History of The Blues Part I: Slavery, Rebellion & Emancipation
The origin and history of the blues has long been a topic of intense interest and debate. Many state that the blues was officially ‘discovered’ by composer and musician W.C. Handy in 1903, whilst he was waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi. Handy dozed off, only to be awoken by the playing of an itinerant guitarist. The musician was playing slide guitar with a knife and producing the ‘weirdest music’ that Handy had ever heard. Handy has since been referred to many as ‘The Father of the Blues’.
Whilst it is true that Handy did much to formalise the various forms of musical expression in the American South at the time, the idea that he created the genre is overly simplistic. A more accurate assessment would be that provided by Delta blues guitarist Booker White. When asked about the history of the blues, White responded:
You want to know where did the blues come from. The blues came from behind the mule. Well now, you can have the blues sitting at the table eating. But the foundation of the blues is walking behind a mule way back in slavery time
The history of the blues is one of depression, suffering and hardship. Its origins come from one of darkest periods of history. Yet the history of the blues also illustrates the amazing power of the human spirit. It is a story of survival, resilience and overcoming adversity.
This article will look at the early history of the blues, and how the lives and experiences of slaves in America shaped the genre as we know it today.
Slavery – The Origin Of The Blues
Although the exact date that slavery became legal in American colonies is still debated, Africans were being shipped over to America from as early as 1619. They were brought over initially as ‘indentured servants’. But only 40 years later in 1661, complete slavery had been sanctioned in states like Virginia, and by the close of the century, complete slavery was widespread.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, it has been estimated that around 12 million slaves were transported across the Atlantic. Around 1.5 million of those died on the passage as a result of overcrowding and the deplorable conditions below deck. Most of those who survived were sent to work on huge plantations in European Colonies in the Caribbean and Americas.
A much smaller number were sent to the Southern States of America, where labour was in short supply. The land here was naturally fertile and plantation owners were keen to maximise the growth of crops like Tobacco, and later of rice, sugar and cotton.
Torn from their homes and without any possessions, slaves brought with them the little of their culture they could. As George Pinckard, one such observer of a slave ship, wrote in 1819: ‘They have great amusement in collecting together in groups and singing their favorite African songs.’
In many cases, even this form of expression was forbidden. Tribes and families were purposefully split up and religion was banned. On some plantations, even music was forbidden by plantation owners who feared that slaves used it to communicate with one another.
Work Songs and Early Plantation Music
Work songs had been a traditional part of farming in Africa. They featured call and response and strong and repetitive rhythms; musical elements that would go on to become a fundamental part of the blues.
These songs also marked the early use of lyrics that expressed feelings of pain, suffering and hope. During the American Civil War, the lines of a well known hymn turned from ‘Yes, we all shall be free / When the Lord shall appear’, to ‘Yes, we all shall be free / When the Yankee shall appear.’ These early chants addressed themes that would later form the basis of all early blues songs.
On plantations where it was permitted, music also offered a source of relief and entertainment. As Soloman Northrop – author of ’12 Years A slave’, wrote: ‘Had it not been for my beloved violin, I can scarcely conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage’. Slaves would sing together in the evenings and play whatever instruments they had available.
It was at this stage that a music scene of sorts began to form on the plantations. Slaves from neighbouring plantations would meet up and there would be jigs and dances. The most skilled musicians and performers in the area would provide the music, and be rewarded with local fame in return.
Travelling Minstrel Shows and Cultural Appropriation
These lively local dances were the first version of what would become ‘Travelling Minstrel Shows’. These were hugely popular shows that played a key part in the history of the blues.
The shows were performed by a white cast who ‘blacked up’. They played music that came from the plantations and the shows mocked black people and culture. At best they portrayed black people as good natured simpletons. At worst, ‘almost every derogatory stereotype was applied to them’. They were depicted as idle, immoral and base. The shows presented a deeply troubling image of black culture that would persist throughout much of the 20th century in America.
Yet despite these issues, there were two positives to come from the popularity of the Minstrel Shows. Most importantly, they allowed black music to be shared nationwide. For the first time ever, audiences in the northern states of the U.S. were exposed to music from the Deep South.
Secondly, the shows provided a training ground and income for aspiring musicians. The techniques and playing styles of black musicians were shared and developed. The same musicians were exposed to, and influenced by the music being played in the northern cities.
