The transcontinental uprooting that the people of West Africa faced at the outset of the 16th century is without a doubt amongst the greatest examples of collective trauma and irreversible damage to a population’s cultural identity. In Paul Oliver’s Story of the Blues, he illustrates its essence as ‘the wail of the forsaken, the cry of independence, the passion of the lusty, the anger of the frustrated and the laughter of the fatalist’. In his investigation on blues music and black modernisms, Corey Alexander explores how this chaos birthed creativity, allowing its generators to ‘listen across the colour line and into the past, taking up musical traditions that were sonically vibrant’ and inherent to ancestors of their Motherland. Unlike the physically perceivable realms of classical visual art, musical expression is indeed a formless muse to the naked eye. Illusory in its intangibility, music shape-shifts in a kindred manner to grief; yet one holds hope and the other despair. An artform that embodies this tension can be seen and heard through the lives and lulling laments of the enslaved African-American diaspora, who in their plight for physical, social and spiritual freedom, were able to transmute their blues into bliss. In navigating the complexity that came with the shared trauma experienced by this population, it is essential to understand the historical impact of their musical transmutation under the segregational laws of Jim Crow and a white supremacist America.
Etymologically, the blues finds its origins in an early understanding of melancholy and sadness, known as ‘blue devils’. As time passed, the term lost its devilish connotations and began to only imply feelings of agitation and depression, often associated with alcohol withdrawals. More profoundly, this term subconsciously represents the withdrawals felt by the enslaved towards their native motherland. In his introductory chapter on blues origins, Oliver recalls the first appearance of the blues being referred to as an emotional state. In a diary entry written in 1862 by free-born Charlotte Forten, she describes the ‘terrible screams coming from the [slave] Quarters’, referring to the tragic yet musical cries that one would hear from those still enslaved. In feeling ‘lonesome’ and ‘coming home with the blues’, Forten remained challenged in defining the singing she heard, and could only reinforce her understanding of it by asserting that such songs ‘can’t be sung without a full heart and a troubled spirit’. Her awareness of hope and despair co-existing and merging into one sonic expression highlights its strangely complementary nature within blues music, and proves its purpose through catharsis. The synonymity between the sounds of ‘terrible screams’ and singing allows the line between emotional expression and music to dissolve, leading to the creation and purgation of African-American blues.
This musical form first originated in America’s Deep South towards the end of the 19th century. The first work songs began to emerge from enslaved peoples, lamenting their non-consensual labour on cotton fields and plantations. These work songs evolved to incorporate a variety of musical styles, including field hollers, chanting, and Christian ballads known as ‘spirituals’. Their purpose was to combine sensations of liberated African heritage with the reality of a collective identity bound by the shackles of human ownership (Williams, 2017). Amongst the first spirituals to be published was ‘The Gospel Train’, sung by African-American acapella ensemble, the Jubilee Fisk Singers. Like many spirituals of the late 19th century, their lyrics were concerned with physical independence, allegorised through the arrival and departure of the train. The lyrics call to younger generations, urging them to escape their impending fates: ‘get on board children / for there’s room for many more’. As much as this freedom can be understood in the literal sense, the train also acts as a metaphor for their spiritual deliverance to and through Jesus. The train is an explicit vehicle towards realms of equality and freedom—conditions that African-Americans remain deeply estranged from even today. In dissecting these lyrics, the workers acknowledge that this train journey could never take place earthside, and therefore only through death could they be salvaged: ‘the fare is cheap and all can go / the rich and poor are there / no second class aboard this train / no difference in the fare'. This sense of universal equity is reminiscent of an egalitarian afterlife, one with no ‘second class’ or oppressive hierarchies, one where all are equal and free. Their social equilibrium, only found through this gospel train journey, reinforces the spiritual telos of forgiveness and healing that they were destined to experience through their lyricism.
These distressed expressions of grief continued to expand in form and style, creating the dialogical pattern of ‘call-and-response’; one that involves the progression of two melodies, with the second being formed as a direct response to the first. Blues notes are typically rooted in flattened major chord progressions as well as minor sevenths, infusing them with broody distortion, redolent of the sorrow they systemically experienced over centuries. Early blues ballads followed an AAB rhyme scheme, repeating the same melody and verse twice to build the anticipation for a gradually revealed narrative, yet also to emphasise the cyclical and interminable nature of their suffering. This would not only spark the first musical conversations between the enslaved, but would also determine the trajectory of their emancipation through generations of musical expression.
