“You can’t play the blues, until you’ve paid your dues” (Spencer 41), said by the originator of the blues W. C. Handy. The blues is a music style that influenced America in many ways eventually coming to create rock and roll. The true originators of the blues go back to African slaves brought to America to work on plantations. As these slaves gained freedom and acceptance in the big cities blues developed its own unique style. This unique style gained popularity amongst the white community creating an opportunity for record labels to make a profit.
Once the blues went nationwide white musicians took the blues style and techniques creating rock and roll. Some argue that rock and roll was only a lame attempt at duplicating the blues which could never be understood in the white community. Others argue that rock and roll artists stole the creativity of blues musicians to make their own profit. My argument is to find out whether or not the blues was stolen from African Americans and whether the blues was the property of African Americans not to be used by whites.
Whatever the case, the blues changed how other’s viewed music and brought a whole new vibe to its white listeners. To settle the argument over whether or not the blues was something that belonged to blacks we must find out where the blues came from. If you want to find the origin of the blues you must look back to West Africa before its people were introduced to the European and American society. African Natives were isolated from the rest of the world, because it was too early to have technology for travel. Due to this isolation they created their own unique form of speech and music.
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The key element of West African music was rhythm, not melody and harmony. Instead of the European melodic harmonies, West African music was surrounded by rhythm. “The core of European music was to embellish a melody with a number of melodic instruments, and incidentally set a rhythm. The European aspect of rhythm was only specified by vague terms such as “adagio” or “allegro. ” The core of West African music was to color a rhythm with a number of musical instruments, and incidentally dress it up with a melody” (Scaruffi 2) Rhythm was the foundation of the blues which the early whites never used.
It can be concluded that the concept of rhythm was something that was created by African Americans belonging to their culture. Once the concept of rhythm came to America the technique of melody would fall behind becoming a less important aspect of music. In the 17th century America discovered Africa and enslaved the “Inferior race” (Guralnick 98) to work as cotton and wheat pickers for Southern plantation owners. As African slaves were shipped off to America they brought the musical aspect of rhythm that would lay the foundation for blues music. African slaves brought to pick cotton and wheat would use rhythm to set a pace for work. Black slaves developed a "call and response" way of singing to give rhythm to the drudgery of their servitude. These "field hollers" served as a basis of all blues music that was to follow” (Scaruffi 1). These work songs were the original form of blues. They would express the harsh conditions of slavery. Africans brought new emotions and techniques to produce music. None of these emotions could be understood by whites because slavery was not an issue for them. “Whether ecstatic (religious), mournful (work) or exuberant (party), it was much more emotional than white folk music.
The combined effect of the hypnotic format and the emotional content created loose structures that could extend for indefinite periods of time, in a virtually endless alternation of repetition and improvisation” (Guralnick 13). The conditions were harsh and brutal working on the Southern plantations. These harsh conditions were a major focus in the lyrics of African slaves and influenced the future theme of blues music. “The songs of a Negro were the diary of his life (road, train, prison, saloon, sex), often an itinerant life, as opposed to the diary of a community (plantation, church)” (Spencer 38).
Africans held their traditions but changed the theme of their music to paint a picture of their everyday lives. Blues now had a foundation to grow on. Due to the new rhythmic style of the first slaves brought from Africa, and generations of influence from America, blues was beginning to take form. The blues was originally a simple work song of cotton pickers and was now a new style of music making its way into the white culture. Blues music had a style revolving around slavery. So the blues did belong to African American because the issue of slavery did not affect whites.
In 1865 the United States added the thirteenth amendment into the constitution abolishing slavery giving slaves the freedom to travel. The end of slavery led to the “Great Migration” of blacks into cities bringing a hip musical style amongst the white city folk. After the Civil War with the abolishment of slavery blacks gained their freedom and could choose where they would work. “Black men had few options other than back-breaking manual field labor or becoming a traveling minstrel. Many chose the occupation of a traveling minstrel playing raucous, all-night country dances, fish-frys, and jukejoints” (Pendack 11).
For blacks who left the South, the North promised freedom. However segregation was still wide spread throughout America. Due to the end of slavery many changes were made to the former slave music to create the blues. “The end of slavery meant, to some extent, the dissolution of the two traditional meeting points for the African community: the plantation and the church” (Scaruffi 9). Music remained the way of venting the frustration of African Americans, but the end of slavery introduced Blacks as individuals instead of being defined by a group. The black singer was now free to and capable of defining himself as an individual. Solo singers represented a new take on that condition, the view of a man finally enabled to travel, and no longer a prisoner of his community, although, sometimes, more lonely” (Green 3).
