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The Birth And Baby Of America's Blues
Joseph Thomashefski

The art of music has touched mankind since its existence. When the Italians first invented the guitar in 1780 (Randel, page 357), it was an instrument used to create love songs. Music has since then changed, along with the various cultures it has reached.

African roots
As African slaves were brought to the British Colonies in the America's, they brought with them their unique knowledge and various forms of music. Their beats and rhythms were unlike anything the white man had ever known. Their chants and "work songs" (Foner, page 87) helped them get through a hard days work on the plantation and soothed and comforted their hurting souls. The priceless musical contributions put forth by African Americans have been conducive to the evolution of American music and America's culture.

In order to understand how African Americans have shaped the face of American Music, one must look back to the origins of African music. The "Ivory Coast" as it was named, on the western border of Africa, was the primary source for slaves the white man captured in Africa. This stretch of land spread from Ghana to Nigeria (Cook, page 46). This area is known in the musical world intrinsically for it's percussional influence.

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Gospel roots
As generations of slaves in the America's passed on their culture's, they were musically developed. In the Southern plantation regions of the United States, slaves had very difficult lives. To endure the pain of being imprisoned, beaten and being separated from their families, they often times turned to song. As generations passed and the African slaves educated themselves according to "white" standards, they learned the white man's language and ideals. Many were converted to Christianity in the Methodist and Baptist Churches and as a result, were taught the church hymns (such as the classic "Amazing Grace"). By integrating their own beats and forms of music with the existing church hymnals, a new form of music known as gospel was devised. "These Negro Spirituals were a mixture of African Expression and white influence" (Foner, page 90).

During the American Civil War, the emergence of gospel music into African Slave culture took root into the hearts and lives of many and quickly became an important aspect of daily life. Inspired by oppression and singing to The God they desperately needed, their music had soul; their music had meaning. Common themes of this new form of music included loneliness, anger and despair; but most importantly, deliverance. The "Spirituals" they created were often times related to the Bible Stories of Moses and the Red Sea, Samson and Delihla, and David and Goliath. One "Spiritual", "Follow the Drinking Gourd" spoke of the freedom in the north; the "Gourd" is referred to as the North Star, so the song in essence, was a map (Whitcomb, page 90). As these prayers were sent out to their creator, they were blessed with an innate ability to release anguish through their music.

Through these gospel songs and working chants, the Blues were born. By using the "Call and Response" (Randel, page 124) technique of field slaves (and cadence) and a variation of the major scale found in church hymns, the Blues sprang forth from Gospels womb. The term "Blues" is labeled very logically. In the major scale, if you drop the "3rd", "5th", and "7th" scale degrees from major to minor, the results are "blue notes", which sound sad. That is what the Blues are all about: sadness, despondency, combined with the hardships and toil and equivocal pleasures of drinking and sex. "Color psychology designates blue as the color of melancholy" (Cook, page 25).

Delta and Chicago blues
There are two forms of the Blues; the "Delta", and the "Chicago". Using mainly one instrument, usually a guitar (harmonicas were quite common as well), the Delta Blues bend or flatten notes using metal or glass "slides". This sound was made popular by artists such as Elmore James and Charlie Patton (ypu.com) The merciless climate of scorching heat and dense humidity inspired a slow and easy sound that expressed the lives of its founders. The Delta Blues proved to be too slow for some though and as Blacks migrated to the north in search of work and freedom in the late 1800's, the Delta Blues went with them. This migration caused a new and more up-tempo form of Blues that developed in Chicago's coffee houses and small bars, rightfully dubbed "Chicago Blues." The Chicago Blues took on the attributes of their location as well. They are urban based rather than rural in comparison to the Delta Blues, and are also more complex. Chicago Blues use more than one instrument and all instruments are usually amplified. John Lee Hooker, dubbed the "The King of Boogie" (BlueFlameCafe) epitomized the Chicago Blues. Born in Mississippi, Hooker ventured to Detroit as a youth in search of work and influenced many; including Muddy Waters. Muddy's "mean licks" made him a legend. His music was pure emotion. He gained stardom in the early 1950's and continued playing with his band until the early 1960's. He was the patriarch of post World War Two Chicago Blues. Waters has influenced such modern musicians as The Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, and Van Morrison. Along with fellow musicians Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn, he served as the link between the old Delta Blues and the new electric Chicago Blues (Memphis-guide).

