role of African music in the evolution of western music
we will never know for sure, it is likely that music originally
developed (thousands and thousands of years ago) as a
means to coordinate and synchronize collective human movement,
such as for hunting or farming. Even today, it comes natural
to start singing a rhythmic song to accompany the activity
of a group of people, whether hiking in the mountains
of building a roof.
Presumably, great singers held an important social status
just like shamans or top hunters. Later, as percussion
instruments developed to accompany music, individual percussionists
may have also emerged. Then new kinds of instruments,
not only percussive, emerged that further enabled virtuoso
during the evolution of civilizations, "solo music"
was invented to admire and appreciate the music of the
best singers and instrumentalists. It is likely that,
initially, their performances were mainly for the aristocracy
and were purely musical. At some point it came natural
to merge solo music and solo poetry to entertain the aristocracy
(and later the masses) with stories that people were familiar
with. During the classic age of Greek theater, these stories
became more abstract and metaphorical, and the music became
less straightforward. Christianity further bent the purpose
of music to sing the praise of the Lord and to call the
faithful to prayer. Music, basically, became the vehicle
for a message. The message (even when it was an epic)
was not just a story, but a whole ideological system.
some point ordinary people started creating songs for
their own consumption, or "folk" songs. These
songs were not about heros or God, but about the joys
and sorrows of rural life.
music for the aristocracy became more and more sophisticated,
both because it could buy the best instruments on the
market and because it could hire the best singers and
instrumentalists in the kingdom. It came to be called
"classical" music. Through the invention of
polyphony, it greatly reduced the emphasis on rhythm,
which came to be considered a rather primitive and plebean
element. On the contrary, folk music relied heavily on
rhythm, both for dancing and for singing. Rhythm became,
in a sense, the main discriminant between classical and
was the situation when European music (both classical
and folk) arrived to the Americas. In the melting pot
of the Americas, Europeans were forced to admit for the
first time that there were many different kinds of folk
music. While the racial instinct was to separate the western
European forms (and the Anglosaxons in particular) from
the others, it was only a matter of centuries before the
boundaries were blurred. The most traumatic confrontation
for Europeans was the existence of African music. Long
discarded as an oddity of the animal kingdom (pretty much
like the sounds of animals), African music managed to
coexist for two centuries next to European music before
making inroads in white American society. During the 19th
century several elements of African music began to percolate
into white folk music. (This phenomenon took place in
the Americas. No Afro-contamination took place in European
society until much later). Again, rhythm was the key discriminant
factor. Rhythm was not an African invention, but certainly
the African polyrhythms were wildly different from the
linear rhythms of European folk music.
effect of African music on white music was initially barely
felt, but it was going to become the main factor fueling
innovation. In fact, the folk music of Europeans had barely
changed at all over the centuries, but was going to change
dramatically (with changes picking up faster and faster
speed) once African-American music became to influence
The fusion of European folk music with African folk music
was the most important source of innovation for music
after the Ars Nova. The status of European classical music
remained a bit odd. It steadfastedly refused to accept
African music (still regarded as some form of inferior
animal expression) and all its mulatto offspring. Thus
the gap between classical and folk music increased dramatically
during the 19th century until the Sixties.
States: Negro Music
Atlantic slave trade, started by the Portuguese in the
16th century and turned into the engine of North American
growth by the British in the 18th century, left the newly
born USA with its most embarrassing legacy: one million
slaves. By the time of the Civil War, they had increased
to more than four million.
African population posed a moral dilemma to the very religious
crowds of European colonists: how to turn the African
pagans into good Christians. The missionaries who took
on that crucial task were the first white folks to realize
the outstanding musical talent of the black race. Where
they came from, music was a social phenomenon that accompanied
every activity. The same was roughly true of white folk
music, but that music survived mainly in poor rural communities.
The rich white plantation owners had adopted the stifled
musical habits of their European counterparts (music as
a formal event), thus repudiating music as a commentary
on daily life. The Africans of the plantations hanged
on to their traditions, and the missionaries found it
convenient to adapt the Christian liturgy to the musical
mind of the Africans. It became normal for black congregations
to accompany sacred ceremonies with music that had been
imported from Africa. This "spiritual" music
was the first instance of African music adapted to the
social environment of the New World (in this case, the
church, something that did not exist in Africa, and the
lyrics of the Gospels). It was not difficult for the individual
slave to identify with the martyrdom of Jesus, and for
the community as a whole to identify with the odyssey
of the Jews.
other kinds of musical expression, mainly work songs (by
hollers and arhoolies, i.e. cotton and wheat pickers)
and party dances, were closer to the original music of
Africa, because the same activities (work and party) existed
in Africa. Go Down Moses is an example of "jubilee
song", songs for the "jubilees", or plantation
parties. "Hollers" and "arhoolies"
(workers of, respectively, cotton and wheat plantations)
developed work songs that were synchronized with the rhythm
three kinds of music (religious, work and party) shared
the same characteristic: they were basically hypnotizing
both the singer and the listeners. Whether ecstatic, mournful
or exuberant, the music of the Africans tended to be repetitive,
rhythmic and deeply felt. Its "hypnotic" effect
perhaps expressed the resigned acceptance of a tragic
destiny. At the same time, whether ecstatic (religious),
mournful (work) or exuberant (party), it was much more
emotional than white folk music; a fact that perhaps expressed
the hope of a less tragic future. This emotion led to
individual improvisation over collective themes. 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.
more aspects of black music were innovative for the standards
of white music. The rhythm was generally syncopated, and
(at the beginning) only provided by hand clapping. The
singer employed a broad vocal range and bridged notes
in an acrobatic manner, thus introducing a freedom unknown
to western harmony. The black equivalent of counterpoint
was mostly implemented in the "call and response"
format: a leader intoned a melody and a choir repeated
it in a different register, and sometimes a different
tempo, and often bending the melody slightly. The role
of spontaneous improvisation in black music clearly contrasted
with the clockwork precision of western harmony. And the
open-ended structure of black music contrasted with the
linear progression of western music.
