The Blues – the Bedrock of Jazz
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
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'”.
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
“Feelin' tomorrow like I feel
Feelin' tomorrow like I feel today.
I'll pack my trunk, and make my getaway..”
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