|Blind Lemon Jefferson|
|Langston Hughes's The Weary Blues|
This is not a music class and yet our primary reference point is to a musical tradition, in particular the blues tradition's impact on musical performance as a central tradition in African American culture. Indeed, this tradition of performance has had such a huge impact on the formation of African American culture that one needs some familiarity with this tradition in order to understand any aspect of African American cultural and social achievement.
Why would this be the case? Since African American history takes us back to slavery in short order, we must look to the restrictions placed on the cultural life of the slaves in order to understand the peculiarities of African American cultural expression to this day. Early in the 19th century, African American slaves were forbidden drums since its power to communicate with and between slaves was quickly discerned. Nonetheless, the essential percussive qualities of African music were taken up by all the other instruments used as well as through dance and song—work songs, spirituals to begin with and after slavery graduating to the blues and gospel. Spoken word performances, particularly epitomized by the early sermons, also extended these percussive qualities. One might say that the communicative powers of the talking drum were taken up by every aspect of African American culture.
African Americans were also forbidden religious instruction until the ecstatic religions (Baptist and Methodist) made it possible to convert the slaves without written instruction or reading since reading and writing were also forbidden. A great deal of emphasis was placed upon preventing communication between blacks on most subjects. And yet the percussive tradition, which was a communication tradition was incorporated at every level.
Granted it wasn’t possible to communicate on all subjects equally. Many have argued that folk art was always for purposes of social protest. However, it seems more likely as Albert Murray suggests, that folk expression concerned itself primarily with issues of survival and affirmation.
My Descriptive Outline of a Documentary:
Master’s of American Music----Documentary Description/Outline
Bluesland: A Portrait in American Music
Robert Palmer—Dockery Farms, early 19 hundreds a lot of important black blues players lived there including
Charley Patton who recorded a lot of music, only one picture surviving but he’s the first Delta Blues Man we can put a name to:
Son House, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters
Blind Lemon Jefferson—Black Snake Moan—East Texas
Albert Murray says herein the most distinctive thing about blues music (idiom) including jazz or any aspect of it is its emphasis on percussive statement, from its idiomatic source. Or as he calls it, the African derived disposition to use all instruments as if they were extensions of an African talking drum. So the music is incantatory and percussive.
Bukka White--Parchman Farm Blues
Son House—The Death Letter Blues, The Pony Blues
Big Blue Broonzy
First time he heard the blues was in Tutwiler, Miss.
Singing “When the Southern crossed the Dog,” totally knocked him sideways
Father of the Blues Industry
Closer to Ragtime—3 or 4 different strands more like a march rather than a folk song
Handy made this music readily available, put it in the public domain by analysing what was happening: The Memphis Blues, Beale Street Blues
Tradition of European music interwoven with the African percussive tradition
King Oliver, Buddy Bolden—several bands
Barrelhouse Piano Blues—all the piano blues that was developed in the lumber camps from East Texas to Louisiana up through Mississippi (developed in Kansas City and Chicago); Albert Ammons; Meade Lux; the great Jelly Roll Morton from New Orleans; Little Brother Montgomery; Roosevelt Sykes
We’re talking about art, and therefore artificiality, and as such it has its own context. We’re concerned with the blues being presented always in performative contexts. Another set of conventions and traditions. The tradition of the performing artist. Style as exemplified by:
Bessie Smith—doing WC Handy’s St. Louis Blues (1929) in the only film of her directed by Dudley Murphy, accompanied by the Hall Johnson Choir.y
Ma Rainey—August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Boll Weevil Blues--
Ethel Waters and Mamie Smith
Race Records in the 20s made blues commercially available, although usually watered down.
Louis Armstrong's The West End Blues; Duke Ellington's Koko
Note: The Women asked me about the women. I mentioned Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Koko Taylor and Tina Turner as people who have footage that could be easily included here except that this is easily one of those films that regards the blues as something that is mainly about the men and a few very special women (i.e. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey). It is hard to fit all this stuff in, and then the four women who are included are all somewhat later. Still hot though!