African-American music was purely vocal. Many blacks of
the plantations were skilled fiddlers, but that was a
job they mostly performed for the white masters, not for
their own community. They played the music for the dancing
parties of their masters.
African-American heritage was mainly preserved in the
South. The negroes of the North were much better integrated
in white society in the 19th century. For example, the
first black theater had opened in New York already in
1821 (the "African Grove", at the corner of
Bleecker and Mercer, part of the Greenwich Village, which
was then a bit outside New York proper). Francis Johnson
was a respected composer of orchestral music in Philadelphia
(he performed the first "concert a` la Musard"
in the USA in 1838). And Elizabeth Greenfield, also in
Philadelphia, became a respected concert vocalist in 1851.
It was in the South that the blacks, barred from integrating
in the white society, had to "content" themselves
with their African traditions.
the civil war that ended in 1863 freed the African slaves
(slavery was officially abolished in 1865), and, in fact,
the first collection of negro songs was published shortly
afterwards, Slave Songs of the United States (1867). In
practice, it did little to improve the condition of the
black mand: same job, same discrimination. Even for the
blacks who left the Southern states, the cities of the
North promised freedom, but mostly delivered a different
kind of slavery. On the other hand, 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.
remained the main vehicle to vent the frustration of a
people, but the end of slavery introduced the individual:
instead of being defined by a group (the faithful or the
workers), the black singer was now free to and capable
of defining himself as an individual. His words and mood
still echoed the condition of an entire people, but 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. 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,
singers needed instruments. The banjo, an African instrument
("banhjour"), came on the ships. The guitar
and the harmonica were adopted from the whites. Eventually,
the guitar came to be the second "voice" of
the bluesman. Instead of addressing an audience in a church
or plantation, and interacting with it, the black songster
was interacting with his guitar. The blues became a dialogue
between a human being and his guitar. The itinerant African-American
"songsters" of the time of the Reconstruction,
armed with the guitar, adapted the songs of the hollers
to the narrative format of the British ballad (for example,
they were similar in tone, the difference between black
and white folk music was profound. They were both realist,
but white folk music created "epics" out of
ordinary events, while the "blues" was almost
brutal in its depiction of real life. The landscape of
the blues was one of prisons (Midnight Special) and dusty
roads. "Love" was simply sex, not a romantic
emotion. Death was a fact of life, not a step towards
eternal life. On the other hand, the existential quality
of the music was stronger in the blues. The blues was,
first and foremost, a state of mind. No matter how direct,
death and sex ultimately harked back to prisons and saloons,
which in turn harked back to poverty and misery. The unbridled
materialism of the blues was not self glorification but
self pity. The blues was, fundamentally, the sense of
an unavoidable fate (both individual and collective).
quintessence of the blues was pain, but the art of the
blues often consisted in bridging the chasm between tragedy
and (broadly speaking) comedy.
blues music is 12 bars long in 4/4 time. Its melody is
shaped by a scale that is an adaptation of the African
five-note scale to the western seven-note scale.
music was originally meant as music for negroes only,
not only ignored but often despised by the white community.
The demographic movement of the economic boom that followed
the reconstruction after the Civil War helped export black
musicians and their music to white cities, and tear down
some of the cultural walls between the two communities.
far, the elements that sounded most outrageous to white
ears were the obscenity of the lyrics and the indecent
movements. Sex was the dominant theme of negro ballads,
and the lyrics were often explicit. Black songsters liked
to boast about their sexual performances. This was not
so much an African tradition as a plantation tradition:
the slave holders used to encourage extramarital intercourse
among slaves, because Thus black people came from environments
in which sexual promiscuity was more than tolerated: it
was ordinary life. The other "indecent" element
was the Christian ceremonies that looked more like pagan
ceremonies, in which loud and inebriating singing mixed
with hysterical dancing and orgasmic howling. Black churches
encouraged the exhibition of mystic fervor through savage
body language, but white folks saw it as evidence that
blacks were not civilized beings.
blues music was heard and "consumed" by white
folks, it became more aware of its own meaning. It also
had to somehow "hide" that meaning (e.g., the
sexual one), that was not compatible with the values of
white society. Thus the bluesmen developed indulged in
"double talk" to confront themes that white
people shunned. The blues became more metaphorical and
allegorical (Bollweavil Blues, Stewball, Uncle Rabbitt,
The Grey Goose).
ghettos sprouted up in all big cities, the topics of blues
music adapted to the urban landscape, and began to depict
life in the ghetto. But blues music was never meant to
reflect the rhythm of urban life. De facto, the ghetto
remained unsung till the 1970s, when rap was born.
first venue for negro music was the "medicine show",
the itinerant variety show that accompanied the "doctors"
in their quest for gullable customers (thus the slang
term "physick wagon"). The "doctors"
used negro musicians, actors and dancers as cheap entertainment
to draw an audience to their sales pitches. Eventually,
the "medicine show" became an art in itself,
that toured several counties and even states, often augmented
with magicians, acrobats, etc.
