What is the Blues?

Maud_Cuney_Hare-133-William_C_Handy.jpg

(W.C. Handy)

The early twentieth-century white folklorist Dorothy Scarborough once interviewed the famous bandleader W.C. Handy (1873- 1958), known as the Father of the Blues, about the origin of the blues. When Scarborough asked him about the relationship of the blues to folk music, Handy replied that that the blues were folk music, pure and simple. What did he mean by this?

Handy’s first hit, “Memphis Blues,” published in 1908:

“St. Louis Blues,” from 1914:

While Handy was the first composer to publish blues songs (and one of the first African-Americans to make a living from music publishing), he openly acknowledged that his own music was influenced by the rural African-American folk music he had heard and transcribed while touring Mississippi in 1902-1905. In his memoir, Father of the Blues, Handy described sharing the stage at a dance he played with  a trio of musicians who

struck up one of those over and over strains that seem to have no beginning and certainly no ending at all. The strumming attained a disturbing monotony, but on and on it went, a kind of stuff associated with [sugar] cane rows and levee camps. Thump-thump-thump went their feet on the floor. It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps “haunting” is the better word.

Some of the songs that influenced Handy:

Alan Lomax wrote in 1948:

Child of [the] fertile [Mississippi] Delta land, voice of the voiceless black masses, the blues crept into the back windows of America maybe forty years ago and since then has colored the whole of American popular music. Hill-billy singers, hot jazz blowers, crooners like [Bing] Crosby, cowboy yodelers — all these have learned from the native folk blues. . . . the whole world can feel, uncoiling in its ear, this somber music of the Mississippi. And yet no one had ever thought to ask the makers of these songs — these ragged mister-singers — why they sang. 

Why did they sing?

In their book Our Singing Country, published in 1941, Alan Lomax and his father, John Lomax, describe the blues as a folk genre

sung by . . . unspoiled [singers] in the South, sung without the binding restrictions of conventional piano accompaniment or orchestral arrangement, [that] grow up like a wild flowering vine in the woods.

The Lomaxes, father and son, were in political conflict for their entire partnership as folksong collectors. As historian Ronald Cohen explained, “The father’s politics were considerably to the right of the son’s, yet both believed in the uniting and rejuvenating powers of folk music.” Steven Garabedian concludes that:

They were opposed politically, but they found common ground in a shared romantic idealization of an unspoiled homespun American republic. Vernacular music, they held, carried the spirit of this redemptive grassroots national culture.

The Lomaxes, working for the Library of Congress, traveled all over the southern United States from the 1930s through the 1950s, recording and transcribing folk music. They discovered Leadbelly on their first trip in 1933, and, in 1941, first recorded Muddy Waters, who was working as a tractor driver in Mississippi.

In 1946, Alan Lomax recorded three great Delta bluesmen, Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson, in a live conversation punctuated with music at Decca Studios in New York City. Listen to the complete interview here:

Read Lomax’s transcription here.

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