Jim Crow Laws, Segregation and Sharecropping
It was around a similar time that the blues really began to take form in the Deep South. When slavery was abolished, there was the expectation amongst slaves that their lives would greatly improve. The reality was quite different. ‘Jim Crow’ laws were introduced towards the end of the 19th century, and segregation was enforced. Black people were disadvantaged in every way imaginable. Very few were able to escape from poverty and many remained on the same plantations where they had worked as slaves.
Rather than living as slaves, they now worked as ‘sharecroppers’. They were given land and accommodation from plantation owners on credit. In return they had to ‘share’ a portion the crops they produced each year.
The accommodation provided was generally very poor and the interest rates on credit exorbitantly high. It was a system designed to suppress blacks and maintain white supremacy. It locked the sharecroppers into a cycle of depression, misery and continuing toil.
These new challenges impacted the history of the blues in two ways:
Singing continued in the fields as it had done years earlier. But it now took on a slightly different form. There were no longer slave gangs working and chanting together. Rather, there were individuals singing to pass the time or gain the attention of other sharecroppers. Given the harsh realities of sharecropping life, the songs were about hardship, deprivation and economic struggle. These would become themes common throughout the history of the blues.
Secondly, they forced sharecroppers into a somewhat nomadic existence. To avoid increasing debts, sharecroppers would travel around the Deep South, moving from plantation to plantation. Their displacement and lack of home later became a key theme in the blues and a crucial part of the identity of the ‘Bluesman’.
W.C. Handy – ‘The Father Of The Blues’
Although an early form of the blues was being played all over the Deep South in the early 20th century, it remained a disjointed and highly disparate form of expression. That was until W.C. Handy formalised the blues as a genre.
W.C. Handy was a trained musician and composer. In 1903 he was travelling around Mississippi, performing at dances and social events. It was during this time that he first ‘discovered’ the blues when waiting for a train in Tutwiler.
It was also here that he became aware of the commercial opportunity the blues presented. When playing one night, a request was put in for a local band to perform. Handy agreed and was amazed by the response of the audience: ‘I saw the beauty of primitive music. They had the stuff the people wanted. It touched the spot.’
Although Handy played little part in the creation of blues music, his impact on the history of the blues is immeasurable.
Handy became a student of the early forms of the blues. He traveled around the South and orchestrated local performances, managing to unite the disparate styles of blues emerging in the Deep South.
Handy was also responsible for publishing some of the earliest ‘blues songs’. In 1912 he published the song ‘Memphis Blues‘. It was one of a number of songs published that year with ‘blues’ in the title. Prior to this, ‘Blues’ had referred to a whole range of different styles. But for the first time, the blues became it’s own genre.
Handy’s compositions also added structure and form to the blues. ‘Memphis Blues’ utilised the twelve bar structure that is typical in blues, as did his later and most famous song – ‘St. Louis Blues‘.
Early Blues And The Mississippi Delta
Although W.C. Handy formalised blues as a commercial genre, his own compositions are generally disregarded by blues musicians. They were too formal and lacked the raw intensity of the musicians we now regard as the early blues masters. As blues singer T-Bone Walker remarked:
‘St. Louis Blues’. That’s a pretty tune and it has a kind of bluesy tone, but that’s not the blues… I’m not saying that ‘St. Louis Blues’ isn’t fine music you understand. But it just isn’t blues.
The music that Walker and others recognise as ‘the blues’ was at this time still almost exclusively being produced by musicians in the Mississippi Delta.
Life in the Mississippi Delta was extremely difficult for the black population. White supremacy was absolute, and blacks were destined to a life of sharecropping or hard manual labour. Their rights were non-existent and public lynchings were both commonplace and intensely brutal.
These circumstances played a key part in the history of the blues. As singer Houston Stackhouse summed it up: ‘Hard working people, been half mis-treated and done around – I believe that’s what the blues come from’
Stackhouse’s statement is overly simplistic. It does however capture the widely held belief that the blues as we now recognise it was born from the harsh realities of life in the Delta.
That is a subject worthy of it’s own article and one that I will address in the second part of this series on the history of the blues. I will look specifically at life in the Mississippi Delta and the unique political and cultural circumstances that produced the kind of blues music that is still celebrated to this day.