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Story of the Blues

Virtually all modern music in the West owes a profound debt to the American black man. If not for the soul and expression imported so cruelly from Africa there would be no blues, no soul and no jazz – and hence no R’B, no rock and roll, no rap, no hip hop and no funk. If not for the plaintive laments of black slaves working in cotton plantation in the Mississippi we would probably all still be singing polkas and hillbilly ballads today.

Not that you’d imagine there was a direct connection between fat, black ladies wailing gospels to Jesus and say, Alanis Morissette screaming on stage. But it’s there. You just need to go back a hundred years and take a look at the evolution of modern music. Everything from the style of singing to the chord progressions to dancing on stage was invented by black, American artists.

Throughout the 19th century black slaves suffered immensely in one of the worst crimes ever committed against humanity. They were kidnapped form their native African lands, packed in like sardines on the slave ships and then forced to work until they dropped picking cotton and raising tobacco in America’s South. They were mixed in with tribes who didn’t speak the same language, families were divided and they were forced to convert to Christianity. Drums and horns were forbidden as it was feared they would communicate with other slaves.

In this horrific New World they could find only one route to express themselves – through work songs as they laboured in the fields. Then, as they were given their own churches, they also found room to bend the traditional hymns and inject some of their own soul. Restrictions on instruments began to be relaxed and slaves that played the banjo well sometimes became the favourites of the masters and would play at private parties.

After slavery the life of a musician was practically the only way a black man could travel. He could hop freight trains to get about and then play for tips in the local bars. During these long travels black musicians began incorporate the rhythms of the trains and the chain gangs into their songs and created the first rock beat. They also took traditional instruments and imposed a radical new scale on top of them, creating the wailing tonalities that came to define the blues.

The blues was at first popular only among the black community but artists like Billie Holiday carried it into mainstream American culture, even if it had to be watered down a bit. White folk players began to ape the three chord song structure on the guitar, a comparatively new instrument and black musicians in New Orleans took the new scales and peformed a kind of magic – the birth of jazz.

. Artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry began to bring a new upbeat tempo to the blues and caused a sensation with what came to be known as rhythm and blues. Still this might all have remained a minor musical stream if not for the radio stations; late at night, the young Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley laid awake listening to the black radio stations and incorporated the raunch and passion of the music into their own compositions. They rocked the world.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, future giants like Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton were all listening to the old blues masters and learning their licks and song note for note. In the early Beatles records you can hear McCartney sounding like Little Richard as he lets fly with high-pitched whoops. Whilst Clapton and Richards declared they owed it all to the likes of Son House and Robert Johnson.

Not only did the music come from the blacks but also the style. Sexual innuendo in lyrics was a blues standard through the 30’s and James Brown became the sexiest performer alive, dancing on stage like a sex machine.

From the black gospel singers came soul as Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye blew the minds of the world and inspired generations of singers. Then, just when the white boys thought they had the guitar pretty much figured out – along came Jimi Hendrix. Also inspired by the old blues men, Hendrix is still unequalled today.

Music mutates step by step until one stream barely bares any resemblance to another. But dig beneath the surface and follow the trail back and the influences mostly come from the same source: displaced Africans forced to till the earth in the American South.



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