The sound of blues music began to change from slave work songs to blues. Whites could not understand the concept of gaining freedom because it was naturally given to them. The themes in the lyrics of the blues could only be seen through a black woman or man’s eyes. Many blacks took railroads to Chicago where the “City Blues” was born. City Blues” was a blues more subdued than its precursor, in part because its rhythms were more refined-more danceable. The African-rooted spirituality basically continued untouched; but the non-articulations (moans and hums) were less dissonant” (Guralnick 101). In Chicago, the emergence of the “City Blues,” in the 1920’s, created a new blues culture with increased musical performance due to the merging of city life and African musicians. The white culture had already adapted to the city life whereas the city was completely new to blacks.
The theme of the city blues reflected the conditioning of the South’s rural emigrants to the city’s new universe of experience that could never be understood by whites. “City blues represented the African American’s transition from the relinquishment of old folkways to the appropriation of the new progressive mentality. Race progress, represented the liberation of African Americans from the alleged tyranny of superstition” (Spencer 40). What the blues represented was an emotion that belonged to the blacks. Much of the blues was performed in small venues giving rise to new music techniques. Singers sang louder, amps were cranked up, because small noisy club venues, common then, needed loudness to be heard. Some made the switch to electric guitars while adding drum sets to their bands due to the loudness of the crowd” (Green 6). The electric guitar began multiplying options for blues players. Some of the first generation artists of “City Blues” were, “Muddy Water, Howlin’ Wolf, T-bone Walker, Bobby Bland, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, and B. B. King” (Pendack 2). The slaves of the plantations had made the transition from being “Field howlers,” to recognizable performers in the city life.
As the sound of the blues began to rise in popularity Rock and Roll began to develop over time. As the blues began developing a distinctive sound it provided some fundamental elements for rock and roll. After this time, blues was increasingly merged with rock music to form the rock blues bands of the 1960's and 70's. “Blues- the last in all of its permutations; call it a blending, a transition, a hybridization, maybe even a genetic modification; this is the progression of the music. The Forties and early Fifties set the table for rock & roll” (Spencer 41).
The rise in popularity of the blues had much to do with the mass media, record companies and radios. The blues was spread nationwide amongst the white culture. “During the late 1920's, with the advent of the 78 RPM phonograph, some of the more popular country blues artists were recorded by Paramount, Aristocrat and other record labels. These records served to expose white folks to the blues, as well as give the fledgling artists exposure to national, yet segregated record labels” (Guralnick 101). The blues rose to new heights because the money was there.
War production pay checks and post-war prosperity gave music listeners money to buy the new music they loved. “They bought radios and they bought record players; they fed juke boxes and they bought records; they went to concerts at the Apollo and at the Hollywood Bowl. They made rhythm & blues profitable” (Pendack 13). With the risen popularity in blues music, record labels jumped at the chance to make some money. With the blues drawing a new crowd and rock and roll was to be born. Many of the original blues artists did not take too kindly to rock and roll. Whites began to make much profit from blues by creating rock and roll.
However because blues originated from African American slave songs many whites had trouble replicating the blues because they had not gone through the same experiences. “Whites would steal from them this creativity born of labor and the elementary forms of industrialization and then turn around and sell it back. White capital, which owned all of the record companies, controlled this commercialization process from the start, economically and culturally” (Spencer 38). The mass media, record companies and radio broadcast stations were primarily under white control making the shift from blues to rock and roll easy. The record labels found that there was a market for blues records among white audiences of the big cities, particularly New York and Chicago” (Green 6). One of the original African American Blues artists, W. C. Handy, admitted, “Each one of my blues is based on some old negro song of the South, some old song that is part of the memories of my childhood and my race. I can tell you the exact song I used as the basis for any one of my blues” (Guralnick 14). The blues music had an underling meaning of suffering from segregation and slavery. Now let’s admit, I doubt any white man or woman would have any experience writing about that topic.
Here is a great example of a white rock band using lyrics depicting the harsh conditions of an African American. Many blacks see this as an attempt at using blues music for profit. As the blues saying goes, “You can play the blues until you’ve paid your dues” (Spencer 38). “Every time a white cop hits a Negro with his billy club, that old club says, Bop! Bop!... Be-Bop! Mop... That’s why so many white folks don’t dig… White folks do not get their heads beat just for being white. But you, me, a cop is liable to grab me anytime and beat my head-just for being colored.
