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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Blues Lyrics
Although the word “blues” referring to anxiety or sadness dates from around the sixteenth century, the music called the blues is more recent. The blues initially emerged in the 1890s, when the first generation of African Americans born after emancipation came into their majority subjected to the post-Reconstruction brand of freedom. While slaves were brutalized within a system in which they often had well-defined roles that sought to prevent much dignity or responsibility, the post-Reconstruction African American was brutalized by a more ambiguous and uncertain, but still inferior, status. The theoretical freedom created the illusion of the possibility of social and economic success, but the lack of education and economic independence, and continuing racial discrimination, was a prescription not only for failure but also for haunting self-doubt. Lacking an older generation with this same experience to consult for advice, the new generation responded by expressing their reactions in a variety of new forms, including the blues, that were recognizably rooted in the African American tradition. Although critics may disagree on the particulars of the African influence on the blues, most agree that there are certain African elements in the blues as well as the work songs and field hollers from which the blues seem to have developed. The creations of people often unable to read and write, the texts of this tradition were not written down but passed on orally. From the common hopes, fears, and language of the people, the blues singers created songs that were, in turn, passed back to the audience in a form that was both traditional and individually creative.

The folk blues songs heard around the turn of the century, by people like Howard W. Odum and W. C. Handy, mirrored the variety of stanzas as employed in the blues tradition. The text of a blues stanza might consist of one “line” (sometimes rendered as two lines on the page, divided where a singer might pause in performance) repeated exactly or approximately twice (AA) or more; one line repeated twice or three times combined with a rhyming line to complete the thought expressed in the first line (AAB or AAAB); one line sung once followed by a rhyming line sung twice (ABB); two different lines followed by a refrain (AB refrain); or a variety of other patterns. The musical performances, executed with a fluid rather than a rigid sense of measures, tended toward eight-, twelve-, or sixteen-bar stanzas most often, and the songsters or musicians who performed these blues provided the tradition from which the first generation of recorded blues singers in the 1920s drew. Inevitably, phonograph recordings influenced the nature of the blues, helping establish the AAB stanza as the predominant form, changing the often traditional, non-thematic or associative texts into more original, thematic texts, and removing the song from its original performance context in the community. The first blues recordings by African Americans were the so-called vaudeville blues of the “Jazz Age” written by people like Handy who drew on both their knowledge of the oral tradition and on professional musical training that created a more sophisticated hybrid, sometimes straining for sexual innuendo, or creating the role of the rebellious “hot mama,” but reaching their pinnacle in folk blues-based performances by such greats as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.

There is also disagreement about the nature of the blues performer and what the blues represent. While some see the blues as autobiographical laments, others have seen them as a recounting of “species experience.” In reality they can be either or both. The singers may be describing what has or might have happened to someone like them, or may be conforming the lyrics to the idea of a mythological singer created over the years. Although the blues have been rejected by many middle-class blacks as old-fashioned and self-pitying, or as signs of resignation and defeat, others have seen in them a spirit of hope, a creativity, an unwillingness to capitulate to white middle-class values, and even a defiance and revolutionary resistance.

Blues performances are intended for entertainment and deal primarily with love relationships between men and women. The often secular nature of the blues sometimes caused devout Christians to term them “devil’s music,” which prompted responses like those of Wright Holmes in “Alley Special.” The blues have been seen as a central expression of African American spirit, providing structures, rhythms, images, themes, and characters for literary artists like Langston Hughes, Sterling A. Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, Allen Ginsberg, John Berryman, Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, Alice Walker, Etheridge Knight, and Gayl Jones. And the blues are still being created and performed today.

Steven C. Tracy
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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A bibliography of the blues
Some sources include analyses of the blues in comparison with other literary forms.

A Brief History of the Blues
A historical article by Robert M. Baker.

Blues Lyrics and Hoodoo
Contemporary and historical information about this "primary source of oral history."

Secondary Sources

Lawrence Cohn, ed., Nothing but the Blues, 1993

R.M.W. Dixon and J. Godrich, Blues and Gospel Records, 1902-1943, 1982

Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act, 1964

David Evans, Big Road Blues, 1982

Paul Garon, Blues and the Poetic Spirit, 1975

Sheldon Harris, Blues Who's Who, 1975

Janheinz Jahn, Muntu: An Outline of the New African Culture, 1961

Janheinz Jahn, A History of Neo-African Literature, 1968

LeRoi Jones, Blues People, 1963

Mike Leadbitter and Neil Slaven, Blues Records, 1943-1970: A Selective Discography, 1987

Giles Oakley, The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues, 1978

Paul Oliver, The Meaning of the Blues, 1960; reprinted 1972

Paul Oliver, The Blues Tradition. 1970

Paul Oliver, Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues, 1970

Paul Oliver, The Story of the Blues, 1973

Paul Oliver, Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records, 1984

Jon Michael Spencer, Blues and Evil, 1993

Jeff Todd Titon, Early Downhome Blues, 1978

Steven C. Tracy, Langston Hughes and the Blues, 1988