The Blues – one of the first American musical genres – has been with us now for well over a century. It finds its roots in the music of Africa, what ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik calls the “cradle of the blues.” Early music made by African slaves used a great deal of call and response form; this is present in early iterations of the blues, Here is an example of call and response from Kenya.
This call and response form would find its way into the slave songs of southern plantations. The stories in the Bible, particularly those that dealt with deliverance and freedom. In this scene, from 12 Years A Slave, we hear and see the call and response historically represented. This is one of the most important steps, not just for the blues, but for much of American popular music of the 20th century. These slave songs were being sung less than 50 years before the birth of the blues.
As you might imagine, these songs were a balm to the tortured soul, yet another link to the blues.
By the late 19th century, Ragtime has become a popular musical style. Who doesn’t know Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag? Here’s the composer himself playing his most popular tune. Note the swung rhythms and “stride” bass line, characteristic of the genre.
W. C. Handy, known as “the Father of the Blues” told this story – the moment he was exposed to an early form of the blues while traveling on a train through Mississippi:
… a lean, loose-jointed Negro who had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. … The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly… The singer repeated the line (“Going’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog”) three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.
– W.C. Handy, 1903
That pressed knife on the strings, plucking style, and repetitive words are all characteristics of the blues. It shouldn’t be lost on us that Mr. Handy described the man as having the “sadness of the ages” on his face. The blues, from the beginning, were associated with a certain amount of sorrow and grief.
One of the most well-known, early blues musicians was Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. He popularized the 12-string guitar and was a master finger picker. Here he is playing and singing Black Betty. You can hear how it’s related to Great Jordan Roll (above) and would work well as a call and response blues tune.
Finally, we get modern blues, gospel, and jazz, all of which find their roots in the early country blues of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We can’t have Rock ‘n Roll without the blues. We can’t have R & B without the blues. We can’t have Hip hop music without the blues. So much of our current American musical art forms find their roots in this genre that spoke the mood of the people making the music. So, take a moment to listen and be aware of this musical legacy. Listen to Blind Willie Johnson, Whistlin’ Alex Moore, T-Bone Walker, or B. B. King. These are musical storytellers and we wouldn’t be the same without their stories or their music.