Culture is the set of values and ideals unique to a certain group, community, or race. Here, the members find validation of their behavior, reactions to specific issues, and ways of dealing with life in general. With culture comes tradition, which is an acknowledged ritual or concept followed by a specific community that signifies their identity. Within these parameters, various expressions are created in forms that lend themselves to communication, such as music. The blues are both vocal and instrumental music forms, composed on the basis of blue notes.
The early manifestations of the blues are shouts, chants, hollers, and rhymed ballads, which are the roots of popular music categories such as bluegrass, R & B, and jazz. With the term ‘blue’ originally used to refer to depression and melancholia during the Elizabethan era, and the term ‘blues’ credited in 1807 to writer Washington Irving (Baker, 1995-2004), blues music is owned and started by an ethnic group of a particular era—the African-American slaves.
II. Defining ‘Black’ and ‘Blue’ in the African-American Experience ‘Black’ has become a term synonymous to sadness, resistance, and death.
At the same time, it is also descriptive of the color of one’s skin, which brings on the fact that these separate word meanings can be summed up to define the African-American experience. The beginnings of the culture can be traced deep in the American South, where Africans, shipped in as slaves, would toil the cotton fields like animals and answer to white men who treated them, literally, as property. This is a significant part of history that brought about the horrors of prejudice, injustice, and collective pain—yet has spawned much insight and created ideologies defined by art, literature, and music.
The hardship and suffering jointly experienced by African-American slave families brought about the need for self-expression, for a way to communicate their sorrow without resorting to resistance or physical violence. Deprivation of a birth date and a name, a recognized structure of family and legal rights gave them less stature than an ordinary human being. This was only resolved when the deprived Africans finally recognized the relationships imposed upon them, and subsequently realized that they are not the barbarians they were made to be—the actual barbarians were the masters who caused their deprivation (Gates, 1987).
Thus, to provide an outlet for their grief—over backs breaking under the heat of the sun, the rape of women, the death of a child, the murder of men—these African-American slaves resorted to oral expression, by way of wailing, howling, and hollering. With their roots in the drum-beating tribes of Africa, the blues came to life. The blues are the definite collective expression of generations of black Americans subjected to the unjust politics followed at the time; these are representative of their character and ideology as members of the lowest social class in 19th century America.
This music began as folk tunes sang by both men and women in the cotton plantations of the 1890s South, and traveled through the next four decades until it came into fruition in the ghettos of urban cities. Therefore, the blues tradition symbolizes and works with the social conditions and transformation of consciousness of working-class African-Americans during this time (Barlow, 1989). One does not have to be African-American to experience the blues, but it takes an African-American to appropriately sing the blues—as it is part of their history.
The popular names of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Robert Johnson bring about the music of a generation of blacks, communicating through sound and lyrics the melancholy of history and remembrance. Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues” () contain allusions to escape, as well as mentions of several men’s names, depict the sordid reality of African-Americans in the mid-1930s, when most Southern states still followed the racist traditions of separation and quasi-slavery.
Every move made by blacks, particularly black men, was followed and judged by traditionalist whites—causing African-Americans to be beset by fear and paranoia all the time. Johnson’s song contains the blues’ signature repetition of lines, as well as the stereotyped ‘black’ language in the use of words like ‘gonna’ and ‘I haven’t got no sweet lovin’ woman’, as well as non-words like ‘uumh’. This reflects a language style unique to blacks, used to this day, aptly pronounced with an accent that is undeniably southern.
The music lived on and the social issues have changed and evolved, and, while it still exists in some areas, racism is no longer a major national concern. Though the blues indeed had their beginnings with the problem of slavery, it was, in the end, the universal emotions of love, pain, and sadness that caused the emergence of blues as a culture. III. Remembering Through Music Remembrance is essential in the African-American culture, because this is what defined them as a people.
The pain and suffering brought upon by slavery created concepts and ideals that needed to be passed on to the coming generations; the result was a collection of musicians whose passion was for cultural preservation. The black lifestyle of the period was documented through songs, complete with stories about people and events that expressed their feelings about their conditions. Field hollers were used by plantation workers to communicate with each other, and slaves made use of work songs as a means to measure time allotted for chores.
Most often, the pieces were quite short, only to reflect the workers’ mood and identity. These early forms never really became actual songs, but they share the same conventions and purpose with the blues. The call-and–response style present in these old formats can still be found in the blues, except that the response was also made by the blues singer himself or herself (McElrath, 2008). Outside of the slave experience, many elements that define the blues are still autobiographical, with very specific references to desire.
Most blues lyrics appear to be sexual in nature, and are personal expressions of emotions such as betrayal, loneliness, and unrequited love. Unlike regular songs, the original blues had irregular rhythm and often copied speech patterns—examples of which are the blues songs recorded in the 1920s and 30s by iconic blues artists Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Charley Patton, and Robert Johnson (Baker, 1995-2004).