The Blues – the Bedrock of Jazz

Dallas Blues cover
Dallas Blues cover

How the banjo came to the US

“The story of the blues is the story of humble, obscure, unassuming men and women.” - from The Blues Guitar by Alan Warner (nd)

Imagine, if you will, a young man of the Jola people in Senegal, West Africa, walking barefoot at sunset down a dusty road, little more than a footpath, really, plucking his three-string akonting lute, towards his home village called Kanjanka. Like so many young men, he is lamenting that his girl-friend has dumped him for another guy, perhaps one with a little more wealth than he has. He puts his feelings into the plaintive song he sings, accompanied by the repetitive notes of his instrument, a distant ancestor of the banjo.

This young man is with a group of his buddies who have been together to a neighbouring town to try to woo some girls they fancied there, but they are out of luck. As our young man sings his sorrow, his buddies respond with words of comfort and agreement in the same metre and the same melody, or a variation of his tune.

Suddenly out of the bushes comes a large group of men armed with guns and machetes and wearing shoes. These armed men pounce on the lovelorn young men from Kanjanka, put them in chains, smash their instruments and force them to march, chained to each other, through the steaming hot forests for days, with little food, until at last they come to the bay on the shores of which the city of Dakar is now. There they are forced into boats with a lot of others and taken across the water to the island of Gorée, where they are thrown into what has come to be known as the House of Slaves, where they await the next slave trading ship which will carry them, with their memories of their sad songs and their stringed instruments, to the plantations of the United States. There they will soon be forced to work long hours for little or no reward.

In the slave quarters at night the young Jola men and their new companions began to remember their songs and the feelings they expressed. They remembered the akonting and began to look for ways to reproduce its sounds to accompany their songs, now expressing their loneliness and lostness in their new circumstances. They have to use whatever materials they can find, old bits of wood and wire that their masters won't miss.

And so the banjo came into being and they used it to accompany the songs of dislocation and fear that they sang with many melismatic features, something they remembered from the music of the imams and muezzins of their Islamic faith back in the Cassamance region of Senegal. Other features they remembered and used in their songs was the call and response style and the structure of the songs from their homeland. And their scales they used in Africa were pentatonic, lacking the third and seventh tones of the western major scales.

Of course the young man and his friends come from my imagination, but Kanjanka and the akonting are very real. Kanjanka is the village in the Cassamance region of Senegal where the akonting originated and where it is still played. The akonting is the recognised ancestor of the banjo.

Work songs and field hollers - let my people go

“White folks hear the blues come out, but they don't know how it got there” - Ma Rainey

How the blues “got there” is a long story that started in Africa and crossed the Atlantic to the cotton fields of the southern United States. In the cotton fields the slaves, who were forbidden to express their pain and their spiritual beliefs, used to call out questions to other slaves who would respond with answers to the questions. The field holler was the call and the responses were often embedded in a work song so that the masters would not understand what was being sung about.

The field hollers expressing the slaves' pain evolved into the form we know today as the blues, a music about love and sex, working and drinking, loneliness and despair. The field holler expressing spiritual beliefs evolved into spirituals and later gospel music in which the longing for freedom was often disguised in allegorical stories about deliverance: “Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt land, tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go.”

Music and culture in a participative tradition

In their West African homelands the history and music of the group, village or region was largely kept alive by griots, wandering bards who sang songs telling the stories of the people, commenting on current events and generally keeping the culture of the people alive.

The slave singers were operating in the griot tradition and role, preserving what they could of their cultures of origin and helping to create a new culture adapted to their new circumstances.

In the African tradition music is almost always functional and participative. The “art song” or “art music” of the Western tradition aims at reproducing a composer's ideas as accurately as possible for the enjoyment of an audience which is not involved in the physical production of the music, rather using the critical faculties of the intellect to appreciate the music, often being very critical of it if the performance strays too far from the accepted interpretation of what the composer had in mind.

For the most part Africa music is totally different. African music is highly participative, everyone present having some role to play in the production of the music – clapping hands, stamping feet, adding lines of often very complex vocal harmony (one musicologist has collect Xhosa music in South Africa which has 36 different harmony lines in one song!). And the music is for an occasion or a purpose – to bury the dead, to prepare warriors to fight a battle, to till a field or to accompany a festivity. It is almost never music for the sake of music.

