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Blues: A Starting Point

Page history last edited by Stacy Takacs 14 years, 4 months ago

The Blues

Defining the blues is like trying to explain what it means to be an American.  Even in that comparison, it would not be that easy as the blues are partially representative of African Americans even before they were legal citizens; when the blues were not even called the blues.  Therefore it is important in this case to identify an origin.  Since that has not been confirmed yet, we must at least go by a starting point such as W. C. Handy’s historical encounter in 1903 “at a railroad juncture deep in the southern night, Handy dozed restlessly as he awaited the arrival of a much-delayed train.  A guitar’s bottleneck resonance suddenly jolted him to consciousness, as a lean, loose-jointed, shabbily clad black man sang [x 3] ‘Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog’” (Baker 4).  In his own words Handy wrote “His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes.  His face had some of the sadness of the ages . . . . The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.  The tune stayed in my mind” (Santelli).

Though we may never know the true first blues song, what W. C. Handy represents is the first documentation of an evolution in music called the blues.  This way, we can research everything before and after this date in determining the history of the blues.  What are also important in Handy’s account are the description of the man encountered and the meaning of the song.  The ‘bottleneck resonance’ and the ‘weirdest music’ both signify the slide technique which was at first a knife being rubbed against the guitar strings for a mysterious sound never before heard.  That the man was ‘shabbily clad’ with a facial ‘sadness of the ages’ describes the attire and mood that many bluesmen were known for singing about.  Also, the fact that he was waiting at the train station and singing of ‘the Southern that crosses the Dog’ depicts somewhat of a traditional lifestyle of the bluesman.  This is by no means even a fraction of what it means to have, share, or understand the blues.  It is simply the first time it was written about.  

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“Music, dance, [and] religion, do not have artifacts as their end products, so they were saved . . . . And these are the most apparent legacies of the African past, even to the contemporary black American” (16).      -Blues People 

This helps to clarify that African slaves had nothing but physical and mental properties as they were thrown into an unfamiliar atmosphere, deprived of family members, and unaware of any future outcomes.  However, their knowledge of music, dance, and religion could not be taken from them.  Another point is that African tribes were separated often by languages so that they could not communicate with each other.  Theoretically, work songs were then used as a form of communication when nothing else seemed to work, creating a sort of rough beginning of standard Black English.  Work songs were also a “means of heightening energy, converting labor into dance and games, and providing emotional excitement in an otherwise unbearable situation” (Cone 98).   Another aspect of the work song is that it was also of African origin.  While these songs often had something to do with the task at hand such as the daily work of a tribe or family, lyrics among slaves were quite different in that there were no positive outlooks.  It is also known that it was slave masters who often required work songs in order to keep track of field locations.


“The blues treatment of that experience in song lyrics contained spatial themes such as separation, isolation, wandering, the importance of place, and a desire to escape to an imagined promised land” (Nall).

The post-slavery development of the blues had many factors that followed the crumbling of a so-called Reconstruction period after the Civil war.  Most African Americans were still in the south and though they had been enslaved for centuries, they were given just over a decade to catch up with the rest of the nation.  The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were passed establishing the end of slavery, official citizenships, and the right to vote.  The first Civil Rights Act was attempted though it failed.  After so long there was an agreeable feeling that “substandard education, dead-end employment, Jim Crow laws, and an oppressive, white-defined social etiquette undermined blacks’ standing in society” (Santelli).  While there were options such as sharecropping, there were unwritten rules to follow, otherwise known as Black Codes.  If these opportunities or suggestions on how to live under white scrutiny were not followed by certain standards, it was noticed that those responsible would often end up in prison.  “Black people had to do one of three things to be bound by servitude: (1) ‘voluntarily’ sign a contract they could not read; (2) become indebted to the people who owned all the land and commodities; or (3) commit a crime as defined by an all-white criminal justice system” (Franklin 8).  All of these aspects in the survival of the newest American can be found in the very lyrics of their lives such as songs representative of false imprisonment and chain gangs.

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Standin’ on the corner 

Standin’ oil de corner, weren’t doin’ no hahm,                             

 Up come a ‘liceman an’ he grab me by de ahm,

Blow a little whistle an’ ring a little bell,

Heah come ‘rol wagon a runnin’ like hell.



 Judge he call me up an’ asr mah name,

Ah told him fo’ sho’ Ah weren’t to blame,

He wink at ‘liceman, ‘liceman wink too,

Judge he say’, “Nigger, you get some work to do.”


Workin’ on ol’ road bank, shackle boun’,

Long, long time fo’ six months roll aroun’,

Miserin’ fo’ my honey, she miserin’ fo’ me,

But, Lawd, white folks won’t let go holdin’ me.  (Franklin 9)




“The blues tell us about the strength to survive, to endure, and to shape existence while living in oppressive contradictions” (Cone 106).

This fits well into affiliation with the post civil war or Reconstruction period.  While freedom from slavery was a long awaited dream, it was far from being relinquished without a resistance which southern whites were already well known for.  For instance, Cullen reminds us that "nowhere, were the language, assumptions, and passion for inequality more entrenched than in race relations, and nowhere was the fear that attended the prospect of a truly egalitarian society more apparent" (107).  Just as work songs and spirituals had been written pertaining to survival under the oppressive and seemingly hopeless environments, the newest forms of African American music would play similar roles in solidarity, communicating within that "freedom is not enough.  Nor is an equality of opportunity that is nothing more than an empty abstraction" (Cullen 128).  Toward the end of the 19th century, a large portion of southern African Americans moved north.  During this time the recording industry introduced new ways to distribute music at a pace much faster than a travelling bluesman like Robert Johnson was used to.  As adaptation is required all forms of evolution (including music), it is through commercialism that still brings a music so basic, such as the blues, to new levels.       



Works Cited     

Baker, Jr. Houston A. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Baraka, Amiri. Blues People. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1963.

Cone, James H. The Spirituals and the Blues. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991.

Cullen, Jim. The American Dream. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Franklin, H. Bruce. "Songs of an Imprisoned People." Melus 6.1 (n.d.).

Nall, Hiram. "From Down South to Up South: An Examination of Geography in the Blues." Midwest Quarterly 42.3 (2001): 306-320.

Santelli, Robert, Holly George-Warren and Jim Brown, American Roots Music. New York: Ginger Group Productions, 2001.






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