When I talk about my passion for blues music , I often get a knee-jerk reaction from people, who feel sorry or have pity for me. There is a simple reason behind this response. They associate the blues with depressing lyrics about lost love, loneliness and personal adversity. Most English language dictionaries support this concept. The blues is defined by two basic elements. First the blues is a feeling of sadness, depression, low spirits or melancholy. Second, it is a song or style of music created by African-American slaves in the southern United States in the late 1800’s.
The people profiled in this first short video discuss the blues in more complex terms using both of these related definitions.
The dictionary definition of blues is based on the fact that the word has its origin in the 17th-century English expression “the blue devils,” that describes the intense visual hallucinations that can accompany severe alcohol withdrawal. The term was shortened to “the blues,” and means a state of agitation or depression.
An alternative definition, traces the origin of the “blues” to a form of mysticism involving blue indigo, which was used by West African cultures in death and mourning ceremonies. The mourner’s garments were dyed blue to indicate suffering. In the US, West African slaves sang of their suffering as they processed the cotton that the indigo dyed. This resulted in these songs being called “the blues.”
This mystical association with the indigo plant also exists in Trinidad, where members of my family believe in taking what is called a “blue bath.” This is a ritual bath in water containing blue dye, which puts an end to adverse conditions and opens the way for luck, love, money or happiness.
The following two and a half minute video takes the long walk through the history of blues and discusses the role of blues in the US today.
The most common myth about the blues is the assumption the artist is primarily singing about a low point in their life, when they are down trodden, depressed and sorrowful. In reality, the blues has its roots in rituals and forms of expression that allowed African-Americans to survive the brutality of slavery. Blues music evolved over hundreds of years and is rooted in African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife (flute) and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music. Its inventors were slaves, ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves.
The most important book about Blues history in American literature is entitled “Stomping the Blues” (1976), which was written by Albert Murray. The central argument of the book is that the essence of the blues is the tension between the woe expressed in its lyrics and the joy infusing its melodies. He saw the blues as a means for making the best out of a tragic situation.
Murray explains how the blues was the remedy, cure or antidote for the emotional state of slaves. It was created to transform raw experience into an art of tremendous and subtle beauty, which triumphed over slavery with dignity, grace, and elegance. He saw the blues and jazz, as an uplifting response to misery, in which the artists were not actually depressed or sad. They were skilled musicians, who entertained their audience so people could have a good time, drink, dance and party. They stomped their blues away.
When the American civil war ended in 1865, African-Americans were searching for a form of expression or aesthetic that would free them from minstrelsy. The minstrel show began in the 1830’s and involved a cast of white male actors, who put on blackface make-up and played racist caricatures of African Americans as simple, lazy buffoons with insatiable appetites for food, alcohol, and sex. By enacting stereotypes, white minstrels created a sense of solidarity out of staged racial superiority. Their success rested upon a white audience, who accepted their performances as authentic representations of African-American culture.
After the Civil War, there was mass unemployment and social dislocation as African Americans searched for lost relatives and jobs. They were excluded from most occupations. So, forming their own minstrel troupes was an attractive career option for black men with the right skill set.
The black men, who also put on black makeup, sought to capitalize on America’s racism, by playing to white belief that they were the inferior “plantation darkies” they portrayed on stage. However, this shifted the content of the minstrel show to more explicitly depict “life on the plantation.” The stereotypes that were upheld by the black minstrels, often worked to slyly subvert the racist jokes and make subtle jabs at white supremacy.