Blues musician Graham Pewter is the former co-host of Bermuda Blues on FM radio. *Photo supplied
Blues musician Graham Pewter is the former co-host of Bermuda Blues on FM radio. *Photo supplied
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“Blues is the soul of black America enshrined in music ... not just bitterness and sorrow but joy in the rhythms of the dance”

- David Harrison, 1977

 

Let’s start at the beginning. What are the origins of the blues? Why is the music called “blues”? As to origins, there is no definitive answer to give you, no historical documents to refer to. Like any other form of folk music, the evolution of the blues went largely unrecorded, and inevitably, the opinions of musical historians differ as to its precise genesis. Here is my version.

The blues was borne of the African-American experience in the rural South at the turn of the 20th Century. What became known as the blues was an amalgam of “field hollers” and prison camp work songs, (both sung in a call and response manner which relieved the tedium of long working days), plus spirituals and folk ballads, both West African and European in origin.

Tradition has it that the Mississippi Delta was where this musical fusion took place. Whilst it is true that many influential first generation bluesmen came from the Delta, music in essentially the same form was being played in many other places, in Georgia, the Carolinas, and East Texas to name just a few. But there’s a certain romance to the blues of the Delta (at least to me), so I am quite happy to stay with tradition.

Most economic activity in the Delta was focused on the production of cotton. Life in the fields was hard, with farm workers toiling from sunrise until sunset in blistering heat and humidity. Saturday night had a special importance — it was the time for play, to let off steam, to forget about problems. Plantations boasted “juke-joints”, crude bars where men and women could eat, drink, and let off stream. The jukes were dangerous places, with violence regularly erupting, mostly whisky-fuelled disputes over women.

Musicians were paid to entertain, from mid-evening until the early hours, playing to an increasingly drunken and demanding audience. The musicians were mostly itinerant ramblers, men who were disdainful of physical labour, playing acoustic guitar, alone or accompanied by mandolin, harmonica, or washboard players. There was no electricity, no amplification, and they had to shout out their verses over a cacophony of sound, and to stamp their feet on wooden boards to establish the musical rhythm.

They called their repertoire dance music (“the blues” had yet to enter the vernacular) and played up-tempo numbers, rags and reels, and “slow-drags” that allowed couples to generate some heat. The music they played provided a musical framework for storytelling, typically of love gone wrong and depictions of the hardship of life in general.

Melodically, the songs began to conform to what later became known as a blues, usually employing 12-bar musical measures. Perhaps in sympathy with the often gloomy lyrical tone, the music they played created a feeling of melancholy, involving minor intervals and flattened third and seventh notes, African in origin,that subsequently became known as “blue notes”.

The first published blues song, St Louis Blues, appeared in 1912. (The word blue has been associated with melancholy and depression since Elizabethan times, and that is undoubtedly where “the blues” came from).

The writer was W. C. Handy, a black professional musician and orchestra leader who was inspired by an encounter that took place some years earlier, whilst waiting for a train at the station in Tutwiler, Mississippi. He evidently came across a man sitting on the platform, absentmindedly playing a guitar to himself. Handy wrote...

“The man’s face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. He repeated the same line three times, accompanying himself on guitar, with the weirdest music I had ever heard. The tune stayed in my mind. When the singer paused, I asked him what the words meant. He rolled his eyes, showing a trace of mid amusement. He thought I should have known , but he didn’t mind explaining”

The story might be apocryphal, but apparently Handy had several similar encounters and the end result was the first published blues. He took some of the rough edges off of the music he heard back in Tutwiler, gave it a symmetry that was easier for his urban audience to absorb.

Before long the Handy style of blues became a national craze. “Classic Blues” singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith (who recorded Crazy Blues in 1920, reputedly the first blues record to go on sale) became big stars.

The music, in both style and content, was very different from the down-home blues of the Delta, but the country musicians, hearing early recordings, were inevitably influenced by it and as a consequence their sounds became more melodic and organized structurally.

Handy, with a gift for self-promotion, pronounced himself the “King of the Blues”. I would not agree, but his position, as a key figure in the development of the blues is unassailable.

Of course, the music of the Mississippi Delta was not limited to the fields and the juke joints. The church was an integral part of life and plantation owners encouraged organized religion, assuming that Christian teaching would encourage passivity and make any violent resistance to the harsh way of life less likely to occur.

The singing of hymns and spirituals in what we now describe a Gospel style; was at the heart of church gatherings and thus constituted another form of organized music in the Delta.

But blues and church music, the spiritual and the secular, were, from a social standpoint, totally incompatible. God-fearing folk condemned blues as the devil’s music, performed in juke joints, dens of iniquity full of fast women and cheap corn whisky; the musicians themselves regarded as social outcasts. In praise of God, or in praise of the devil, it was as simple as that. This caused much soul-searching and torment and in fact many blues musicians were former preachers who had been forced to abandon the church.

Graham Pewter is the drummer in Bones — Bermuda’s only Blues band — and is the former co-host of Bermuda Blues on FM radio. He will be on the air today from 4pm to 6pm as part of the VSB Black History month musical celebration.