The early 1920s and 1930s saw rise to a cultural revival in African-American music, art and literature. Centred in Manhattan, New York, this resurgence in minoritarian expression came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, launching blues and jazz artists such as Gladys Bentley, Louis Armstrong, Langston Hughes and Billie Holliday. A new sound emerged in street music and was generally performed by a singer accompanied by a guitar, and was distinguished by bent notes that were not on the regular scale. Notably, Ma Rainey was known as the Mother of Blues, and her musical heir Bessie Smith championed her legacy in becoming the ‘Empress of the Blues’. Considered to be one of the most influential blues vocalists of the Jazz Age, much of her music arouses the frustrations and grievances of her entire generation and their ancestors. Donald Clarke describes how Smith would sing ‘in an unusual key [...] and her artistry in bending and stretching notes with her beautiful, powerful contralto’ helped accommodate her own interpretation of the music’s narrative.
Lyrics that exemplify the duality of the blues can be found in Bessie Smith’s ‘Me and My Gin’. She recounts the parallels between being African-American and the persecution that came with having a voracious love for alcohol during the Prohibition. She begins the song proudly wearing her blues on her sleeve: ‘stay away from me ‘cause I’m in my sin / if this place gets raided, it’s me and my gin.' Here she alludes to the perpetual raids that would occur not only in speakeasies, but also within Afro-American spaces including bars she would frequent as a performer. The idea that she is ‘in her sin’ evokes a deeper sensation of simply being sinful for drinking, as her entire existence as an African-American woman was perpetuated by generations of inherited shame, and therefore rendered her ‘sinful’ by default. Despite its disheartening opening, the song proceeds triumphantly: ‘don't try me nobody ‘cause you will never win / I'll fight the army, navy, just me and my gin’. These verses reclaim power over the scarce mindset that often permeated blues lyrics. Here, the artist is not agitated or woeful, but instead declares dominance over tyranny, allowing those who experience its lyrics to similarly salvage their power over the aggression of America’s militaristic forces. Smith then affirms that ‘any bootlegger sure is a pal of mine’, protecting the silent camaraderie that exists between minorities.
Subsequently, Billie Holiday's emotionally-crippling rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’ (1939) was amongst the first blues performances to truly unearth the realities and horrors of Jim Crow laws. Lynching became an increasingly prevalent kind of extrajudicial slaughter during this time period and was a type of public execution often prompted by unjustified concerns that African-Americans were a threat if liberated. Written in 1937 by political poet Abel Meeropol, his poem primarily characterises lynching by the hanging or ‘swinging of black bodies’ from trees, often preceded by other kinds of physical and psychological torture. The song begins by establishing itself in the ‘pastoral scene of the gallant [American] south’ before plunging into the elaborate symbolism that places lynched bodies in juxtaposition to hanging fruit. In bringing this poem to life through song, Billie was able to invoke the tormented narratives of spirits past by musically punctuating something as beautiful and sentient as ‘poplar trees’ with the bleakness of lynching. Meeropol’s lyrics further expose the superficiality in Southern beauty and its ‘gallant’ virtues by constantly uncovering the deception in its ‘sweet[ness] and fresh[ness]’ as ultimately this supremacist veneer cannot mask the ‘sudden smell of burning flesh’. This abruptness in lyricism and its unfolding accentuates the unspoken barbarism that afflicted African-American communities throughout the south, ultimately written and performed as a cautionary tale to the terrors of ethnic cleansing.
If the voice is also an instrument in delivering a text, it can thus be seen as a form of poetry. This ability to tell a story through the voice is an undying quality of all blues tunes; sung by performers who inherited previous vocal techniques the same way they inherited the trauma that haunted their ancestors. These tales of torture epitomise the way this traumatised collective was able to transmute their pain into a blissful legacy of exquisite music; leaving their stories forever suspended in time for future generations to unveil, learn and heal from.