Blues music is the most important gender of music of all times from a historical point of view. It includes cultures, history and it is not only music and lyrics as other musical styles are but is one of the most complex musical forms of expression which always narrates something, more specifically the history of a hole population. We are not sure till today about the date the blues music was born however it is estimated that its origins date back to the mid 1850s-1900s.It is a cultural system which begins at the Mississippi Delta, crosses the US and arrives till Europe. However, before starting from the Mississippi Delta it is necessary to understand what the word ”Blues” means.
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Its origins date back to the fifteen century in Europe to the expression ”to have the blue devils” which was introduced as an expression to indicate a state of extreme melancholy. Melancholy was at most of the times the main feeling that blues songs transmitted. The first person who testified to have heard blues was the archaeologist from Harvard University Charles Peabody in 1901 who went in Mississippi in order to carry out some excavations. He needed some workers to help him in his archeological research when he suddenly realised that these workers were singing some songs based on a specific and regular rhythm probably already persistent. This is presumably one of the most ancient testimonies of blues music. Doubtless blues already existed, but after this testimony it started becoming famous and popular as it was given to it a name. African-American workers were the first who started singing and playing blues music as for them was their main mean of expression. It helped the workers to be coordinated and maintaining a specific rhythm in their everyday tough work and rural lives. In the US these work songs started evolving and turned into blues. In those songs the Afro-Americans used to sing about their work , however after the end of slavery these songs narrated about the melancholy and more specifically the melancholy of living such a tough life because no matter if Afro-Americans were American citizens though they did not have the same constitutional rights as other citizens had, as for example the right to vote.
Blues is the first authentic American music style who then gave birth to other styles of music such these of bluegrass, rhythm and blues, talking blues, rock and roll, hard-rock and hip-hop. Blues musical system has a twelve-bar form, that means that a single four-bar phrase is sung three times (”Sold on Song” BBC). Melody of blues was not just simple music but something deeper as it is something that is felt and it is difficult to write; its singers sang it spontaneously with a wailing tone in the fields while working. As mentioned, the most usual blues structure is a three-line verse and the second line repeats the first one. Blues lyrics usually talk about emotions and more specifically about desperation, sorrow, misery as for example the lyrics of ”Crossroad Blues” by Robert Johnson:
”I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above ”Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please” (CITATION)
Later, when it became an established music genre there were inserted different musical instruments and it turned into a beat with sliding notes. The main blues instruments are the guitar, the piano, the xylophone, the harmonica, the bass, the drums, the blues harp and the slide guitar.
Minstrel shows were musical performances who took place between the 19th and the beginnings of the 20th century in US. Before the Civil War the main participants of these shows were white people who painted their faces black and imitated Afro-Americans while working and singing their work songs. Nowadays, this could seem very offensive and racist message but unfortunately for them at those days was a simple form of entertainment. Minstrel shows were performing around the States in troupes and one of the first and most successful Minstrel show was ”The Christy Minstrels” which performed in Broadway for almost ten years. In these shows only white men could participate however after the end of the Civil War Afro-Americans joined and created their own troupes. Some companies decided to employ both black and white performers. The significance of these shows was very important for the Afro-American population as many blues women singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith otherwise called ”The Empress of the blues” made their start from there. In the beginning of the 20th century Minstrel performances stop being so popular, they vanished in time and unfortunately due to them racial stereotypes are still existent today.
Everything started in the Mississippi Delta where workers begun singing their work songs while working in the plantations. Songs which were helping them going through the difficulties life has brought to them and maintaining their rhythm while working. These work songs have evolved into something interesting today called Blues. Of course everything has a beginning and some blues performers started spreading around their music. These blues performers used to play their music along the street or in bars when they were not full. In these cases blues songs did not have a melancholy tone as the singers had to entertain their audience.
