Blues. Ethnomusicological Perspective

Abstract

The early twentieth century saw the birth of, probably, the most influential and significant forms of folk music, blues. The first samples of blues music were collected by folklorists in about 1903. The researchers have estimated that the first scores of blues songs were published around 1920. The first recordings of blues songs date back to the 1920s. As a separate and unique genre of music, blues began to flourish in the 1950s. Particularly, it was not until that time that mass media and the connoisseurs of music scrutinized blues music and blues music itself started to become popular.

The first half of the 20th was marked by two of the most terrifying and devastating wars in the history of mankind. As the conflict between the so-called Eastern bloc (particularly, the former Soviet Union) and the United States of America was gaining momentum, not a small amount of artists thought it was their duty to react to some extraordinary political events with respective expressive means that they were using in their works. Thus, blues music took a back seat in relation to some serious political, economic, and social problems societies were challenged by at that time. Rock and rock’n’roll music came in as a music of protest against ignorance, indifference, and consumer-driven life. The fact that blues music transformed and lost its popularity in no way diminishes the contribution of the genre to solving some of the most pressing social issues, such as, for instance, racial and ethnic discrimination, which was an aftermath of the spread of biases and prejudices. In this respect, one cannot help but admit that racism, equality, and poverty are the issues that, among others, have never lost their topicality. At this point, it is also essential to take a small detour to point out that even though some social context is present in the vast majority of blues songs, blues music is a pure expression of resilience of an individual that, as a rule, stands alone against some emotional upheavals. In other words, a traditional blues song explores the issues of the private life of an individual through the lens of their social background. Lastly, understanding of how blues music originated, what contributions it made, and why it started to lose popularity are an important ethnomusicological questions. The following paper is intended to shed some light on these questions (problems).

Introduction

Blues can be defined as a form of folk music in the first place. Assuming the foregoing statement is correct, bluesmen were capable of responding to the issues of the day in a form that was nearly perfect artistically. The composers of blues music pursued the goal of simplicity of the context, so that their compositions were easier for the audience to comprehend. The fact that the vast majority of blues songs were intelligible in terms of their content, the composers of blues music managed to combine contextual simplicity of that kind with unprecedented technical complexity. Sophisticated rhythmic patterns, melodic lines that are difficult to reproduce, relatable lyrics that does not require any academic qualification and thus can be understood by many – these are only some of the distinctive features of blues music.

Blues as a unique genre of music has been a subject of numerous ethnomusicological researches that have been conducted recently. Blues music has proved its connection to sociology and anthropology. Blues music may potentially shed some light on the questions like how the systems created by men are interconnected. Blue music itself is related to other forms of folk music, specifically the following: “Memphis style” guitar duos, gospel singing, regional versions of classical blues melodies and variations of lyrics. The evidence does support the assumption that there are some challenges as well rewarding possibilities in blues research at present time. A lot of scholars claim that “blues does not enjoy a particularly high status in departments of musicology or ethnomusicology” Hence, the specialists in anthropology, sociology, culture studies, and music who conduct their research in an academic environment are discouraged from investigating blues music, as there is a limited amount of theoretical information related to that particular expertise. With regard to this, one can notice that blues has always been a somewhat secluded genre, which is, probably, why it managed to resist the processes of commodification and commercialization longer than other forms and genres of music. Commodification and commercialization of music, in their own turn, can be viewed as another possible explanation of the loss of popularity and recent transformations of blues music. All things considered, studies of blues music can become a great chance for mankind to better understand society and values that dictate people’s lives. Some scholars are inclined to think that in order to ensure success of further studies of blues, a team of qualified specialists in sociology, anthropology, culture studies, ethnomusicology, and music has to be assembled. Only then can all the causal links within the respective fields of study be explored.

In order to achieve the goals established above, the following research will be based on the analysis of qualitative data obtained in the course of literature review prior to the process of analysis of the collected data. In other words, the review of literature will be an important stage of this research to ensure the validity of the research itself. In addition, online research will explore the audio and video materials related the topic. Another important part of this study is interviewing a musician who represents the genre that has been chosen for the research. Finally, the conclusions will be made according to what has been found in the course of the literature review, online research, and the interview of the musician.

 
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Review of Literature

Paul Oliver’s essay “Blues Research: Problems and Possibilities” outlines the distinctive features of contemporary blues studies. In other words, the source gives a syllabus of the findings made by contemporary ethnomusicologists. Apart from that, the article gives an insight into the blues studies’ prospects for future.