Memphis in 1907 the first permanent theater for medicine
shows was set up. This led (1920) to the formation of
the TOBA ("Theater Owners Booking Association")
soon became a network of theaters specializing in negro
shows. Those negro musicians, abused and underpaid by
their employers, were nonetheless the first black professional
shows, although run by white entertainers, began to hire
black singers after the Civil War, and eventually became
mainly black. White enterpreneur John Isham organized
the first itinerant black revue (basically, a better organized
minstrel show), "Jack's Creole Burlesque Company",
in 1890. One such revue even toured Europe in 1897. These
revues maintained the three-part format of the minstrel
show (opening skit, specialty acts and finale), but were,
for all practical purposes, variety shows with orchestras
York: the birth of a Black Nation
turmoil in music reflected the emergence of black intellectuals
that challenged the stereotypes of white culture. At the
end of the Civil War, the biggest problem faced by the
USA was how to deal with the millions of uneducated blacks,
who were still dependent on white people for their livelihood.
For example, in 1867 a white abolitionist of Nashville
(Tennessee), Clinton-Bowen Fisk, founded Fisk University
with the aim of educating the former slaves and their
children. After the death of Frederick Douglass, the only
major black figure of the abolitionist era (an escaped
slave who supported both John Brown and Abraham Lincoln),
Booker-Taliaferro Washington, the son of a Virginia slave,
became the leading black intellectual of the Reconstruction
era. He believed that education would give blacks a chance
in the American society. In a 1895 speech, he called on
blacks to accept segregation and to invest in their future,
so that some day blacks would be equal to whites. But
a decade later along came William-Edward-Burghardt DuBois,
who instead organized the "Niagara Movement"
in 1905 with the explicit aim of creating a platform to
fight segregation. When, in 1909, several white and black
activists founded the "National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People" (NAACP). Du Bois became
one of its leaders. The problems faced by the black community
in those days were quite basic: white communities were
expelling and lynching blacks by the hundreds (at the
peak, in 1892, more than 200 blacks were lynched in one
year). In 1916, Jamaica-born Marcus Garvey moved to New
York and lauched a new black nationalist and separatist
movement. Unlike his predecessors, he believed that black
civilization was actually superior to white civilization,
and that blacks should return to Africa.
to the efforts of the previous decades in educating blacks,
the 1920s witnessed a "Harlem Renaissance",
led by blacks such as poet Langston Hughes. Music was
only one realm in which black culture was being accepted
during the 1920s.
commercial recording of black music was a direct consequence
of this "black renaissance". Realizing that
black artists were becoming a lucrative business (Scott
Joplin in ragtime, William Handy in blues, Eubie Blake
in pop, Louis Armstrong in jazz), and that record labels
were still reluctant to let black artists make records,
Atlanta's black songwriter Harry Pace (a former partner
of William Handy) opened in Harlem his own label, "Pace
Phonograph Company" (later "Black Swan Records"),
in 1921, employing a young Fletcher Henderson as the studio
pianist. Pace's success was such that white-owned labels
such as Okeh and Columbia started competing fiercely for
black recording artists, and that in 1924 Paramount bought
the Swan catalog altogether. Black Swan's brief adventure
legitimized the black recording artist, and opened the
floodgates to the recording of black music throughout
Orleans, Kansas City, Memphis
urban development of black music owned a lot to the sin
cities of the south: New Orleans, Kansas City and Memphis.
Their saloons, clubs, brothels, steamboats and speakeasies
sponsored countless black musicians who migrated from
Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi river, the old
French city that had exhibited an amoral opulence before
the Civil War, was a melting pot with no equals in the
south (blacks, creoles, native Americans, Mexicans, Caribbeans,
and descendants of the Europeans). Its port was an infinite
source of cultural exchanges with the rest of the world.
Its "Mardi Gras" carnival was a hybrid musical
celebration that mixed African, French and Native traditions
in its colorful parades and marching bands. New Orleans,
a commercial city, was more tolerant towards the blacks
than the other southern cities. When the blacks were emancipated,
it was a much friendlier place to be for a black musician
than most of the South. In 1897 the puritan government
of the city had created "Storyville", the red-light
district, nicknamed after the politician who had the idea,
a district that quickly became a city within the city.
Since most establishments had a musician entertaining
the customers, "Storyville" became the biggest
employer of black musicians outside of Broadway. When
"Storyville" was shut down in 1917, black musicians
spread all over the country, bringing with them bits and
pieces of New Orleans' sound. One of New Orleans' bands,
the Original Creole Band, exported a new kind of music
that would be called "jazz".
the reign of Tom Pendergast (that lasted till 1939, when
he was convicted of tax evasion), Illegal clubs flourished,
and black musicians were the backbone of the entertainment
an important inland port on the Mississipi and an important
railway node between New York and Chicago, made wealthy
by the cotton industry, was the natural link between the
rural South and the industrial North. Memphis was often
the first step on the way out of the plantations for the
blacks who wanted to migrate north. Many of them ended
up playing or singing on Beale Street, the center of the
night life. When nylon replaced cotton, Memphis became
to decay, and blacks joined the mass migration towards
Chicago, the next major stop on the railway.
Delta: Blues Music
music was the antithesis of city life, but the early recording
of blues music was a New York affair.
blues stars (Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida "Cox"
Prather) started out in minstrel shows, and then simply
migrated from the itinerant shows of the South to the
permanent vaudeville theaters of New York, where their
songs were written specifically for a broader audience
by professional black songwriters such as William Handy,
based in Memphis, who "composed" (but maybe
simply published) several of the early "classics":
Memphis Blues (originally written in 1909 for a political
campaign, but published only in 1912), St Louis Blues
(1914), Beale Street Blues (1916), Loveless Love (1921),
Harlem Blues (1923). Handy made his own recording of these
compositions with his Memphis Blues Band between 1917
and 1923. The orchestra featured trombone, clarinet, alto
sax, violins, piano, tuba, string bass, drums and xylophone.
