African Influences

The African influence in the blues is undeniable.  The poetic structure of many of the verses is similar to the Western African tradition of AAB poetry.   The story like verses carries on the oral tradition of African cultures.  As DjeDje points out in her article, many of the cultures of Africa made, and performed on instruments similar to what would be found in the Americas.  Instruments like the balafon (xylophone), lute, drums, aerophones and fiddle like instruments would make the assimilation of this new music more transitional.  Other performance practices are undeniably African as well.  The earliest ‘blues’ music can be heard in the call and response type music known as field hollers.  Slaves would communicate and ease the doldrums of their labor through improvised call and response songs.  As these songs were sung during work they were often unaccompanied and completely original in their content.   “On Southern plantations, the roots of gospel and blues were introduced in work songs and "field hollers" based on the musical forms and rhythms of Africa. Through singing, call and response, and hollering, slaves coordinated their labor, communicated with one another across adjacent fields, bolstered weary spirits, and commented on the oppressiveness of their masters.”[1]  Scoops and bent notes are reminiscent of the quarter tone scale common in African music.  The refusal to center fully on a pitch is common in blues music, as the performer instead begins above or below the note.  This refusal or uncertainty about tonal center can be seen as a refusal of African musicians to fully conform to the European tradition they were forced into in the new America.  The lowered pitches of the blues scale are also closely related to the African quarter tone scale.  The flatted 3rd and 7th are uncommon in the European tradition and add an element that is completely unique to the music.  Other performance practices, like playing the guitar with a knife blade or playing the banjo with a bottleneck would likely produce sounds similar to those produced from African instruments. 

                However, the blues are not solely defined by African customs and traditions.  The melding of cultures together makes it impossible to ignore some common musical practices of the European tradition.  The blues is centered around a strong harmonic progression, that comes directly from traditional European counterpoint.  The use of the I (tonic), IV (subdominant) and V (dominant) is directly related to the fact that African musicians would have been exposed to these new sounds.  The masters often expected the musicians to perform at ceremonies and gatherings for the white cultures, and playing in the European tradition wasn’t just expected it was demanded.  The ability to learn this new style of music, only demonstrates how capable these new musicians really were.  Also, the reliance on form is not just a European tradition, but one that is certainly stressed in the European study of music.  The strict and simple time meter is a musical element that was taken from this new style of music as well. 

The Mississippi tradition of the blues is characterized by embellished and bent notes.  “Black men and women sang about themselves, played guitar with a knife blade, or blurred, embellished or bent notes when singing.”[2]  The blues are believed to have begun in Mississippi, perhaps in a levee camp or logging camp or more likely on a plantation between 1870 and 1890.  The tradition that would become the blues would go on to influence several other sub-genres of the blues as well as jazz and rock n roll.  Another element of the blues that solidified during the early years in the Mississippi Delta is the 12 bar form that would define this genre of music.  From something as atrocious as slavery, a musical genre as beautiful and diverse as blues was born. 

The dual influences of cultures and traditions can easily be heard in many songs.  For example the piece by Bessie Smith, “Black Mountain Blues,” the vocal smears and the poetic structure of the verse is reminiscent of African elements that were discussed earlier.  The repeated vocal line AA followed by the third line B, is holding to the poetic tradition of Western Africa.  The ensemble and harmonies are traditions borrowed not only from African tradition, but European tradition as well.  The verses of this piece are a story being told, carrying on the tradition of the musician to pass on history orally.  Another great example of African musical elements being transformed into a style of music is Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues.”  The “holler” that Johnson uses throughout, the bent notes, scoops and style of playing the guitar are all examples of past traditions being used to form a new genre of music. 

[1] Kimberly Sambol-Tosco.  Slavery and the Making of America. PBS.

[2] Ray Pratt. “The Blues: A Discourse of Resistance.” In Rebel Musics. Black Rose Books, 2003.