Blues and spirituals, because they were rooted in the field hollers, carried on this tradition

The roots of Ipomoea jalapa, when dried, are carried as the John the Conquer root amulet. Image from Wikipedia
The roots of Ipomoea jalapa, when dried, are carried as the John the Conquer root amulet. Image from Wikipedia
Muddy Waters.
Muddy Waters.
Willie Dixon
Willie Dixon

Blues form and content

“It is from the blues that all that may be called American music derives its most distinctive characteristics.” - James Wheldon Johnson (1871 – 1938)

The most basic, most common, blues form is the 12 bar blues form. The 12 bars consist of four bars in the tonic, two in the sub-dominant, another two back in the tonic, two in the dominant and again two in the tonic. This kind of basic chord progression is found in jazz, rock and almost all popular music from the early years of the 20th Century on. Listen to the early blues singers, listen to rock and roll, listen to the Beatles, and you will hear this pattern repeated over and over again.

What gives the blues its particular tonality are the so-called “blue notes.” The blue notes arose from the accommodation of the African pentatonic scale to the seven-note scale of most western instruments. This accommodation was achieved by “bending” the third tone to somewhere between the major and the minor third. This produced a scale similar to the minor scale. The fifth and seventh notes were also sometimes similarly played or sung.

Of course this bending was relatively easy to do with the voice, somewhat less so with the guitar and other stringed instruments, and impossible with concert pitched and tuned instruments like the piano.

The basic rhythm of the blues is most often a simple four-in-the-bar beat with the singer often adding other layers to the rhythm by singing around the basic beat, either before or after the emphases in the bar. This is the origin of that essential component of jazz, that elusive quality known as “swing”.

The lyrics used in the blues, whatever their subject matter, are most commonly in the AAB format – two rhyming lines followed by a third line that adds meaning to the song. This stanza of the song fits into the 12 bar form. So we get a song like that most bluesy of blues songs, “St Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy:

“I hate to see that evenin' sun go down,

I hate to see that evenin' sun go down,

'Cause my baby, he done lef' this town.”

The feelings expressed in the blues lyrics are most commonly, but definitely not exclusively, of sadness and despair, and the so that kind of down feeling has come to be called “having the blues.” But there are also blues lyrics about determination, defiance, anger, sexuality, magic and fun. Many of the lyrics come out of the residues of African beliefs, like the John the Conqueroo (or Conquer Root) and other talismans mentioned in many blues, like Willie Dixon's “Hoochie Coochie Man” (as sung by Muddy Waters):

“I got a black cat bone, I got a mojo too,
I got a John the Conquer root, I'm gonna mess with you,
I'm gonna make you girls lead me by my hand,
Then the world will know the hoochie coochie man.”

The sexual imagery can become fairly explicit in some blues, like Willie Dixon's “Rub My Root”, which he wrote in 1961. It was recorded by Muddy Waters in 1964:

“My pistol may snap, my mojo is frail But I rub my root, my luck will never fail When I rub my root, my John the Conquer root Aww, you know there ain't nothin' she can do, Lord, I rub my John the Conquer root.”

A “mojo” a term that is frequently encountered in blues lyrics, originally meant a cloth bag, worn under clothing, for carrying magical items, like the “John the Conqueror” root (Ipomoea jalapa) which was named for a legendary African king, John the Conqueror, who was, so the story goes, sold into slavery. His spirit was never broken and he has survived in the folklore as a sort of “trickster” character, and is said to have been the inspiration for “Br'er Rabbit” in Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus. Mojo is also often used to denote sexual appeal or energy, as in Jimmy Smith's “I got my mojo workin'”.

William Christpher Handy - the father of the blues
William Christpher Handy - the father of the blues
The incomparable Bessie Smith
The incomparable Bessie Smith

