The Blues

By 1860, there were roughly four million Africans enslaved in the United States. Forcibly transplanted to a new land, they brought with them a rich, African heritage—including songs. Adapted to reflect the hardship of forced labor on plantations, field hollers, work songs, laments, and shouts of protests wafted through the air like the scent of smoldering sugar cane. Frederick Douglass captured the impulse behind these songs in his autobiography:

Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.

The field holler was performed by a lone slave with the explicit function of self- expression—a way of communicating despondency, loneliness, lassitude, or any myriad human emotions. Conversely, the work song was practiced in groups and helped synchronize the slaves’ movements, lift their spirits, and, in general, help manage the toil of daily life of being captives in a free land. These songs, along with the spiritual, evolved into the blues.

Below you’ll find examples of the field holler and the work song, respectively.

Field Holler – “My Little Annie.”
Work Song – “Berta Berta.”

The blues, as a musical form and a form of musical expression, was an advent of post-emancipation America; as such, it celebrated the possibility of freedom for the black population albeit within a world rife with uncertainty, racism, and oppression. The unique character of the blues projected dejection and despair, but as jazz saxophonist, Branford Marsalis declared, “The blues are about freedom. There is liberation in reality. When they talk about these songs…when they talk about being sad, the fact that you recognize that which pains you is a very freeing and liberating experience. When I hear the blues, the blues makes me smile.”

The late writer and cultural critic, Albert Murray, concurred, “Playing the blues was a matter of getting rid of the blues. The lyrics may have been tragic in their orientation, but the music was about having a good time. So, the music was really a matter of stomping the blues away.”

By the 1920s, the blues had matured into a cogent, musical form that piqued the  interest of burgeoning music labels such as Columbia Records. In the 1923, Bessie Smith, who would be dubbed, “The Empress of Blues,” made her first recordings under the Columbia banner. Accompanied on piano by Clarence Williams, Smith performed her renditions of “Down Hearted Blues” and “Gulf Coast  Blues.” The record sold more than two million copies. The former served as the paradigm of the twelve-bar blues and the essence of blues performance practices.

The “classic blues” model utilized a twelve-bar chorus, an AAB structure, and strict, basic harmonic progression. Moreover, the implementation of the blue note, or “worried” note, was essential to the expressive content of the performance. The figure below provides an analysis of Smith’s first chorus of “Down Hearted Blues.”

Bessie Smith, “Down Hearted Blues.” (1923).

A prominent feature of black, American music performance practice is the implantation of the blue note. This is the tendency for black musicians to produce unstable, microtonal pitches, or pitches that fall between the “cracks” of the diatonic scale. These blue notes, which are difficult to transcribe due to their inexactness, are often applied to the third, seventh, (and occasionally fifth), scale degrees derived from the Common Practice period. The figure below loosely interprets the implementation of the blue notes.

Fig. Blue Notes.

In my transcription of Smith’s recording of “Down Hearted Blues,” I employ glissandi marks to approximate the microtonal vocalization of these unstable pitches. The function of this practice is to suggest a sense of worry or despondency—a feeling derived from the oppression that continued to hold captive the post-emancipation African American population. 

In order for the blues aesthetic to be codified, it was necessary not only to establish melodic attributes of performance practice, but a systemized harmonic framework, as well. The transcription outlines the simultaneities used in a typical twelve-bar blues progression; these include in bars one through four:  I(7) –IV–I–I; bars five through eight: IV–IV–I–I; bars nine through twelve: V–IV–I–V.  It should be noted that, while “Down Hearted Blues” is recorded by Smith in the key of C major, the first chord in the song is a C7—this, sounding as the dominant of the subdominant (V7/IV), establishes the harmonic ambiguity found in the blues. Moreover, each triad, depending on the performers’ inclinations, could be performed as a seventh chord.  

The blues, the wellspring that would feed all streams of vernacular, American music, fused with a jaunty, propulsive piano style from the Midwest prior to the turn of the twentieth century. This amalgamation would lead to this country’s most profound cultural contribution to the world…jazz.

In the next installment, we’ll address the other necessary precursor to jazz…ragtime!

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