One of the first known blues artists was William Christopher Handy known also as ”The father of blues”, born in Alabama in 1873. He practiced many jobs before succeeding as an artist and as a music teacher and grew up in a religious family where anything which was related to music was forbidden. He started doing some tours in the countryside always with a big tent and he presented a variety of shows; acrobatic shows, dancing shows and magic performances. These performances were usually accompanied by ragtime and soft classical music. W.C. Handy began in 1896 his way to success as the band master of Mahara’s Minstrels. In 1903, one day meanwhile W.C. Handy was waiting for a train at Tutwiler, Mississippi he heard a melancholic music played by a man and he realised that the structure of the music he was hearing was this of blues, same rhythm, same tempo same blues notes. In 1903 Handy decided to move to Clarksdale and became the leader of a band called ”The knights of Pythias”. A few years later, in 1909 three politicians were candidates for the position of the mayor of Memphis and one of them -Edward H. Crump- asked from Handy to write a blues song for his campaign in order to win the elections and he did it. Actually, Handy precisely said ” In Memphis as in Clarksdale it was known to politicians that the best notes made the most votes, and there came a time where we were called to do our bit for good government”. W.C Handy in 1917 moved in New York where he introduced a new musical style this of fox trot. His successful procedure continued well and in 1938 he published his biography but unfortunately in 1943 he had an accident falling down from a subway platform and he remained blind. However, this unfortunate fact did not stop him at the age of 80 marrying his secretary Irma Louise Logan in 1954. ”The father of blues” dies a few years later, in 1958 from pneumonia in New York.
The majority of blues singers were men however women also made a successful career. Women such Bessie Smith who is said to have inspired a whole generation of singers (citation). She was also called ”The queen of the blues” and ”The empress of the blues” in the 1920s. In 1919 she got trained from one of the first blues singer Ma Rainey and got inspired a lot by her. After 1920 she was discovered by a man named Clarence Williams who represented Columbia Records. She started making some first recordings in 1923 and one of her heats who gain a huge success was ”Down hearted blues”. She collaborated with many famous musicians such as Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong. The main subject of her songs was this of oppression, love, betrayal.
”Gee, but it’s hard to love someone
When that someone don’t love you
I’m so disgusted, heartbroken, too
I’ve got those down-hearted blues
Once I was crazy ’bout a man
He mistreated me all the time
The next man I get has got
To promise to be mine, all mine”
In the lyrics of the song ”Down hearted blues” are evident the betrayed love feelings expressed and her melancholic mood as also a hope that the next man she would have loved should have been loyal and devoted to her. Her songs expressed a whole generation of African-American people.
Her birthplace was Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was born in 1894 and she used to perform in the streets with her little brother. After having spent many years singing along the streets she began a career near New York, Atlantic City and Philadelphia. Her private life was adventurous and this was one of the reasons that despite her obvious talent, it gave her such a big fame. She was a girl grown up in a poor family and she started performing in order to gain some money. She had experienced racism and that made her strong enough to go on with problems in life. When she started she earned only ten dollars a week by working in the 81 Theatre in Alabama. However, her performing way and her particular voice made her have a big audience and earning 1500 dollars a week in Detroit. Mezz Mezzrow- a jazz musician- said about Bessie Smith ” just this side of voluptuous, buxom and massive, but stately too, shapely as an hourglass, with a high-voltage magnet for a personality”. Unfortunately her career started declining and she stop gaining so much money. Bessie Smith dies in a terrible car accident in 1937. Her life was from the beginning till the end risky and adventurous.
Blues music it is worldwide known as the progenitor of any kind of music we hear today and as the most important kind of music ever existed. However, blues despite being one of the most important types of music hides behind it the history and the culture of the Afro-American population. Blues was in the mid 1850s-1900s the way of expression of Afro-American field workers, their mean of revolution. Blues influenced in a positive way the relationship between blacks and whites as ”black music” (work songs-blues) started being recognised by whites. For the native Americans it was something new and they were curious to discover this new kind of music. For the Afro-American population this was positive because in this manner they were integrated slowly into American society. There was at least one thing in that society that did not consist of colour restrictions. Afro-American population were people who had suffered oppression and discrimination as they were used as slaves and workers, they were not considered at all by natives and their rural lives were extremely tough. As a result, for them the invention of blues music was a kind of revolution, a response to everybody who thought them capable for only working in the fields. Through blues they were given the possibility to escape their routine life, to earn some extra money and fame as they proceed to their career as musicians and singers. It is clear that this kind of new job offered them a new lifestyle, a whole new luxurious for them way of living. By earning money from their performances some of the lucky ones had the opportunity to travel from place to place and perform in many different places. This gave them the chance to become wealthy and famous and to have an immense musical career.
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