He had clearly introduced elements of western harmony
in the original blues (for example, one can detect a sixteen-bar
tango within St Louis Blues). Handy also recorded one
of the first songs with "jazz" in the title:
Jazz Dance (1917).
twelve-bar structure that eventually became the standard
was an invention of the urban songwriters: the original
blues music was largely free form. The filmed 17-minute
version of St Louis Blues (1929), sung by Bessie Smith
with Louis Armstrong on cornet and James Johnson on piano,
with an all-black cast and directed by Dudley Murphy,
who had directed Le Ballet Mechanique (1924), may be considered
the first music video.
first blues songs to be published, in 1912, were Baby
Seals Blues, written by ragtime artist Artie Matthews,
and Dallas Blues, written by white songwriter Hart Wand.
Smith (not truly a blues singer, although black) sang
two blues numbers written for her by black songwriter
Perry Bradford: That Thing Called Love (1920), the first
record by a black female artist, and Crazy Blues (1920),
the first blues to become a nation-wide hit (with Willie
Smith on piano). Alberta Hunter, from Memphis, followed
suit in 1921 with How Long Sweet Daddy and had a hit with
Gulf Coast Blues (1922) before joining the jazz orchestras.
Bessie Smith, from Tennessee, made her first record in
1923 (Alberta Hunter's Downhearted Blues) and in 1924
cut her version of St Louis Blues with Louis Armostrong.
Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, from Georgia, debuted
in 1923 and the following year delivered Blame It On The
Blues and Night Time Blues, both written by pianist Thomas
"Georgia Tom" Dorsey and accompanied by his
Wildcats Jazz Band, and then See See Rider with Louis
Armstrong on trumpet and Fletcher Henderson on piano).
The first real star was perhaps Ethel Waters, from Los
Angeles, who was first recorded in 1921 and featured in
several musical comedies, and eventually obtained her
own itinerant revue ("The Ethel Waters Vanities")
and became a celebrity. All of them had moved to New York,
and none of them was a real blues musician (an itinerant,
street performer from the South). The "classic blues",
as it came to be called, was not classic, and was not
even blues. Alberta Hunter's most famous number, Nobody
Knows the Way I Feel This Mornin' (1924), was a ballad
backed by Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, two jazz
musicians. The bluesmen were starving in the South while
the "classic" blues singers were getting rich
in New York. These "classic" singers were almost
all women, in the tradition of the old vaudeville shows.
first records featuring a blues guitar were Sylvester
Weaver's Guitar Blues (1923) and Charlie Jackson's Lawdy
Lawdy Blues (1924). Charlie Jackson's Shake That Thing
(1925) was the first hit by a self-accompanied bluesman.
(Jackson actually played a six-string banjo).
of the few female composers, Texas blueswoman Victoria
Spivey recorded in St Louis, accompanying herself at the
piano, her own Blue Snake Blues (1926), Arkansas Road
Blues (1927), with ALonzo "Lonnie" Johnson on
guitar, Dope Head Blues (1927), T.B. Blues (1927), Toothache
Blues (1928), a duet with Johnson, and Moaning Blues (1929).
1926 Blind Lemon Jefferson became the first real bluesman
("country" bluesman) to enter a major recording
studio. It was the beginning of a trend: record labels
would go and look for talents in the Mississippi Delta
region, bring them to the city, dress them up and send
them to stage backed by a jazz combo. The blues music
that white audiences heard in those days bore little resemblance
to the blues music that was heard by black audiences in
the "barrelhouses" and "juke points"
of the South. Their songs were curtailed to three minutes
because the 78 RPM record could hold only that much music.
Their lyrics were censored to avoid any reference to sex.
Their performance was constrained to sound as close as
possible to the style of white singers. The African elements
(the polyrhythms, the antiphonal singing, the vocal range)
were diluted or avoided altogether.
bluesmen of the South were too poor to buy instruments.
They learned how to make music out of washboards, kazoos
and jugs. Hometown Skiffle (1929), one of the earliest
"samplers", coined the word "skiffle"
to refer to such music.
record labels found out that there existed a market for
"race records" among the liberal white audiences
and the small black middle-class of the big cities, particularly
New York and Chicago.
term "rock'n'roll" might be as old as any of
these historical events. Trixie Smith cut My Man Rocks
Me With One Steady Roll (1922) four years before Chuck
Berry was born. In 1934 John Lomax and his son Alan began
recording black music of the southern states, and discovered
the gospel genre of "rocking and reeling" that
had been around for years, if not decades.