As Muddy Waters reached his stardom in the 1950's, the blues again evolved into what is known as Rock 'n' Roll. The metamorphosis of blues into Rock lasted around 20 years. This time period stretched from around 1950-1970 and is often referred to as the "Golden Age of Rock". In the early 50's, artists such as Fats Domino and Elvis Presley began mixing the distinct sound of both blues and country music into the art form known as Rock. Borrowing heavily from the Chicago Blues riffs and chord progressions and also from the Delta Blues, Presley became famous.

Rock & Roll, 50's & 60's
As Presley grew in stature among teens (mostly white girls), he created an image for himself unacceptable for many parents. His patented pelvic thrust petrified the conservative adults of the time. Rock and Roll was beginning to be viewed as evil associated with the devil. This was not entirely untrue. An integral part of the Blues scene, Robert Johnson was said to have danced with the devil. Born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi in 1911, Johnson set the standard for all blues musicians. By the time of his death (he was 27), he composed only 29 songs but created a pattern by which all Blues would follow. Johnson often times practiced his guitar in cemeteries and was quoted as saying he sold his soul to the devil in return for his music (Memphis-Guide). So these accusations put forth by the parents of the time were not unfounded.

When Rock and Roll originated in the early 1950's, America was in the wake of World War Two and thus was a very conservative society. The classic television series "Leave it to Beaver" epitomizes the white American family of the time. This consisted of a two parent family with two kids and a house in the suburbs of white America. This is how the Baby Boomer generation is often perceived. This contrasts reality as the founders of Rock and Roll were primarily black. However, music is color blind. Youths in the 1950's and 1960's could not deny the soul shaking sounds put forth by Rock and Roll. Rock and Roll "appealed out across racial and ethnic barriers. Audiences at performances of Rock 'n' Roll were similarly mixed racially and economically" (Randel, page 711). The 1960's were a time of revolution and change for America. Teenagers were rebelling against their parents and the United States government more so than ever before. On a much more grandiose scale, the Civil Rights movement was underway. Along with the Vietnam War and the Women's Rights Movement, America was arguably in it's biggest social challenge of the Century. The music portraying the time period revealed the troubles America was undergoing. As turmoil and hate swept the nation, white artists such as The Beatles, Crosby-Stills-Nash and Young and others sang of love peace and the Blues.

With America in shambles racially, the U.S. stood behind it's new music with pride as a source of power and hope in it's many rebellions. Traditionally, parents disapprove of the music their children listen to and Rock and Roll was by no means an exception. "Rock music, which was at the root of the new youth culture, provided a background for it's new found face" (Foner, page 86). With youths using Rock as a means to unify in rebellion, it is easy to see why so many people nationwide despise(d) what Rock and Roll stands for. The heart and soul of Rock is the blues, but the feelings put forth by Rock go much deeper than that. Rock like the Blues is based upon vocals and lyrics more so than the instrumental aspect of the music in comparison with other forms of music.

As artists sang of love and peace, they searched for a way to experience it artificially. This often times led to massive drug and alcohol abuse by popular performers. With the legalization of the drug LSD (acid), and the use of marijuana on the rise, drugs began to play a huge part in the ever changing world of Rock and Roll. A new form of revolutionary dubbed the "Hippie" had now spread across the United States. Preaching love and more notably peace, hippies epitomized what "folk" or "hippie" music stood for. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and others combined blues, drugs and plenty of support from fans to impress their point upon people.

