The Effects of Blues Music on Civil Rights

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Blues Music|
Influences on Civil Rights in the United States|
Addy Phillips|

Eddie James “Son” House, Jr., an American blues singer and guitarist once stated, "People keep asking me where the blues started and all I can say is that when I was a boy we always was singing in the fields. Not real singing, you know, just hollerin', but we made up our songs about things that was happening to us at the time, and I think that's where the blues started (Cohn, 1993).” House, living through the development of the blues and the Civil Rights Movement, had a definite grasp on the subject at hand. Having changed his lifestyle from the church to blues, he faced many hardships including a deadbeat father, alcoholism, affairs, and prison time. House is a prime example of how the blues shaped the lives of African Americans and why the blues left its mark on history. The blues was once a way of life, a variety of music, a poetic movement, a state of mind, a folkloric tradition, a moral attitude, and even a kind of spontaneous intuitive critical method (Garon, 1978). The blues depict the “secular” dimension of black experience. They are “worldly” songs which tell us about love and sex, tragedy in interpersonal relationships, death, travel, loneliness, etc. The blues are about black life and the sheer earth and gut capacity to survive in an extreme situation of oppression. To talk about the blues is to talk about going back to the roots, which means where it all started at, this music, the blues and the church music, and so far as I can understand, it came from the country, the fields, and the shacks and the towns that weren’t but wide spaces in the highway (Titon, 1979). It is impossible to say simply, “Slavery created blues,” and be done with it. Blues did begin in slavery, and it is from that “peculiar institution,” as it was known euphemistically, that blues did find its particular form (Jones, 1980). The exact date of the origin of the blues is difficult to determine. Most experts agree that they probably began to take form in the late nineteenth century. But the spirit and the mood of the blues have roots stretching back into slavery days and even to Africa. As with spirituals, the Africanism of the blues is related to the functional character of West African music. Black music, then, is not an artistic creation for its own sake; rather it tells us about the feelings and thinking of African American people, and the kinds of mental adjustments they had to make in order to survive in an alien land. The work songs, such as what House was referring to, were a means of heightening energy, converting labor into dances and games, and providing emotional excitement in an otherwise unbearable situation. The emphasis was on free, continuous, creative energy as produced in song. A familiar functional character applied to the slave seculars, ballads, spirituals, as well as the blues (Cone, 1980). The slaves’ unrelenting life style and religious instruction led to the musical birth of Spiritual songs. Gospel, reformations of black churches, appeared; then the music industry grew into the colorful genres of blues and jazz. It is clear that American music, leading up to today’s Rap and Hip-Hop contains many roots and origins from African music. With nothing but labor usages intended for them, slaves were not allowed to bring musical instruments. However, with much knowledge of these familiar instruments, slaves were able to construct new ones; by hollowing out reeds and logs and with the use of gourds they fashioned fiddles, banjos, rattles, and different sized drums. The drum, representing the heartbeat, had a great deal of importance and was often considered sacred (Time Period: Early 17th Century to Modern DAy, 2007). These primitive sounds can be heard in the distinct rhythm of the blues and form one of the main characteristic sounds of the genre. The thing that goes into the blues is the experience of...
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