being much older, the country blues of the Mississippi
Delta region, south of Memphis, was recorded after the
classic blues had already become a sensation in the big
cities of the north. The country-blues style had no jazz
combo: only a guitar and a harmonica. The most influential
in Mississippi were:
Charley Patton, a werewolf-like vocalist who wrote the
classics High Water Everywhere (1929), Pony Blues (1929),
Prayer of Death (1929), Moon Going Down (1930); Eddie
"Son" House, who in 1930 recorded, as two-sided
78 RPM records, lengthy ballads such as Preachin' The
Blues and My Black Mama, With guitarist Willie Brown and
pianist Louise Johnson; Tommy "Snake" Johnson,
an acrobatic vocalist who wrote Canned Heat Blues (1928),
Big Road Blues, Cool Drink of Water Blues and Maggie Campbell
(all recorded between 1928 and 1929, his only recording
dates); Nehemiah "Skip" James, who introduced
a less rhythmic, folkish style in Devil Got My Woman (1931),
learned from his guitar teacher, I'm So Glad (1931) and
Cypress Grove (1931); and "Mississippi" John
Hurt, one of the first to enter a recording studio, with
Avalon Blues (1928) as well as his adaptations of Candy
Man Blues (1928) and Nobody's Dirty Business (1928), and
one of the most archaic in style, but then forgotten for
Louis' multi-instrumentalist Alonzo "Lonnie"
Johnson, one of the first black instrumentalists to make
a record, used the violin in Falling Rain Blues (1925),
and occasionally played the piano, but made his name with
the "singing" (vibrato-laden) guitar lines that
accompanied most of his blues numbers, such as Woman Changed
My Life (1926), You Don't See Into the Blues Like Me (1926),
I Have No Sweet Woman Now (1926), Lonesome Jail Blues
(1926), Love Story Blues (1926), Blue Ghost Blues (1927),
Life Saver Blues (1927), Away Down In The Alley Blues
(1928). His style was instrumental in bringing together
blues, jazz and pop.
(Tennessee) had Walter "Furry" Lewis, one of
the first to play the slide guitar with a bottleneck,
whose Mr Furry's Blues (1927) and Cannonball Blues (1928)
predated even Patton; and "Sleepy" John Estes,
one of the most popular bluesmen since he debuted in 1929,
his biggest success probably Married Woman Blues (1935).
boasted Blind Lemon Jefferson, the most versatile interpreter,
a master of both dramatic recitation and guitar accompaniment
who penned Bad Luck Blues (1926), Spivey's Black Snake
Moan (1926), Matchbox Blues (1927), Booger Booger (1927),
that transposed the left-hand piano boogie figures to
the guitar, See That My Grave's Kept Clean (1927), and
Penitentiary Blues (1928) but died in 1929 (the year that
country blues became a brief fad); "Texas" Alger
Alexander, a baritone who, unable to play the guitar,
employed guitarist Lonnie Johnson and was the first to
record the traditional House Of The Rising Sun (1928);
"Blind" Willie Johnson, the greatest interpreter
of religious music, who penned Jesus Make Up My Dying
Bed (1927), Dark Was The Night (1927) for solo guitar
and wordless humming, and Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning
(1928); Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, discovered
in 1933 in a prison by Alan Lomax, later a celebrity of
New York's folk revival and thus the symbolic bridge between
black and white folk music, who popularized Gussie Lord
Davis' Goodnight Irene (1933), Midnight Special (1934),
Rock Island Line (1936), Pick A Bale Of Cotton (1940)
and Cottonfields (1941); and Mance Lipscomb (discovered
only in 1959).
"Blind" Willie McTell developed a dazzling technique
at the 12-string guitar that sounded almost polyphonic,
and composed songs influenced by white folk music such
as Writin' Paper Blues (1927), Statesboro Blues (1928),
Travellin Blues (1929) and Dying Crapshooter Blues (1940).
guitarist Arthur "Blind Blake" Phelps was fluent
both in blues music, as in West Coast Blues (1926), that
featured the line "we're gonna do that old country
rock", and in ragtime music, as in Southern Rag (1927).
pianist Charles "Cow Cow" Davenport recorded
Cow Cow Blues (1928), another precursor of boogie woogie,
and, generally speaking, helped coin a blues style at
country blues was initially heard in an "arranged"
version, performed by string bands such as Bo Carter's.
The popularity of the original bluesmen dates from much
Lewis, John Hurt and Charley Patton were the guitarists
who invented the "finger-picking" style of guitar
playing (basically, imitating the structure of ragtime
piano on the strings of the guitar, with the thumb strumming
the strings to provide the rhythmic equivalent of ragtime's
left hand, and the other fingers carrying the melody).
Carolina's guitarist Elizabeth Cotton/Cotten developed
a left-handed style (plucking the melody with her thumb
on the high strings) and demonstrated it in her Freight
Train (1958), composed at the age of 11 (in 1906) but
recorded only at the age of 63. Vastopol (1957)
1926 and 1929, several of the legends of the Delta had
been recorded. During the Depression, negro music continued
to spread. But the social setting was changing dramatically,
thanks to the ghettoes that had grown exponentially after
the first world war: Harlem in New York and South Side
most successful black singer of the 1930s was Tennessee's
Leroy Carr, also a pianist who formed an influential duo
with guitarist Scrapper Blackwell (the main guitar stylist
of the era with Lonnie Johnson) for How Long How Long
(1928), a song that broke the established rules of blues
music (both vocal and instrumental), while his existential
angst permeated the solo blues Six Cold Feet In The Ground
(1935) and the tuneful When The Sun Goes Down (1935).
piano-guitar duo became a staple of the clubs of St Louis:
demonic vocalist and pianist Peetie Wheatstraw (William
Bunch) and guitarist Charley Jordan. Between his debut
in 1930 and his death in 1941, Wheatstraw was one of the
most popular and prolific bluesmen.
of the great stylists of the blues was South Carolina's
itinerant blind guitarist Gary Davis, who already in 1935
created a soulful fusion of blues and gospel, later perfected
in I Cannot Bear My Burden By Myself (1949) and Keep Your
Lamp Trimmed and Burning (1956), but didn't achieve recognition
as an innovative guitarist until he turned sixty, with
Cocaine Blues (1957), Candy Man (1957) and the instrumentals
Buck Dance and I Didn't Want To Join The Band (1957),
all off his seminal album Pure Religion and Bad Company
(1957), Death Don't Have No Mercy (1960) and Lovin' Spoonful
(1965). He played the guitar like he played the piano,
and was not afraid of complex tunings, minor keys and
dissonance, of mixing ragtime, country and marches with
fellow countryman Blind Boy Fuller (Fulton Allen) was
influenced by Davis' guitar style, and his Rattlesnake
Daddy (1935), Big Leg Woman Gets My Pay (1938) and Step
It Up And Go (1940) harked back to the pre-blues era.
