By Aditya Gadre
Somewhere in the Delta formed by the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers towards the end of the 19th century, an African origin plantation worker sings a song. This is the type of song that is heard in these rural areas, and here alone. The song draws on several decades of his ancestors’ musical traditions – it is a curious mixture of a folk song, a spiritual, a ballad, a hymn, and a working song. In these humble beginnings, were born the Blues.
There are two large aspects to the Blues – what they say and the way they sound.
To truly understand what the Blues say, it is important to understand the nature of the original Blues performances.
One introduction to the Blues describes it accurately as “personal, but not private”. The Blues are about a personal tragedy – from something as small as having hard luck at gambling or something as large as the love of your life spurning your advances to move away. However, they are personal stories that are not meant to be hidden away in the depths of one’s soul, but to be told to an audience. This story-telling aspect, originating from the wandering musicians who would go from town to town performing for largely rural audiences, gives some insight into one of the most common aspects of a classic Delta Blues song – an AAB rhyme. The performer starts with a line to grab the crowds attention (“I’m gon’ write a letter, Telephone every town I know”), repeats it once for impact (“I’m gon’ write a letter, Telephone every town I know”) and then delivers the ‘punchline’ which completes the lyric (“If I can’t find her in West Helena, She must be in East Monroe, I know”). This becomes one of many stanzas that make up a blues song (in this parenthetical example – the classic “Dust my broom” by Robert Johnson). Most historians also suggest that this rhyming pattern came about due to the “live” nature of the music – the repetition gave the musician time to improvise and think of a witty third line to give the full impact of “real-time engagement” to their audience.
So “what the Blues say” is thus not just a personal lament, but also a shared experience of catharsis. They express a hope for a better future, a way out, a favorable external influence, or if nothing else, share the load of disappointment with an audience. To classify the Blues as merely “sad songs” as many do, is vastly unfair to the genre.
It is doubtful if any other genre has been as closely linked to the social and cultural history of America as the Blues, and, in describing the origins of the “Blues sound”, this nexus becomes more evident than ever. Many of us would have noticed that most Blues songs have a similar sound, in a way that other genres don’t. All rock songs don’t sound alike, nor do metal or classical songs, so why do we feel a lingering familiarity when we listen to any Blues song? The answer lies in the basic structure of the song – the very notes and chords used in the composition. These are of course, not hard and fast rules as in classical or jazz music, but unwritten rules defined by tradition and history. The sound is unique because it is a deviant sound i.e. not normally used in Western Music. Traditional European music uses a diatonic scale (8 tones in an octave – think sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa) while traditional West African music uses a pentatonic scale (which only has 5 tones off the octave – sa re ga pa dha). The amalgam of these two different approaches to music – the melody driven European music and rhythm driven African music gave rise to the Blues sound. In blues, some notes are flattened (brought down by a semitone – think a “sa” becomes a “komal sa”). Typically the 3rd, 5th or 7th notes of a major scale are given this treatment – giving a totally different scale and thus a different sound altogether from “normal” western music.
The Blues started as a product of toil and strife, in an uncomfortable post slavery era of segregation. It is perhaps poetic justice that Delta Blues would eventually influence Western music in a way no other genre has. In his book, “A History of Popular Music”, Piero Scaruffi writes “The (Blues) singer employed a broad vocal range and bridged notes in an acrobatic manner, thus introducing a freedom unknown to western harmony. The black equivalent of counterpoint was mostly implemented in the “call and response” format: a leader intoned a melody and a choir repeated it in a different register, and sometimes a different tempo, often bending the melody slightly. The role of spontaneous improvisation in black music clearly contrasted with the clockwork precision of western harmony. And the open-ended structure of black music contrasted with the linear progression of western music.” In this tradition of improvisation lie the origins of Jazz, Rock-n-Roll, Ragtime, Boogie-Woogie, Blues-Rock and thus almost all of modern Rock and heavier music across its several sub-genres.
The Blues have come a long way from their Delta beginnings. Delta Blues has travelled across the US and the world and each new place has organically added an aspect that has made the tradition richer. The larger Delta added the diddley bow, the Deep South added the guitar, the cities added the piano, Louisiana added the harmonica, Chicago added electricity and the UK added a rock influence. The face of Blues has changed drastically, but at its core Blues music is what it always was – a storyteller, a guitar and an adoring audience.