Lesson 7: The Blues

This week we’re going to really feel the songs we sing in class, drawing deep down into our inner selves, then even deeper into the past to connect with our ancestors’ many struggles, channeling their hard work and heartache, bringing that back up through us as we open our mouths to sing the blues.

Or maybe not. But at least we’ll sing some songs and talk about the blues, which shouldn’t be a struggle at all. In any case, let’s go!

The Blues” didn’t come from just one source, but the genre definitely owes much to Africa. Not only did early blues instruments like the diddley bow originate in West Africa, but the terrible heartache of African slavery clearly provided blues musicians with a reason to wail. That said, blues music is not always serious or sad. Blues lyrics are often bawdy, silly or sarcastic. And, just like the call and response “spirituals” which African-American slaves sang while working, or the divinely emotional gospel of African-American churches, the best blues show that songs about struggle don’t have to be a downer.

American Blues first emerged around the turn of the 20th century in America’s South, especially the Mississippi River Delta. Though both African-American and white musicians played this music, the main distinguishing characteristic was what record companies called it: if the performer was white, it was “hillbilly music,” if black, it was a “race record.” Distinctions in style, instrumentation and rhythms did soon develop, and by the 1920s, African-American artists like W.C. Handy found themselves as the torchbearers of a new genre, performed by African Americans and mainly marketed to African-Americans; though, through a revolutionary new medium — radio — it was accessible to everyone.

Thereare so many genres of blue for us to explore:

Big Band Blues | Chicago Blues | Delta Blues | Early Blues | Electric Blues | Memphis Blues | Piedmont Blues | Swamp BluesAnd so much more….


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