watershed year is 1936, when Mississippi bluesman Robert
Johnson cut his first record. A legend who lived only
27 years and recorded only 29 songs, but enough to establish
a new (chilly and fatalistic) standard of delivery and
accompaniment, Johnson perfected the styles of Charley
Patton and Son House (and the guitar style of Lonnie Johnson)
in the harrowing Terraplane Blues, Cross Road Blues, the
bleak Stones In My Passway, Come On In My Kitchen (with
his best bottleneck workout), Love In Vain (modeled after
Leroy Carr's When The Sun Goes Down), Dust My Broom, and
the lyrical Hellhound On My Trail (all recorded in 1936-37),
"Bukka White" Washington was perhaps the last
of the great Mississippi singer-guitarists, immortalized
by Shake 'Em Down (1937) as well as Fixin' to Die (1940)
and Parchman Farm Blues (1940), with Washboard Sam.
1939 Leo Mintz opened a record store in Cleveland, the
"Record Rendezvous", that specialized in black
music and was serving a white audience: black music found
an audience beyond the ghetto.
year 1916 was the year of the mass emigration of blacks
from the South to the North. By the time the Depression
stopped the flood, thousands of musicians had moved north,
and transplanted their music (whether blues, spiritual
or jazz) into the northern cities.
blues was played in the "honky-tonks" (clubs
that were serving alcohol illegally) and in the "gutbuckets"
and other kinds of private parties. Urban blues was generally
more aggressive, not so much because of the urban spirit
but because of the noise that the bluesman had to compete
with in those locales. Prohibitionism probably helped
replace classic blues with urban blues: classic blues
relied on legal establishments, that had to close or change
clientele, whereas urban blues was happy to serve the
rough and wild clientele of the illegal establishments.
of the Chicago protagonists were born in the South, mostly
star of Chicago, known also among white audiences as far
as New York, was Big Bill Broonzy, who, arriving in 1928,
chronicled the epics of city blacks in a long series of
eclectic recordings, including: Big Bill Blues (1928),
Starvation Blues (1928), Keep Your Hands Off Her (1934),
Too Many Drivers (1939), Key to the Highway (1941).
city performers introduced significant innovation in the
instrumentation of blues music. For example, the piano
became as commonplace as the guitar.
most famous of the bottleneck/slide guitarists was Houston
"Tampa Red" Woodbridge, who arrived in Chicago
(from Florida) in 1925 and was one of the first black
instrumentalists to make a recording. Unlike other southern
bluesmen, whose playing was modal and in minor keys, Tampa
Red's shimmering, clean style was influenced by ragtime
and jug bands. His prolific career include Through Train
Blues (1928), with Frankie Jaxon on vocals, It's Tight
Like That (1928), a duet with vocalist Thomas "Georgia
Tom" Dorsey and a massive hit, Come On Mama Do That
Dance (1929), with the Hokum Jug Band (Jaxon on vocals),
Sugar Mama (1935), It Hurts Me Too (1940).
Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell and Tampa Red make up the
triad of guitar stylists that determined the evolution
of the instrument from little more than a rhythmic add-on
to a full-fledged emotional tool. In fact, these three
guitar wizards were responsible, more than anyone else,
for making the guitar sound like a human voice. They cast
a long shadow on all blues guitarists that came later.
virtuoso of the bottleneck guitar was Kokomo Arnold (in
Chicago since 1930), who popularized Milk Cow Blues and
Sweet Home Chicago (1930).
Joe Williams debuted with his Highway 49 Blues (1935)
and the traditional Baby Please Don't Go (1935), arranged
with fiddle and washboard, and then recorded Crawlin'
King Snake (1941) with Sonny Boy Williamson on harmonica.
was also a female guitarist, Lizzie "Memphis Minnie"
Douglas, who arrived in Chicago in 1933, after recording
When The Levee Breaks (1929) and Bumble Bee (1930) in
Memphis, and converted to the urban style of Big Bill
Broonzy with Nothing In Rambling (1940) and her signature
song, Me and My Chaffeur Blues (1941).
first great barrehouse pianist was Roosevelt Sykes Bey,
who moved to Chicago in 1929 and coined a rhythmic, pseudo-boogie
style with 44 Blues (1929), The Night Time The Right Time
(1936) and Driving Wheel (1949). The other great barrelhouse
pianist was Eurreal "Little Brother" Montgomery,
arrived in 1928 from New Orleans, who debuted with Vicksburg
Blues (1930). In those days, barrehouse pianists were
the equivalents of juke-boxes. Sykes and Montgomery were
the first to introduce a personal style.
disciple Memphis Slim (Peter Chatman), who reached Chicago
in 1939 and had a hit with Beer Drinking Woman (1940),
went on to form (1944) his Houserockers, who recorded
Rockin' The House (1947) and Nobody Loves Me (1948, also
known as Everyday I Have The Blues).
Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson (who moved to Chicago
from Tennessee in 1937) integrated the blues harmonica
into the blues singing, so that the two became one continuous
voice. His Skinny Woman (1937), Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
(1937) and Hoodoo Hoodoo (1946) became standards of a
more rhythmic kind.
the same period, Robert "Washboard Sam" Brown
(who moved to Chicago in 1931) popularized one of the
most humble of African-American instruments, the washboard.
in 1941 from Memphis, tenor Johnny Shines, who wandered
with Robert Johnson, had to wait many years before his
compositions, such as Joliet Blues (1946), were recorded.
vocalist and versatile pianist Albert "Sunnyland
Slim" Luandrew, who moved from Mississippi to Memphis
to Chicago (1942), was immortalized in Sunnyland Train
(1929, but first recorded in 1951), Johnson Machine Gun
(1947), with the young Muddy Waters on guitar, The Devil
Is a Busy Man (1948), Brownskin Woman (1948), Shake It
main difference between the blues of the Delta and the
blues of Chicago was that the former was mainly solo,
while the latter was increasingly relying on a band format
(guitar, harmonica, piano, drums, bass).
religious music was definitely a strong part of the lives
of black slaves, there was actually a difference between
what blacks sang in churches and what they sang outside.
Most plantations had "praise houses" for the
slaves to gather, pray and sing. Negroes also met in "camp
meetings", that were largely outside the control
of white people. In these places, the negroes sang lyrics
that had references to their conditions of slaves, and
they danced as well (something that the churches did not
quite tolerate), and they were free to indulge in their
"savage" repertory of shouts, hand clapping,
foot-stomping, etc. They also came to be centered on the
call-and-response interaction between preacher and congregation.
was relatively easy for blacks to identify with the Jews
of the Bible: African-Americans too had been deported,
and they too aspired to a homeland, a promised land (in
fact the country north of the Ohio River, where negroes
where free, was nicknamed "Jordan"). Several
spirituals referred to the journey to freedom via the
"Underground Railroad" (a secret network of
abolitionists who helped blacks escape to the North) as
the equivalent of the Jewish journey from Egypt to Palestine.
A black woman named Harriet Tubman who worked for the
"Underground Railroad" was referred to as "the
Moses of the blacks". Songs such as We Shall Overcome
were explicit about their real subject: freedom on this
Earth, not only in Paradise.
religious hymns ("spirituals") were among the
oldest inventions of African-American music. In the years
following the Civil War, they were popularized by the
Fisk University Jubilee Singers, an "a cappella"
group that traveled throughout the USA and even abroad
to collect funds for the university (one of the first
black universities). Other universities followed suit
(e.g., the Hampton Singers in 1873 at Virginia's Hampton
process of black urbanization had an impact also on sacred
singing. In the Baptist churches, the archaic form of
spirituals that accompanied collective prayers evolved
into the "gospel song". The main differences
were the piano (spirituals were sung "a cappella")
and the lead vocals, that were now taken on by the preacher
himself. The effect was to reduce the freedom of the "performers".
music was popularized by Thomas Dorsey, the black Chicago
pianist and songwriter, a former Atlanta vaudeville and
barrelhouse pianist, as well as leader of the Wildcats
Jazz Band that accompanied "Ma" Rainey in Blame
It On The Blues (1924) and Night Time Blues (1924). Dorsey,
who had already composed several "gospel" songs
such as If I Don't Get There (1921) and If You See My
Savior (1926), transported blues musicianship into the
church. He formed the first female gospel quartet and
assembled the first large-scale gospel chorus (1931),
struck gold when he composed Precious Lord (1932) and
organized the first "National Convention of Gospel
Choirs and Choruses" (1932). After this song became
a hit (in 1937), Dorsey spent his life traveling from
church to church, peddling his repertory of gospel songs,
that also included There'll Be Peace In The Valley (1937)
and Search Me Lord. In 1928, Mahalia Jackson was one of
the singers who started their careers performing Dorsey's
songs. And James Cleveland was among the first to hear
the year 1930, the "Jubilee Meeting" of the
National Baptist Convention included the first performance
of gospel songs, and thus allowed the genre to come out
of the ghettos.
gospel music was still strictly for churches. It was only
later, in the 1930s, that some performers began to "export"
gospel music to the night clubs. Notable among them was
the thundering "Sister" Rosetta Tharpe, who
appeared at the "Cotton Club" and who recorded
Thomas Dorsey's Rock Me (1938), I Looked Down The Line
(1939), This Train Is Bound For Glory (1939), Shout Sister
the 1930s, the preferred format remained the quartet,
and the preferred style the "jubilee" (the standard
set by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers): the Heavenly
Gospel Singers (that recorded Thomas Dorsey's Precious
Lord); the Dixie Hummingbirds, founded in 1928 in South
Carolina (Joshua Journeyed to Jericho, 1939; Jesus Walked
the Water, 1952); the Golden Gate Quartet, formed in 1934
in Virginia, a veritable orchestra simulated with vocals
(Jonah, 1937; Rock My Soul, 1939); the Chuck Wagon Gang
of Texas that debuted in 1936; the Five Blind Boys of
Mississippi, formed by blind students in 1944 and led
by the delirious tenor of Archie Brownlee (Our Father,
sound of the gospel quartet had an influence on the parallel
development of the pop vocal groups. Mills Brothers popularized
the "barbershop harmonies", a sweet and romantic
mutation of the jubilee quartets, which would become the
reference standard for all future vocal groups. They recreated
instruments with the voices, while usually limiting the
accompaniment to a guitar. Tiger Rag (1931), Goodbye Blues
(1932), Dinah (1932), with Bing Crosby, Bugle Call Rag
(1932), Paper Doll (1943), that remained perhaps their
signature song, You Always Hurt the One You Love (1944)
and The Glow Worm (1952) were mellow sentimental ballads
that redefined black music for the broader audience.
