Blues and Rock). Blues was similar to a small leak on a dam, and once the water broke through, it was best to watch it run its course.
Traditional Blues music is reflected in modern music, which displays vague or blatant Blues influences. However, the Napoleons of the Blues shall never be forgotten because they fought a war America had at one time decided it could never win. The music instilled faith into the hearts of many black Americans and at the same time instilled empathy and passion in the white Americans. It not only congregated people, it congregated two separate cultures, both as different as black and white.