How The Blues Transcends Time and Space

It’s impossible to be in more than one place at any given time. That is a law of reality as we know it. However sound or music has the power to unleash a psycho-chemical reaction in the mind, or perhaps the soul of the listener giving one the ability to transport themselves from their immediate physical surroundings.

The music called the Blues is the product of a race of people separated from the context and culture of their ancestors. The dynamic use of rhythm and the frequent uses of micro-tonal “blue notes” are as inseparable to the Blues music that developed in America as they are to the various musics indigenous to Western Africa. These fundamental features of the genre also stand in defiance of Western European art and music of the “common practice period,” with it’s formal time signatures and tempered scale.

Despite this contrast however Africans in America have not only produced their own music but also in the process acquired mastery of various Western European instruments along with the English language. The effect is to reproduce the sounds that contextually brought them back to Africa. Thus, one could say, when one listens to the Blues they are in two places at once.

I do not mean in any way to disregard the monumental changes that Africans in America have undergone over the past three hundred or so years. The Blues has changed too. Home made instruments like cane fifes and goatskin drums were replaced by violins and banjos and then by harmonicas and guitars. The Blues was quick to adapt itself to the electric instruments of the twentieth century, and it is then that we see the birth of its first progeny — Rock and Roll.

It was in the same era that gave birth to the Hydrogen bomb that the Blues became a parent, and its child grew up to be big and strong. Soon the Blues became a genre open to listeners who were not descended from the people of its origins.

Still, though, it takes a trip to the hill country of Northern Mississippi to find the very roots of Blues passed down through the generations. When in 2003 one of the eldest remaining fife players in that region, Othar Turner passed away, his granddaughter Sharde Thomas, led a funeral procession playing the same fife music her ancestors had been making for centuries. That same fife music that sounds so shockingly similar to the tambin flute music played by the semi-nomadic Fula people of West Africa. That same fife and drum music that must have influenced the complex rhythmic alternating bass patterns that were adapted to the guitar by innovators like Fred MacDowell and R.L. Burnside.

Turner, MacDowell, and Burnside would provide much needed tempo and atmosphere to social functions, whether it be a family reunion at which a lavish picnic of freshly slaughtered goat was prepared or a roadside juke joint selling home distilled corn liquor, the rhythm provided by these musicians was crucial to keeping people moving. One surely is hard pressed to cut a rug without music.

The social context that the Blues shares with its West African progenitors is not limited to dance however; it has in the past provided another important role. The Blues was a source for the transmission of oral narrative. Booker T. Washington White was a legendary guitarist and singer from Aberdeen Mississippi who played what he called “sky songs.” Bukka, as Mr. White was called, would improvise verses about his personal life experience, accompanying himself with his guitar, thumbing out steady and sensuous rhythms with his right hand, while keeping a pentatonic melody flowing with the brass slide on his left hand.

Bukka had much in the way of material for these sky songs because he had indeed lived a rich life. Born to former slaves, raised in the stifling conditions of Jim Crow Mississippi, he, like many Black men of his day, had done time on the notorious work farm at Parchman. He’d been a traveler, an entertainer, and a heavyweight boxer, but he is perhaps most celebrated for his role amongst his people as a story teller or griot, as they’re called in Western Africa. To the peoples indigenous to West Africa the griot was a man to be respected, for it was he who was called upon by communities to recite collective history, didactic legends, and like Bukka, tales from personal experience. Even through the tragic ordeals of enslavement and having their ethnic and cultural identity stripped from them, the Africans of the Mississippi Delta used the resources available to them to keep their musical traditions alive. To me, Bukka was both a Blues man and a true griot in the proper sense of the word.

The Blues attained it’s own voice in the Twentieth century when the first recordings were made for phonograph companies trying to branch out with “race records.” Charley Patton, Ishmon Bracey, and Tommy Johnson were amongst the first delta Blues men to be recorded and paid by white producers in the 1920s. At that time these great talents may have thought that their records were only going to find listeners amongst their own oppressed people, still living a life tainted by memories of slavery.

Many of the first recorded blues men died violent deaths or succumbed to alcohol addiction. But their recordings remained, and in a few decades were listened to by a new generation from all ethnic backgrounds. Mysterious men like Robert Johnson became idols to countless young white guitarists in the Americas and Europe. Soon the Blues not only became a subject of intense academic study by ethno-musicologists, but also became functionally integrated as white musicians tracked down old men to learn the secrets of this elusive “Devil’s Music.”

Let me say this now though. I do not believe in any devil, nor do I see the Blues as some diabolic art form meant to corrupt the morals of pious Judeo-Christians. Far from it! I see the function of the Blues as preserving African consciousness in an alien continent. Magic plays as much a role in the narrative of a Blues song as topics like poverty, romance, and imprisonment.

Music like the Blues has an uncanny ability to put a human being’s mind in two places at one time. And that is magic enough for me.