The Cultural Roots of Blues

By Brooks Kostakis

Above: Beale Street, Memphis, the birthplace of blues. (Used by permission)


 Blues and jazz as a musical form take their roots from several sources unique to African-American experience. Spirituals and work-songs dominated African-American culture in the latter 19th century. For this reason, it is only natural that black music in the early 20th century would draw from the distinct qualities of this culture to form such new and spirited forms of music.


The Spiritual Side

Above: Mount Zion church in Morgan City, LA. (Used by permission)


Church spirituals were songs in which a preacher led a chorus of followers in religious praise. While upon first glance, few similarities can be found between these songs and say, jazz, it is important to recognize the characterisitics of this music that led to its popularity within the African-American community. The most notable of these characteristics was the practice of "call-and-response," in which the preacher would sing a certain verse that would stimulate a designated response from his choir and/or churchgoers. This tactic was significant in its reliance of the individual (preacher or soloist) on the community (churchgoers or choir). Also key in the singing of spirituals was the art of improvisation on the behalf of the singers; improvisation is widely regarded as one of the definitive factors of jazz. The freedom given to the singers in such gatherings gave black churchgoers an opportunity to truly vent their emotions without fear of being stifled by others.

For a link to the lyrics of a popular spiritual entitled "Die in the Fiel'," click here.


Songs of Labor

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The Mississippi River Delta was inevitably a hotbed of laboring activity for blacks. At the turn of the century, slavery had only recently been outlawed, yet many African-Americans continued to be exploited for their labor in various respects. The river provided for an extremely high concentration of black workers: first, through high traffic of riverboats (on which African-Americans predominantly worked); and second, from the highly fertile and crop producing soil that was fed by the Mississippi. These jobs were often alike in their necessity for group communication to perform certain tasks, and work-songs were used to achieve this goal. Most of these songs were "mimetic" in rhythm, meaning they imitated the tempo of work being performed. In riverboating, lyrics were often filled with updates of the river's status. Through this method, the worker not only expressed himself for self-entertainment (since most of these jobs were painstakingly monotonous), he also aided the rest of his crew. Lyrics of these songs also conveyed the feelings of these often depressed and troubled workers. For sound bytes and samples of some work-songs from this era, click here.


The Birth of Blues

Above: Statue of W.C. Handy in downtown Memphis (Used by permission)


Blues as a popular music form grew from these traditional song forms in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1909, W.C. Handy wrote the first known blues song in Memphis, TN. For early blues musicians, the concept of expression was of paramount importance. The point of this music, much like in spirituals and work-songs, was to convey the feelings of the musician. An underlying theme of the blues was, according to Doug Henry Daniels, the continued failure to achieve goals in such a "free" land as America. African-Americans' rights were still constantly denied them, and many blues songs focused on the many injustices an African-American would undergo in everyday life. Blues was a means of sharing these experiences with the listener, in turn, a sort of self-therapy for many early blues musicians. It is also important to note that as mournful as these songs could often be, the very practice of playing and singing them (the "blues experience") was a reason for hope and a source of redemption.


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Relevant Links


Hear Paul Robeson sing "Ol' Man River" on mp3: click here and scroll down

Read Doug Henry Daniels' article entitled, "The Significance of Blues for American History"

Take a virtual tour of Beale Street, Memphis

Read James Smethurst's article on the "New Negro Renaissance"

Visit an excellent resource for blues information and pictures of the Mississippi Delta Region at The Blue Highway