The development of the blues

The blues is the roots, the rest is the fruits. - Willie Dixon

Like any living cultural form the blues have developed in new directions over the years, depending on locality and use. The person most closely associated with the birth of the blues is William Christopher Handy, who was born in 1873 in Florence, Alabama. He was a trained musician who played and toured with vaudeville and dance bands, including a trip to Cuba where he learned the rhythms of the habanera. Handy's most famous song, and probably the best-known and best-loved blues of all time, St Louis Blues, was published in 1914. It is said that the inspiration for the song came from an incident at a train station where Handy was waiting for a train in 1893 and heard a very sad woman whose husband had left her. She allegedly told Handy, "My man's got a heart like a rock cast in the sea." He remembered the line and incorporated it into the song.. He explained the meaning of the opening line of St Louis Blues: “If you ever had to sleep on the cobbles down by the river in St. Louis, you'll understand the complaint.” Handy died in 1958 of pneumonia, leaving an indelible legacy of great blues music. The authors of the excellent handbook Blues for Dummies (Lonnie Brooks, Cub Koda and Wayne Baker Brooks; IDG Books, 1998) have identified a number of blues styles or sub-genres, including . As they write in Chapter 2 of the book, “... the musical world is coloured with more than just one shade of blues music and more than just one way of playing the music.” The styles they include what they call “regional styles”: Chicago blues, Delta blues, Texas blues and so on. To understand the major blues styles, of which seven are identified in Blues for Dummies, and four in Blues – an Illustrated History by Zeb Jones (Caxton Editions, 2004), it is sometimes helpful to see which artists are associated with each style. The early or classic blues style is associated with many “blues queens” like Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and of course the incomparable Bessie Smith. Jones puts a number of the regional jazz styles together as country blues, associated with the names of the legendary Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Leadbelly (Huddie William Ledbetter) and Bukka White. During the 1920s many of these blues musicians started moving north, most of them to the Windy City, Chicago. Here the sound of the blues began to change under the urban influence. The Chicago blues style is possibly the most popular blues style. On arriving in the Windy City the musicians tended to exchange their acoustic guitars for the amplified sound heard in small bars where the large numbers of customers in small spaces made it very difficult to hear unamplified sounds. Artists. Associated with this style include Big Bill Broonzy, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King and Chuck Berry. The electric blues style is associated with people like Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Johnny Winter and Taj Mahal. This is a very short overview of what is in fact a large and complex field, and doesn't even touch on the whole British blues scene which flourished in the early 1960s and out of which came names like Eric Clapton, Alexis Korner, John Mayal and Fleetwood Mac, to name a few.

The blues into jazz

Blues and jazz

The relationship between the blues and jazz is a complex and interesting one. It is what one person has called a “gallinovular” problem – a chicken-and-egg issue. Which came first, which influenced which more, and so on? What is certain is that jazz built on the basic blues form of 12 bars with a I, IV, I, V chord progression in those 12 bars. With very few exceptions every jazz composition, at least until the late 1950s, was based on this formula. Of course jazz is not the only music to have grown out of the blues. Most rock and roll music as made by Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rolling Stones, not to mention the music of some of the country singers like Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, is based fair and square on the blues. The formula is so effective because it is, in spite of, or perhaps because of, its simplicity, very flexible and provides a solid base on which a huge variety of musical superstructures can be built. No doubt if that young man we met at the beginning of this article could come back and hear what his sad songs accompanied by the akonting have spawned he would be a little surprised. But given the creativity and spontaneity inherent in the blues, he would, I think, fit right in and maybe even take a solo or two! He would definitely be able to identify with these lines:

“Feelin' tomorrow like I feel today,
Feelin' tomorrow like I feel today.
I'll pack my trunk, and make my getaway..”

Comments 45 comments

Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 6 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

Mississippi Blues led to Rock a Billy Then to Rock n Roll.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Indeed, Mentalist. Thanks for the input and for dropping by. I appreciate it very much.

Love and peace

Tony


advisor4qb profile image

advisor4qb 6 years ago from On New Footing

I love the blues! I am a big fan of anything bluesy. I sing a lot of Janis Joplin and I think Johnny Lang is just awesome! I saw him in concert and was amazed.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Advisor - yes the blues are amazing. Janis was awesome, wasn't she? I'm afraid I don't know of Johnny Lang but I will now look out for him.

Thanks for dropping by.

Love and peace

Tony


Storytellersrus profile image

Storytellersrus 6 years ago from Stepping past clutter

Tony, I learned so much from this hub! Ever since I read Roots, I have wondered how mothers in Africa survived after their children simply disappeared. I suppose word got around as the kidnappings increased and even adults were taken. It is a horrific moment in history. Your first paragraphs made this even more poignant. The destruction of African families and also of Southern slave families is unfathomable to me, as I value family perhaps above all else.

Beyond this, I did not know about these early versions of the banjo. Nor did I understand the movement of the instruments south to north. I have always loved the story of the "drinking gourd" and how slaves followed the North Star to freedom. I feel a bit relieved that my ancestors were not part of it all. They were still in Norway. But there were many who risked their lives to change this situation in the South, to help slaves become free. I am grateful to these folk because they reflect human dignity, compassion and determination.

