Where did the Blues Begin?
The blues had to begin somewhere. Or did it? Did blues really have a beginning, or was it a sort of timeless coming together, a weaving and a braiding of different sources, streams and threads, shuttling forward and backward in time?
The blues scale, with the flatted third, fifth and seventh has its roots in west and central Africa, as does the melismatic vocal pitch bending, which could also have had a North African and Middle Eastern influence. Regions in Mali, Senegambia and other West African countries gave us the familiar elements of blues such as the call and response. The melisma (varying of pitch through a long musical syllable–think Aretha Franklin gospel) was important in these regions, as well as in the Middle East, connoting emotional meaning and artistic structure. Some of the percussion and stringed instruments (particularly the banjo) came out of Africa, as did the cultural context for the aforementioned call and response structure of the blues.
When African scales, instruments, vocal techniques and song structure encountered European folk and religious music (particularly that of the Scots-Irish southerners) it also came under Native American influences. Soon a cross-cultural ferment began that led to the basic roots of the blues. It isn’t hard, for instance, to correlate the skipping dotted 8th beat of a Scottish reel or British sea shanty with a dotted 8th blues shuffle, or to equate the insistent 4/4 time signature of Native American drumming with some Delta or hill country trance blues and later expressions in rock, rhythm and blues. Spanish, French and Portuguese influences brought us rumbas, sambas, tangos, zydeco and other styles to stir into the mix.
So we can think of blues as a conversation, a speaking together and an exchange back and forth between continents, cultures, races, religions and artistic styles that continues today. What we now term “Afro-Celtic” began brewing centuries ago when Scots, Irish and West African musicians began checking out what the other guys were up to. Tex-Mex and Latin jazz had their beginnings on our southern borderlands and in Florida and the offshore islands. Delta folk music has at its heart the lament, defiance, fear and restlessness of souls cast onto the shore of a strange land, struggling to stay alive. African-American music was born in sorrow and pain and it rose up to overcome every obstacle placed in front of it.
Even the legend of the devil meeting Robert Johnson at the Crossroads likely had its roots in the African Dahomey deity, Papa Legba, a trickster who stood, not just at the physical crossroads, but at the intersection of this world and the next. What better metaphor for music, that most transformative and transcendental of art forms, ready to transport us to wild, strange and dangerous realms? The crossroads is a fitting metaphor, also, for the crisscrossing musical influences that gave rise to the blues.
African, Latin, British, Moorish, Arab, Native American: throughout all these disparate sources are strung the strong threads of the blues, and its powerful gravity pulls them together into a swirling mix, constantly generating new iterations that fling themselves out again into popular culture.
It is no exaggeration to assert that all modern popular music has its roots somewhere in this amazing sonic generator we call the blues. Where did it begin? The answer will never be known. That is part of the fierce magic of the blues: it has no beginning because it is constantly reinventing itself, growing, shrinking, shaping and reshaping its dimensions. And it is because of this constant reinvention that music we now call the blues will have no end. It is as close as humans will get to the eternal. And that’s plenty close enough.
You can read and hear and see more about blues and roots at my music website. Thanks for reading!