Country Blues Vs. City Blues Essay, Research Paper
Country Blues vs. City Blues
Blues is a musical form that emerged as early as the 1870’s and stemmed from the hardships the African slaves encountered in the New World. At this time, the blues were largely universal in their lyrics, melodies, and phrasing, leaving very few stylistic differences between one blues artist and the next. However, in the early 1920’s, as the blues spread into a much broader region and was no longer limited to the cotton fields of the South, two different styles materialized: country blues and city blues.
Country blues is a largely “functional” music. It was exclusive to the slaves’ tasks at hand (chopping trees, laying railroad tracks, and picking cotton). They were chants and field-hollers that helped the slaves keep their minds off the monotonous work they were performing. It also served as a means of mourning the poor quality of life they were faced with, and their lyrics expressed that.
City blues is an “art” music and was used for no other purpose than entertainment. It was played in the brothels and saloons of cities like Chicago and New Orleans. Because of the booming economy during the “roaring 20’s,” people in the city weren’t interested in hearing the gloom and despondency of the slave songs, so the blues artists adopted an “upbeat” tempo. It was played as a means of rejoicing and to keep the people dancing.
The lyrics were also very telling of which school of blues their artists came from. A slave living in Georgia during this period would, very likely, have been born in Georgia, raised there, and died there. His “world” was limited to the few hundred acres of the cotton fields he worked. Women, travel, and paychecks, were concepts that were not part of the country slaves life. It wasn’t until the period of reconstruction that the slaves were able to migrate to the cities and have their own homes, jobs, and families outside of the bondage of slavery. This is why the lyrics of a country blues song never contained phrases such as, “I’m goin’ Chicago when the sun goes down,” or “Baby, I want you at my back door.”
Another major stylistic difference between city blues and country blues is the instruments they employed. Country blues was prone to mostly portable instruments, such as harmonicas, that the slaves could slip into their pockets and bring into the fields. The use of a piano was unheard of in country blues because, in order to own a piano, the slave must first own a house to put it in. The piano also required more training and instruction to learn how to play than the slaves had access to.
In the city, blues artists were not bound to using portable instruments and, therefore, were able to use much more sophisticated instruments than their country counterparts. Pianos, fiddles, guitars, and brass instruments, were very common in this region. The artists also had access to the musical instruction and influence of the creole marching bands that came from France and Spain. This enabled the city blues artists to play their instruments with much more skill and gave their music an air of sophistication that the “primitive” country artists didn’t have.