Much to consider in this Hub. Thanks as always, for the intellectual stimulus as well as all the fun clicks of music. I am going out with tunes of Bessie Smith!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Story - thank you for your kind words. I really appreciate your dropping by and commenting.

I also can't fathom that people could actually own other people as they would own cattle or sheep. That is a great mystery to me.

But as so often in the history of the world such beauty comes out of great horror. It is unfathomable, indeed.

Glad you enjoyed the read and the music.

Love and peace

Tony


Storytellersrus profile image

Storytellersrus 6 years ago from Stepping past clutter

But as so often in the history of the world such beauty comes out of great horror...

Your meaning becomes even more poignant considering your comment on my Amazing Grace hub, Tony! I appreciate you!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

And I you, lovely lady! Thanks.


msorensson profile image

msorensson 6 years ago

Wow, impressive. I learned a lot, Tony, but I will have to come back and absorb some more.

I am afraid I have little knowledge of the Blues..I loved your intro but then the content is even more admirable.

Thanks!


gusripper profile image

gusripper 6 years ago

This is one of the best hubs i have ever read mister.You know how to write.Extra thanks for the informations because i am a blues fan 20 yrs.


Sage Williams profile image

Sage Williams 6 years ago

Wow, what a terrific job, lots of research and very well written. I had no idea of this slave history that you speak of, how horrific.

I was listening to one of the videos, with bongo's. I just love the beat of the bongo's. You did really amazing job writing about all the famous blues and jazz musicians.

Thanks for taking me back to a place that I have never really known to much about. I learned a lot.

Sage


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Melinda - I thank you for your kind words. Glad you liked my little flight into fantasy at the beginning!

Gus - your words made my day, thank you.

Sage - the slave history is horrific but in the end it led to blues and jazz, so good came out of it after all. Which of course is no justification for it! Thanks for your kind words.

Thanks all for dropping by - I really do appreciate it.

Love and peace

Tony


ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 6 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

I am not a big jazz lover but adore the olde blues songs. We have many old LPs with singers such as Sonny Terry, Brownee Magee, Lightnin Hopkins etc. I was lucky enough to see some years ago performing in Manchester, England.

Comprehensive Hub that is a must for music lovers


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

Fascinating, FASCINATING stuff, full of interesting information and a simple guide to how things came about. Many thanks for this.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Ethel - thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. Your words mean a lot to me. Lucky you to have seen some of these guys perform - I have never had that privilege, just listen to them, with wonder, on CDs.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

DG - thanks for the visit and the kind words. I enjoyed writing this one.

Love and peace

Tony


wilbury steve profile image

wilbury steve 6 years ago from Great Wakering, England

very interesting, really enjoyed reading this hub, especially the explanation of some of the terms we often hear in the blues songs,& their background. Excellent!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Steve - thanks for the comment. I really appreciate it very much. Glad you liked it.

Love and peace

Tony


Mystique1957 profile image

Mystique1957 6 years ago from Caracas-Venezuela

My brother Tony...

Wow! Did you know that I am a blues guy at heart? The very first blues I heard that mesmerized me was a Soul-blues called "A change is going to come" Greatly performed by the legendary 400 pounds of Soul- Baby Huey. Even Today, it makes my heart quiver. Then came Janis Joplin to the scene with "Kozmic Blues" and it blew my mind. I started searching into the very roots of blues and became a fan of Albert King, B.B.King, Ella Fitzgerald, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan,Jimi Hendrix; the list is endless. It was the first music I ever sang in English! You`ve made my day with this great hub! Thank you, thank you!

Thumbs up! Bookmarked and Stumbled!

warmest regards and infinite eternal blessings,

Al


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

My brother Al! So good of you to say these things which have truly warmed my heart, thank you!

Those musicians you list are sure the greatest.

Be blessed.

Love and peace

Tony


amillar profile image

amillar 6 years ago from Scotland, UK

Another excellent piece of work Tony. I really enjoyed this hub.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Amillar - thanks so much for you kind words which I really appreciate.

Love and peace

Tony


prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

I like it that you put the lovely quotes there Tonymac, and this is a great share. I like blues as well. I rated this up, Maita


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Maita my dear - thanks so much. As always your visit is an honour to me!

