“Music was explaining the history as the history was explaining the music. And both were expressions of and reflections on the people.” ~ LeRoi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka
An early Dixieland jazz clarinetist, Louis Nelson Delisle, once told Alan Lomax: “The blues? Ain’t no first blues. The blues always been.” In the first collection of “Slave Songs of the United States”, 1868, Allan writes in the introduction, commenting on the performance of black singers: “() like birds, they seem not infrequently to strike sounds that cannot be precisely represented by the gamut, and abound in “slides from one note to another and turns and cadences not in articulated notes.”
Both quotations sufficiently illustrate the difficulty that defies anyone who asks a seemingly simple question as, where and when did the blues appear? The wording of the question is already misleading as it infers some sort of static event, as if there has been “a first”, a “birth” where somebody could claim himself to be the ‘Father’, as W.C. Handy has done in his autobiography. The blues are the exponent of a unique historical process; some even say that it helped to shape this process of which it was a result. The blues speak of the experience of a black people that was deported as an inhumane object to a culture that was totally foreign and alien to its own. Out of this confrontation between cultures which had very little, if nothing in common, resulted gradually, following a specific socio-economic evolution, a truly amazing new cultural product: the blues. They are however so much more than music; one could reasonably even doubt whether the music is the most essential dimension of the blues. The blues are also a language, a poetic and lyrical form, a philosophy, a survival kit, a way of life, a vision, … They are a unique blend of the individual’s emotions and life experience reflecting at the same time the experience of the group the performer belongs to….
When I listen to blues, my heart is touched. At the same time however, the reading of the historical background of the blues touches me intellectually, and fills me with a tremendous admiration for one of the greatest cultural forms of art of the twentieth century.
If, like me, you want the blues to touch you not only emotionally but also intellectually, then you have come to the right place. Allow me to indulge myself, through the essays that I present you here on a regular basis, in exploring how this truly American art form has come about. How the voice of the ‘chattel property’ has gradually managed, via complex processes of acculturation and adaptation, to sound louder than the voice of the “massa”. How, at the end of the day, this music has conquered the world cultural scene. Join me on my historical journey back to the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia, and my exploration of how their culture, completely ignored and not understood by the white colonist, culminated in a musical genre that has impressively manifested its universal appeal and openness to ever changing conditions and influences.
My essays do not follow an historical time-line, but are written following associations that arise when perusing my documents. Also, some do not bear a direct relation with the blues, but help nevertheless to clarify events or evolutions which I consider relevant to understand the broader context in which the blues emerged. It is finally rare that you will find biographies of individuals and their music. Other writers are much better in this and plenty of documentation is available elsewhere. If you are looking for a diverting way to find out something more on where the music comes from that you love so much, then I invite you to browse through my writings. But remember, blues is personal, so is the interpretation of its evolution!
February, 17th, 2012