Deciphering Culture


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The first documented reports of the blues in the Southeastern United States come from the  1890s. There are no reports of slaves singing blues and the predominant opinion among scholar is that the blues emerged as a distinct song form during the period when the new-found opportunities and liberties African Americans gained during Reconstruction after the Civil War were rolled back and a new regime of white supremacy, known as Jim Crow, was instituted. The blues expressed the tenor of the times when aspirations shifted from hope and progress to ironic resignation and survival.  Typically performed by itinerant male musicians, it had a variety of sources among African American music and has musical characteristics that can be traced back to Africa. Beginning in the 1920s,  scholars tried to find an African ancestor of the blues that had crossed the Atlantic to the Southeastern U.S. with the slave trade. They failed in finding a direct link to an African musical genre but some theorized that the “bluesman” was an American  adaptation of the West African griot, musicians who served as historians and praise-singers to royalty. One of the various instruments played by griots was the ngoni, a small lute that bears a resemblance to the guitar and banjo which were the primary musical instruments early bluesmen used to accompany themselves.

A contemporary example of a griot ngoni performance:

While a definitive African ancestor of or lineage for the blues cannot be found, it is clear that a number of aesthetic features of African music and music making are integral to the blues. These aesthetic features are also integral to numerous forms of African American music. Two examples of “African retentions” in African American music are call and response and a preference for fuzzy or rough timbres.

Call and response is most familiar to most people from vocal music that features two-part singing, such as spirituals or gospel music. However, call and response is also evident in the use of musical instruments. The two video examples below demonstrate a direct link between the banjo and one of its African ancestors, the akonting, — both examples feature call and response patterns between notes played on the lower strings and notes played on the higher strings:

A “rough” or “fuzzy” timbre is also a widely desired feature of African music — the clear tone considered desirable in much of European music is considered uninteresting and lacking substance. The two video examples below demonstrate the effort to create an interesting, “fully-textured” tone. The first is a demonstration of a diddley bow, an American adaptation of a West African instrument (usually with one or two strings — in the U.S. often played using a glass or metal slide). The second is a blues featuring bottleneck guitar, a technique for playing the guitar developed by African Americans in the South that produces a characteristically rough timbre.

Roots of the blues: Among the earlier styles of African American music, the blues drew upon were mournful songs (“hard luck tales”), “sad” spirituals, field hollers and work songs.

The Structure of the blues: By the early years of the 20th century, the blues had taken on a definite structure

Lyrics: Usually a personal response to a particular situation—through singing about it, the situation becomes bearable (often about love problems)

3-line stanza. In early blues it was often the same 3 lines repeated. Soon, it became two repeated lines followed by a third that comments upon the ssituation.

A A B structure  –  each line has four measures of four beats each – “12 bar Blues”

When a woman gets the blues, she hangs her head and cries

When a woman gets the blues, she hangs her head and cries

But when a man gets the blues, he grabs a train and flies

Harmony: based on a fairly set use of three chords


Melodies: frequent use of notes that fall outside of the western scale – lowered versions of 3, 5, 7 of the European major scale “blue notes” – tension created between European major scale and minor pentatonic scale  commonly used in West & Central African music.



Written by Jeffrey Callen

April 2, 2010 at 11:43 am

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