Ink Spots, even more compromised with white pop music,
crafted melodies such as If I Didn't Care (1939), Address
Unknown (1939), We Three (1940), Into Each Life Some Rain
Must Fall (1944) and I'm Making Believe (1944) with Ella
Fitzgerald, To Each His Own (1946) and Billy Reid's The
Gypsy (1946), that were characterized by very high falsettos
and by a "talking chorus" (a bass voice set
against contro a choir of tenors and falsettos), de facto
the precursors of "doo-wop" music.
Soul Stirrers, that relocated from Texas to Chicago in
1936, were one of the first gospel quartets to feature
a solo vocalist, Rebert Harris, the author of Walk Around
(1939) and the first gospel vocalist to sing in a falsetto
register. After By And By (1950), Harris was replaced
by the young Sam Cooke, who contributed Be With Me Jesus
(1955) and Touch the Hem Of His Garment (1956). Cooke
was then replaced by Johnnie Taylor.
piano style that came to be called "boogie woogie"
originated from the Piney Woods, in Louisiana, at the
beginning of the 20th century. Here, black workers of
the railway used to gather in a "barrelhouse"
(basically, a tented saloon or a shack) to listen to their
music. The entertainers of these rowdy crowds devised
a dance version of rural blues music.
like in the saloons of the towns, the dominant instrument
was the piano. Unlike the saloons, that usually did not
admit black pianists for their white audience, the barrelhouses
needed black performers to entertain a mainly black crowd.
The itinerant pianists of the barrelhouses were blacks,
and were free to emphasize the polyrhythmic figures of
their African roots. They also had to play loud (i.e.,
be rather indelicate on the keys) in order to be heard
over the noise of the barrelhouse. Furthermore, barrelhouse
pianos were constantly out of tune: the musician had to
compensate for the piano's imperfections with his speed
and dexterity on the keyboard. Given that the barrelhouse
could not hire more than one musician, the piano players
developed a style that imitated the interplay of three
guitars: one playing the chords, one the melody, and one
the bass. Last but not least, the most natural rhythm
to imitate in a barrelhouse was the rhythm of the steam
barrelhouse style of piano playing spread with the railway,
from the South to the North (1920s). The southern metropolis
of Kansas City (that was replacing St Louis as the main
center of the region, thanks to the railway junction and
the highway interchange), the new magnet for black artists,
was the natural place for the new style to become "permanent".
Further north, Chicago was the second one.
was in Chicago that a new craze appeared: the "boogie
woogie". the ostinato bass of the left hand played
the typical blues chords, while the right hand improvised
the melodic elements in the treble. The genre had already
existed for at least ten years (e.g., Cow Cow Davenport)
before it became a sensation (1938), and it has at least
three "inventors". Meade Lux Lewis, who was
a cab driver for a same Chicago taxi company (so was his
friend Albert Ammons) recorded Honky Tonk Train Blues
in 1927, but the song was released only two years later
(it imitates the sounds of a train in motion). Jimmy Yancey
started recording only in 1939 (Yancey Stomp, State Street
Special) but was recognized as an influence by the early
boogie pianists. Clarence "Pinetop" Smith lived
only 25 years, but, the year before dying, moved to the
same apartment with Ammons and Lewis and recorded the
archetype: Pinetop's Boogie Woogie (1928), the first recorded
song that referred to the "boogie woogie". Note
that boogie woogie emerged during the years of the Prohibition
(1920-1933). If the title of inventor is disputed, there
is no doubt when boogie woogie became a craze. It was
announced by Albert Ammons' Boogie Woogie Stomp (1936),
a cover of Pinetop's Boogie Woogie recorded with his Rhythm
Kings, and by Pete Johnson, who teamed up with Kansas
City's vocalist "Big" Joe Turner, the ultimate
"shouter", for Roll 'Em Pete (1938), and then
exploded after John Hammond assembled the piano trio of
Albert Hammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson at New
York's Carnegie Hall in 1938. Lewis penned some of the
most sophisticated compositions of the boogie era: Yancey
Special (1936), Whistlin' Blues (1937), Cafe Society Rag
(1939), Solitude (1939), Bear Cat Crawl (1940), Six Wheel
Chaser (1940). Pete Johnson specialized in catchy numbers,
such as Blues On The Downbeat (1939), Death Ray Boogie
(1939), Cuttin' the Boogie (1941), one of many duets with
Ammons of 1941. Albert Ammons was the most passionate
of the trio, for example in Shout for Joy (1939) and Bass
Going Crazy (1939). Swing bands appropriated the "new"
style with Will Bradley's Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar
and bandleader Tommy Dorsey's Boogie Woogie. In Kansas
City, the band of pianist Jay McShann, with bluesman Walter
Brown on vocals, had a huge hit, Confessin' The Blues
(1941), by blending boogie woogie, blues and jazz.
the fast pace (that became even faster, louder and more
percussive in the 1950s), boogie woogie remained faithful
to the blues chord progression.
pianist Piano Red (William Perryman) took boogie-woogie
into the rock'n'roll era via Rockin' With Red (1950),
The Wrong Yo Yo (1951) and Dr Feelgood (1962).
white pianist James "Roy" Hall acted as the
transmission chain between this generation of black boogie
pianists and the generation of white rockers. His Dirty
Boogie (1949), Diggin' the Boogie (1956) and Whole Lotta
Shakin' Goin' On (1956) boasted some of the most manic
rhythms of the genre.
Eileen: "The Music of Black Americans" (Norton,
Cotto, Massimo: "Enciclopedia del Blues" (1994)
Gillett, Charlie: "The Sound of the City" (1970)
Hardy, Phil & Laing Dave: "Faber Companion to
20th Century Popular Music" (1990)