Ralph Eastman’s essay “Country Blues Performance and the Oral Tradition” examines formal and contextual features of blues music. The article revolves around a statement that blues songs can be viewed as “testimonials to people’s strength in the face of life’s hardships”, rather than a “condemnation of weakness”.

In her essay “Catharsis, Communication, and Evocation: Alternative Views of the Sociopsychological Functions of Blues Singing”, Harriet J. Ottenheimer examines the link between release of emotions and singing blues. Ottenheimer’s essay is based on the statement that blues singing “promotes a cathartic release of frustration”.The arguments for the statement cited above are as follows. First of all, it cannot be denied that certain topics and/or feelings as well as anxieties are so emotionally charged and deep-seated that they cannot be verbalized. Secondly, feelings that cannot be expressed in speech can be expressed in a song. Thirdly, scholars have estimated that “the expression of these feelings or topics in song (and especially in blues) brings psychological relief”.

Daniel Lieberfeld in his essay “Million-Dollar Juke Joint: Commodifying Blues Culture” gives a summary of some of the most significant events in the history of blues music. However, what is even more important is that the essay may potentially give an insight into the processes or commercialization and commodification of music and how blues was affected by the aforementioned phenomena.

As far as the commodification of arts and commercialization of blues music are concerned, it has to be pointed out that blues music started to become a commodity the moment when the first blues song was recorded and extensively marketed. Another interesting fact about authentic blues music is that originally blues songs were performed by African-American women “of an urban musical background”.

In his essay “Feelin’ Bad this Morning: Why the British blues?”, Dave Allen reflects on Red, White & Blues, a film that is, basically, a syllabus of events that shaped the development of blues music. After a more thorough investigation of the article under consideration, it is possible to assume that classical, authentic blues music is not compatible with the canons of popular culture. In a way, blues music is opposed to the very notion of popular culture and at the same time, blues aesthetics has become an integral part of rock’n’roll music.

David Evans’s essay “Formulaic Composition in the Blues: A View from the Field” is an examination of formal and contextual peculiarities of blues music. More specifically, David Evans attempts to systematize the features peculiar to the plane of content and the plane of expression of a blues song.

Jennifer Ryan in her research entitled “Beale Street Blues? Tourism, Musical Labor, and the Fetishization of Poverty in Blues Discourse” attempts to reveal some facts about professional and personal life of blues musicians. One of the things that the researcher has found out is that there is a great deal of prejudices about the professional and personal life of blues musicians.

Blues Music in the Sixties: A Story in Black and White by Ulrich Adelt draws a demarcation line between classical blues music, blues rock, and rock’n’roll. The researcher makes  references to some outstanding figures in the history of the American rock’n’roll and blues rock music, particularly, Janis Joplin, whose voice and manner of singing earned her a reputation of one of the best-known white female blues vocalists.

Ramblin’ on My Mind: New Perspectives on the Blues is a collection of essays edited by David Evans. The book illustrates people’s conception of and attitude towards blues music and how the latter and the former have been changing over time.

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History

The history of blues music began in the early 20th century. The image of the genre itself has changed considerably ever since. The original, classical, authentic blues music is a form of folk music. African-American aesthetics had some considerable influence on blues music. There is not a small amount of scholars who claim that there is a link between blues music and gospel singing. Even more so, there was a time when blues music was perceived as some sort of a ritual.

Originally, blues music emerged as a kind of an entertainment, something that the African Americans in the South did to amuse themselves and distract themselves from hard labor and abuse they were exposed to on a daily basis. Around the turn of the century, blues music was performed to accompany rural dances. Originally, words were not featured in blues songs. Thus, blues music can be defined as “a product of the oral tradition”. Blues as the contemporaries know has artistically reconsidered the state of feeling forlorn. As a rule, it is perceived with  some humor and a great deal of self-irony. Therefore, blues, as Harriet J. Ottenheimer puts it, can be defined as “a specific feeling and a specific type of song appropriate to that feeling”. By and large, gospel and blues aesthetics stemmed from “collective efforts for group survival”. In a way, blues was a ritual of “communal catharsis” once, “African Americans compensation for the self-denial needed to survive under vicious, systematic oppression”.