Love and peace

Tony


ladyjane1 profile image

ladyjane1 6 years ago from Texas

What a great hub with so much information that I didn't know about. You write very well and I enjoyed it tremendously. Great job.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Lady Jane - I am very grateful for your comment. Thanks so much, it means a lot to me.

Love and peace

Tony


fastfreta profile image

fastfreta 6 years ago from Southern California

tonymac, As much as I've read about slavery and the blues, I've never connected the two. This is one of the most comprehensive articles on the subject that I've ever read. I'm going to have to digg and stumble this one. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I'll have to bookmark this one to read later. Of course, thumbs up.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Fastfretta - I am so humbled by words, thanks, they mean a great deal to me!

Love and peace

Tony


Winsome profile image

Winsome 6 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

Fascinating Tony--too much to absorb in one sitting. Bookmarked and will link it to my Dizzy and Yardbird hub. =:)


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Winsome - I thank you for your kind words. And for the links - much appreciated.

Love and peace

Tony


subbuteoz profile image

subbuteoz 6 years ago from NSW, Australia

Tony - that is a truly comprehensive hub on music that is obviously as close to your heart as it is mine. Thanks for the informative read, I'll be back to reabsorb more later.

And thanks for the links!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Thank you Sub - yes the blues are dear to my heart indeed. And I love your Hubs on the great blues artists. They are very fine indeed.

Love and peace

Tony


Ann Nonymous profile image

Ann Nonymous 6 years ago from Virginia

The blues and even jazz for that matter were never my favorite but I won't deny the brilliance of both genres as well as your good job on this hub! Thanks Tony for the historical part in here!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Ann - thanks for your openness and your kind words. I apprecdiate your visiting in spite of this music not being "your bag" as they say!

Love and peace

Tony


Chris A 6 years ago

thank you Tony - great read, solid content - chapters for what must become a fine book


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Thanks indeed Chris for your kind words. Deeply appreciated.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Thanks Dali too - almost forgot to thank you! I too have not heard before of Johnny Lang - another excuse (do really need one?) to surf the net again!

Love and peace

Tony


kirstein.peter53 profile image

kirstein.peter53 6 years ago from Maseru

Great hub Tony! A nostalgic walk down memory lane. I've loved the blues since I first heard it in my teenage years. An very good school friend had an older brother with an amazing collection of blues albums that we'd spend afternoons listening to instead of doing homework! Wonderful stuff Tony.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Pete - your visits to my Hubs always do me the power of good! And music is much, much more important than homework (musn't let Caitlin hear that, though!)

Love and peace to you and Lindiwe

Tony


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia

Really interesting about the banjo. My hubby is a blues fan, so he'll love this hub!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Habee - thanks for dropping by and commenting. Much appreciated indeed!

Hope your man enjoys the Hub!

Love and peace

Tony


Coolmon2009 profile image

Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

Don't know how I missed this one, Impressive article. Didn't know you had linked to my BB King article. Per your request, I will link BB King to this article too. Thumbs up I like this one.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Coolmon - thanks so much. Appreciate the link and your kind words.

Love and peace

Tony


epigramman profile image

epigramman 4 years ago

Hi Tony - just posted this beauty and another hub of yours about the origins of jazz music to our new FB group Let's just talk music or cinema - you really know your stuff and with so much passion and knowledge - it's a labor of love indeed - sending you warm wishes and good energy at 2:32pm lake erie ontario canada


MickeySr profile image

MickeySr 4 years ago from Hershey, Pa.

So many seem to think that Jazz is the core of American Popular music, and it enjoys a common esteem that Blues does not - Jazz is held to be more prestigious, a more lofty, even more respectable musical form than Blues, but everything starts with Blues - Jazz, like Rock & Roll, Heavy Metal, Rap, Soul, etc, etc, etc, is one of many tributaries of American Blues. Just a brief excerpt from my own hub on Blues music (because I couldn't have said it better myself) ~

"The form of the Blues is very simple, very basic, and because of this some count it as a low quality music, a common rural sound of and for the masses, etc. But it's in the simplicity of it's structure that we find it's wonderful beauty - a Blues song gives you a very simple structure but every time that song is played it's a bit different, or dramatically different . . . the virtuoso artistry of each player makes every Blues standard his own, Blues calls-out for the genius of spontaneous creativity, or, improvisation."

Thanks for a great look at this authentic American art form.

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