| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
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.
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.
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.
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."
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