Nowadays, researchers distinguish between the following subgenres of blues music: country blues, classic blues, (male) urban blues, blues ballad (the so-called folk blues), traditional folk music, modern folk music. Researchers have estimated that the structure of a classical country-blues song is as follows. It comprises three stanzas, each approximately four bars in length. As far as the lyrics are concerned, the second stanza can be viewed as a repetition of the first stanza. The third stanza comments, extends, or resolves the imagery and the conflict introduced in the first two stanzas respectively. Classical blues refers to blues as a non-commercialized, urbanized subgenre of blues as a form of folk music. Classical blues is claimed to have been “less bound to esoteric local experience than the contemporary rural-blues”. Urban blues was originally performed by men and defined as “an adaptation of the country blues to urban conditions”.

The history of modern blues scholarship began in 1960 with the publication of The Singer of Tales. As far as the formal peculiarities of blues music are concerned, one of the most important observations that comes from that period is that “numerous blues songs made use of formulaic language”. Apparently, the principle stated above does not apply to each blues song and every composer of blues music.

Blues has proved itself to be one of the most controversial genres of music. On the one hand, composing and performing blues music requires considerable talent, charm, and responsibility. On the other hand, some scholars question the moral character of many blues musicians. In addition to that, there are scholars (like Jennifer Ryan herself) who maintain that a lot of competing narratives of blues history contemplating the origin of the genre tend to generalize the meaning of the genre itself. Pondering on the controversies around blues music, Ulrich Adelt points out: “A class on the blues and African American literature I taught at the University of Wyoming in the spring of 2008 revealed almost opposing definitions of the blues by the African American and the white students in class”. Reflecting on what is happening in the world of music today, David Evans makes the following assertion:

Interest in blues has particularly increased since the early 1990s, coinciding with the

maturing of rock music and the rock generation, …, the rise in interest and availability of

world and ethnic music, and the challenge that rap has presented to rock and older styles

of African American popular music.

Evidently, the sounding of blues music has changed drastically since the 1920s. Music in general and blues music in particular have been stagnating for no less than two decades so far. Some extraordinary events are taking place in the world of music at the present time again. Still, the loss that the world of blues music encountered in the early 1980s was and remains to these days inestimable. Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams, Roosevelt Sykes, and Sam Chatmon – each of those musicians has made an unprecedentedly notable contribution to the development of blues music.

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Interview

Chris King Robinson is a rising star of blues guitar music and a self-taught musician, whose channel on YouTube has already begun to draw the attention of professional musicians. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Hendrix, Albert King, Buddy Guy, and Robert Clay are some of young Chris Robinson’s favorites. These happen to be the prominent guitarists that, according to Chris himself, inspired him to pursue blues guitar. Practice, Chris King Robinson claims, is a key to mastering the technique, understanding music, and feeling it. One may not be very well familiar with the theory of music, but practice is essential. It is not the tools that musician needs to sound better but rather the practice. By “gear trap”, young Chris Robinson means overuse of tools. Chris King Robinson’s case shows that aspiration for music is essential if a self-taught expert wants to become a renowned master.

Ethnomusiciological Question: The Ambiguities of Blues Music

Blues has proved to be one of the most controversial genres of music. On the one hand, blues is not just a genre of music. It is also a form of art, which means that it is also a lifestyle. Blues is shrouded in mystery, which is  why there is no unambiguous approach to understanding the origin and mechanics of blues music. The African American community is the specific ethnic group that blues music is associated with. When attempting to analyze a blues piece, some scholars rely too much on the composer’s background, while others choose to leave that biographical constituent out of sight. Blues gives an insight numerous social, political, economic, religious, and cultural issues. At the same time, blues explores some of the peculiarities of interpersonal relationships. All things considered, studying blues music can be of use when it comes to social (namely ethnographic) research.

Conclusion

Taking all the aforementioned facts into consideration, it is possible to make the following conclusions. In the world of music, blues is a separate phenomenon. It combines formal / technical sophistication and simple lyrics. In addition, blues music shows possible disparity between the artist’s personality and the works they make. Evidently, there is some sort of connection between anthropology, sociology, ethnic and culture studies, and blues music. There is a lot of interesting information that blues music has to offer in terms of modern sociological researches. Blues music may potentially help the contemporaries understand how the systems created by men work. Apart from that, blues aesthetics has become an integral part of our cultural, ethical, and philosophical era. Even though blues music has lost its popularity, which occurred mainly due to commodification and commercialization, there are still people who position themselves as connoisseurs of blues music.

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