In 1965, drugs were not the biggest problem for African Americans. Most white Americans were happy to listen to African Americans music, and let them entertain, but still did not view them as equals. The racial tension escalated until a string of riots broke out over the next 10 years; the first in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California. This racially motivated riot left 35 dead, 1,032 injured and $250 million in damages. Reaching the upper portion of the pop charts that year were the Supremes with their song "Stop in the Name of Love", highly contrasting the struggle of the time period. This riot was followed by riots in Detroit in 1967 (43 dead, 2,000 injured and 5,000 homes burnt down) and Kent State University in 1970 (four dead and 9 injured) (Hendler, pgs. 81,102,133). In 1968, the Civil Rights Movement was halted when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Through persistence and perseverance, African Americans gained the natural God given rights they deserved.

Funk and Psychedelic, 60's
Following the Civil Rights struggle, African Americans once again changed American music. Three new forms of music known as Funk, Psychedelic and Soul were catching like wildfire across the nation. Artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Parliament produced music closely related to drug experiences (Psychedelic) and in doing so ended the Classic Rock Era. Hendrix' music was a mix of raw blues and heavy distortion and other effects that blew peoples ears out of the water. His sound was a revolutionary blend of so many different styles of music that no one has come close to matching his ability yet. One of Hendrix' biggest accomplishments for himself and the entire African community was his performance at Woodstock in 1969. Hendrix was the main attraction and the highest paid performer at the event with $18,000 (Hendler, page 120). Although he was a God to many of his fans, Hendrix proved to be mortal when he died prematurely (at the age of 24) by "Inhalation of vomit due to barbiturate intoxication" (Rolling Stone).

Soul, 70's
Following the death of Hendrix in September of 1970, a new decade produced many new groups that tried to mix the knowledge of the classic rock era and funk. Marvin Gaye ("Sexual Healing", 1983), Al Green and Barry White among others helped to establish Soul Music. This differed from blues and rock in that it was primarily focused on love. The blues were based upon oppression, and Rock on drugs and sex, whereas Soul Music was created to seek intimacy with women. It grew in popularity and has now seen a rebirth in "Rap Music". Many rap artists of today sample beats and riffs from songs in this era. Rap uses raw beats and fast vocals to express among other things: the oppression of African Americans, love. Rap is highly debated because of the violent content of many artist's lyrics. Rap music is the last the last in a line of many forms of music created by African Americans in the United States.

When white slave traders brought African Slaves to the America's, they brought with them much more than human labor. African cultures and music soon developed and blended with European cultures and music into Gospel which created an exceptional sub-culture in the United States. Nearly every kind of modern music (that developed its own sub-cultures and morals) has it's roots in "Traditional" African Music. The musical ideas that African Americans borrowed from African Slaves to create the Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll, Soul Music, Reggae and Rap are priceless. Perhaps Muddy Waters said it best when he stated "If there wasn't no music, this world would be a sad place to live in' (island-net).

by Joseph Thomashefski, Fall, 1997


Bushnar, Gene. "It's Rock and Roll." NY:Jullian Messner Publishing. 1979. Intro
  • Cook, Bruce. "Listen to the Blues." NY: Charles Scribbner's Sons. 1973. 25-46
  • Foner, Phillip S. "American Labor Songs of the 19th Century." Chicago: Illinois Press. 1975. 86-90
  • Hendler, Herb. "Year by Year in the Rock Era." Westport: Greenwood Press. 1983. 81-133
  • "The Harvard Dictionary of Music." Ed. Don Randel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1986. 124-711
  • Whitcomb, Ian. "After the Ball-Popular Music from Rag to Rock." NY: Simpson and Schuster. 1972. 90
  • http://blues-link.com/links.html
  • http://www.island-net/blues/hooker.html
  • http://www.memphisguide.com/music2/blues/bluesartists/johnson.html
  • http://www.surfin.com/TheBlueFlameCafe/Robert_Johnson.html
  • http://weber.u.washington.edu/~jlks/pike/mgaye.html

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Bluesman Harry
Page last updated on:
May 28 2000

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