In an attempt to tell story through music and song, through the words, sensations, and moods that those words can evoke in the listener, the passage on Blues music is perhaps a necessary step. The blues, unlike any other musical genre, is not only music and words, but it is also a historical course with its musical history.
It is an expressive process that starts from the Mississippi Delta and reaches as far as Europe. It is a symbolic and expressive system as well as a cultural model within which the rites and myths of an entire people converge.
To understand the Blues and its history well, it is necessary to understand exactly what the blues is and above all where and when the blues was born.
The origins of the Blues
The only certain information on the origins of the blues concerns the people who created this form of musical expression. The African American people, made up of slaves and former slaves.
The historical context in which this musical genre emerged can be placed in space and time along the Mississippi River Delta. This is dated to late nineteenth century, most likely in the years following the American Civil War. The first recordings of Blues music date back to the 1920s of the following century, but let’s go in order.
We don’t know exactly where and when the Blues originated. We know that in the early 1900s the term Blues was used. It origin is most likely derived from the expression “to have the blue devil”. It was used since the 16th century to indicate a mental state prone to melancholy.
And since melancholy is a very important, not to say a central component of the blues, someone has likely adopted this term to describe those sounds that until then had no genre label.
The melancholy expressed in the blues is certainly not the melancholy of someone who has had a bad day. But it is something much older and much deeper and that penetrates to the depths of the human soul. It is a melancholy derived from the anguish of an oppressed people.
Formed by slaves and subsequently by former slaves, separated against their will, from their land and their families, and forced to suffer abuse and abuse. Forced to live in slavery, and once emancipated men would have for many of them, freedom meant continuing to work for the former masters, dealing with discrimination and segregation.
The African root
The Blues is the anguish of a people in transition, which after an exodus adapts to their new land, shared with other peoples. And forced to live in a new culture in which that people has been catapulted.
However, this does not imply a renunciation of one’s own culture of origin, that of Africa; it does not imply a renunciation of one’s system of values, one’s social and religious practices.
Conversely, it creates new ones, integrating its own original culture with that of the place where they were catapulted. Not a few frictions would arise from this mixture of cultures, but also one of the most expressive musical genres in existence.
There is therefore an African origin of the blues, although it is not Africa where the blues originated. However, thanks to the memory of the land of origin and thanks to the memory of its music and its rhythms, handed down from mother to son for entire generations lived in the plantations, it reached the nineteenth century creating the stylistic premises of the blues.
Its original form is unknown to us since the first recordings date back to the twenties, but we have received not a few testimonies that converge in describing a primitive and rudimentary style that is highly melancholic and expressive.
Crazy Blues: the first blues recording
The first recorded blues recording is the Crazy Blues record. It was made by Maime Smith and released by OKeh records in August 1920. We can however say with certainty that, although Maime Smith did not invent the Blues, it was thanks to her that the blues became in a sense a mass phenomenon that caught the attention of the music industry and whites.
In fact, until 1920 the blues was exclusively black music. And remained so for several decades, played by African Americans for themselves and for those who listened to them.
After the publication of Crazy Blues, this genre spread like wildfire throughout the country, recording several hundred thousand copies sold. The unexpected success of M. Smith is most likely due to the vast distribution of the African American population throughout the United States and to the pre-existing blues culture.
The testimonies of the pre-1920 Blues
The fact that Crazy Blues is the first recorded blues record, however, tells us nothing about the place of origin of blues music. Its history was born a long time ago. This is why it is essential to go further back in time.
One of the earliest and most famous testimonies regarding blues music before 1920 comes to us from WC Handy. He is considered by many to be one of the fathers of the blues. Handy was a musician, a trumpet player. He moved to Clarksdale in Mississippi to become the conductor of a local orchestra. This move put him in touch with that sound that radically changes his life.
The late Train
In his autobiography, Handy recounts his first encounter with blues music. He tells us about an evening when, on his way home, he found himself stuck in Tutwiler station, where he was waiting for a train that was delayed about nine hours.
While there, he says he fell asleep and was awakened by the sound of a guitar; the sound he heard is described as a very strange sound, the strangest he had ever heard.
The man who played that music was an African American. Accompanied that strange music with lines that were repeated three times followed by a sort of response from the guitar. The sound emitted by the guitar was “very human and sad “.
This particular sonority was given by the tip of the knife that was used to vibrate the strings. In the same way in which Hawaiian musicians play their ukuleles, however emitting a sound, indeed a sound, totally different.
In his three lines, the man repeated the phrase “going where the Southern cross the Dog “. Handy says he did not immediately understand the meaning of those verses and asked the man for clarification. He replied only with a smile. Later he learned that the man’s destination was Moorhead, a place where two railway lines meet.
The Southern and the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley, known by all as “the Yellow Dog”. It was thus that he realized that the man was simply singing his wait for the train to Moorhead, and in doing so he improvised a piece of strange music.
The surprising Trio
A few weeks later Handy, also in his autobiography, tells of having heard for the first time a blues band in action which, at the request of the public, alternated with his orchestra and at the end of the performance.
According to Handy’s account, the trio of blues musicians was engulfed in a cascade of coins. This very famous anecdote from the life of WC Handy tells a fundamental passage for his artistic career.
Which from that moment on would have undergone a radical change; this allowed the musician to understand ” the beauty of that primitive music ” of which he would soon become one of the most famous and important composers, to the point of being called ” the father of the blues “.
Dating back to the same period as Handy’s testimony there are numerous other testimonies. One, in particular, was published in “the Journal of American Folklore “.
This testimony, unlike the previous one, does not come to us from a musician. But from an archaeologist called Charles Peabody. He was sent by Harvard University in 1903 to carry out a series of excavations near the Stovall Plantation in Coahoma County (not too far from Clarksdale).
During the excavation, Peabody was struck by the fact that the workers hired for the excavation, mostly black men, accompanied their work by performing some songs.
These were particularly rhythmic and improvised, in which they phrased verses of a general nature and which were sung to a more or less vague melody; the lines repeated themselves in what appeared to be a precise pattern.
The peculiarity of the event struck the archaeologist to the point of pushing him to transcribe some of those stanzas. And, to date, those transcriptions represent one of the oldest written transpositions of early blues music.
In the article published in the Journal of American Folklore. It was hypothesized that this practice was a legacy of the work done by slaves on the plantations.
Although in 1903 that song was described as blues music, at the time of work on the plantations this term was not yet in use and those songs were most likely referred to as work songs, used to mark the rhythm of the workers.
A third testimony comes to us from Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, one of the most important blues singers in history. Rainey says she came into contact with the blues in 1902, while in Missouri with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.
During their stay in Mississippi Rainey listened to a song that she later decided to include in her repertoire. And when someone asked her what music it was, she used to answer “this is blues!”.
There are also countless other testimonies. These testimonies place the blues of the origins along the Mississippi delta and wherever there was some community of African Americans and former slaves.
In this sense, the testimony of Bunk Johnson, one of the first Jazz players, in business between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th is particularly interesting.
He remembers first hearing the blues when he was a boy, around 1880, when he was Eubie Blake’s pianist. The peculiarity of Johnson’s testimony is that his first encounter with the blues took place in Baltimore, many miles away from the Mississippi Delta.
Finding an exact date and place to place the birth of the blues is probably impossible. Certainly, its roots are firmly rooted in the African American culture of the second half of the 19th century.
In other words, in that world made up of former slaves. Who still had the memory of life in chains on the plantations firmly in their memory.
Before then, the blues had hovered over sugar or cotton plantations in the southern United States, probably with a different name, probably unnamed.