And this where we come from-out of the dark days we have seen. And not to be dug unless you’ve seen dark says, too. That’s why folks who ain’t suffered much cannot play, and do not understand it. They think it’s nonsense” (Spencer 42). -The Police, 1980 “It is important to note that “The Police” was a rock trio from London, England. The trio included the now popular solo singer “Sting” (Spencer 39). It is also worth mentioning that this band consisted of three white men. Not black, but white. Even though this song was produced and sung by a white band the lyrics are sung from a black man’s perspective. The Police” had no idea what it was like to be beat due to a difference in skin color. It is also worth mentioning that, “The Police” went on to sell more than 50 million albums and became the world’s highest-earning musicians in 2008. The Rolling Stone has gone on to rank “The Police” number 70 on the list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time” (Spencer 39).
They ended up making a huge profit while using lyrics from a black man’s perspective. Now the question arises: “Was the blues really stolen from African Americans? ” and if so, “Was the blues really something that belonged to African Americans? Looking back on the origins of the blues we can see that its foundation was set by the concept of rhythm created in Africa. Once African natives were enslaved they were brought over to America using work-songs to set pace for work. With the abolishment of slavery African Americans moved north bringing the new style of the blues with them. As these former slaves began to make the shift to performing in clubs individually, they began to develop a new sound. As the popularity of the blues began to rise record labels jumped at the opportunity to make a profit.
Over time whites began to develop their own form of blues ultimately leading to rock and roll. Going back through this history we can conclude that African-Americans were the founders of blues. However, I do not think the blues is something that could be stolen. Rock and roll was formed by the combination of African culture and White culture. With the rhythmic style of the blues whites were able to transform it into their own version. If we were to keep the blues hidden belonging only to African Americans, slavery would have never been abolished. Due to the clash of the two cultures the outcome is rock and roll.
Rock and roll heard today is merely the blues in its developed form. The blues was a melting pot for all musical forms. As the blues was mixed and spiced up by difference artists, rock and roll was what boiled out. Annotated Bibliography Green, Adam. Blues. The Encyclopedia of Chicago. 1991. Web. April 23, 2010. The “African American Migration” from the South and the growth of the music industry lead to the creation of the “City Blues. ” During the 1950’, “City Blues, also known as the “Chicago Blues,” flourished using rhythm sections and a higher amplification.
A higher reliance was given to guitar and harmonica leads. While “Chicago Blues” did not recapture the harsh conditions of the African American community, it found a new audience drawn from followers of rock music. Guralnick, Peter. Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock ‘N’ Roll. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1999. Print Blues was a property of African Americans before it was even set on paper. Each blues singer had his own individual way of expressing himself. However there is a common thread of ideas as well as lyrics which gives blues players the ability to sit down with any other and play.
Its very popularity in fact influenced recording trends and tended to place a far greater emphasis on the community. It has always been a commercial vehicle, and particularly so because of its adaptable form. Pendack, Stephen. History of Blues. Blues Music Rocks! 2002. Web. April 20, 2010. Blues has its deepest roots in the work songs of the West African slaves in the South. During their back-breaking work “field holler” would use rhythm of their work songs to set the pace. During the Great depression, blacks migrated north along railroad tracks to Chicago.
They brought blues music with them and soon the sound filled urban night clubs. We began to see new performers like Muddy Waters switching to electric guitar and adding a drum set to their bands. Scaruffi, Piero. A Brief History of Blues Music. History of Popular Music. 2006. Web. April 23, 2010. During the creation of civilizations, blues “solo music” was invented to admire and appreciate musical talent of singers and instrumentalists. Blues music relied heavily on rhythm, both for dancing and singing. The key element to African music was rhythm, not melody and harmony.
Instead of a melodic counterpoint, West African music was about rhythmic counterpoint. Spencer, Jon. Blues and Evil. Tennessee: The University of Tennessee, 1993. Print White blues artists have tended to overlook the underlying theme of the blues because they have not fully understood African American culture. The language of the blues is one including a deep religious meaning not to be duplicated by the white culture. With the creation of rock and roll a reason for using the foundations a blues arose. Much profit came from blues music but the meaning could never be understood by white culture.
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