The Language of the Blues: THE BLUES

Do you know where the term "Blues" came from? Discover the word's incredible journey and hidden meanings in this week's Language of the Blues article.

The Blues GraphicThis is the latest installment in our weekly series entitled, The Language of the Blues, where author and rocker Debra Devi focuses on the meaning and significance of a unique word used in blues song. Come back every week for the latest! Devi’s The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu is now available at!

The blues” stems from the 17th-century English expression, “the blue devils,” which described the intense visual hallucinations of delirium tremens — the trembling and psychosis associated with alcohol withdrawal. Shortened over time to “the blues,” the phrase came to mean a state of emotional agitation or depression. Although there are happy, up-tempo blues songs, many blues songs mine a melancholic vein, and express feelings of loss and emotional turmoil.

For white Americans, “blue” meant “drunk” as early as the 1800s. Among African Americans, an intimate couples dance called the slow drag that involved plastering as much of one’s torso to one’s partner’s as possible and grinding the hips together very slowly was also called “the blues.” A rural juke joint at the turn of the century would be jammed on a Saturday night with couples getting their drink on and doing the pre-coital shuffle to the accompaniment of a bluesman on guitar, stomping the beat out on the floor with his foot.

The link between “blue” and drinking is also indicated by “blue laws” that still prohibit sale of alcohol and operating of saloons on Sundays in some states. The term “blue law” was first used by the English Reverend Samuel Peters in his 1781 book General History of Connecticut, which caused a stir when it appeared in London during the American Revolution.

Peters described ludicrously punitive Sabbath observance laws purportedly enacted by the Puritan governors of Connecticut. Peters also convincingly described the “march of the frogs of Windham” and claimed that Puritans were called “pumpkinheads” in their new homeland. Peters’ book was a hoax, and he is believed to have made up the blue laws to poke fun at the colonies, which he had been forced to leave during the Revolution. Nonetheless, laws prohibiting certain activities on Sundays are still referred to as blue laws.

Today musicians all over the world play the blues, often in the twelve-bar, I-IV-V chord progression structure. That format was imposed on the blues to some extent by William Christopher Handy, the first publisher of blues sheet music. The 1912 publication of his “Memphis Blues” sheet music introduced his style of twelve-bar blues.

The superb singer, guitarist, and bandleader “Little” Milton Campbell, Jr., who was born in Inverness, Mississippi in 1934, told me: “This is just my opinion, of course, but when W.C. Handy heard that gentleman [a slide guitarist] playing down in Tutwiler, Mississippi, it fascinated him and he set out and put it to bars. He created sequences- verse, chorus, and et cetera. But the old timers didn’t really play that way. For instance, the late John Lee Hooker, he didn’t play by bars, he didn’t count- he just made a change whenever he felt like it. He didn’t necessarily rhyme all his words, neither. Whatever he was thinking, whatever came up, that’s what he was singing.

“I think W.C. Handy was trying his best to make the songs seem as professional as possible, yet also simple to play,” Campbell explained, “so he put bars to the music where you could count, where it could be simple. Twelve bars with a turn-back.” Little Milton added, “A lot of people have a wrong concept about the so-called blues. That word has helped and it has also hurt. It’s given people an impression of raggedy alcoholics, dope heads, or what have you.”

The blues evolved from the work songs and hollers slaves made up in the fields. “We were always singing in the fields. Not real singing, you know, just hollerin’, but we made up our songs about things that was happenin’ to us at the time, and I think that’s where the Blues started,” Son House is quoted as saying in Looking Up at Down: the Emergence of Blues Culture by William Barlow,

The singing and drumming of the newly arrived slaves struck American chroniclers as weird, harsh, and “primitive,” when it was anything but. Falsetto singing, for example, was one innovation that in Africa is considered to be the very essence of masculine expression. (Anyone who has become hot and bothered listening to early Bobby “Blue” Bland, or Prince, can testify to that!) African musicians were also more advanced in the use of polyphonic, contrapuntal rhythms than their European peers were. While European composers explored harmonic complexity, Africans focused on rhythmic complexity. To African ears, as Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones) explains in Blues People, European music would have seemed “vapid rhythmically.”

Europeans also did not realize at first that because African languages are tonal, Africans can talk with their drums. African drummers vary pitches while drumming to mimic both the rhythms and pitches of tonal speech. In African Rhythm and African Sensibility, John Miller Chernoff relates how his Ewe drum teacher ordered them some beers: “During my first day practicing with Gideon I was following him well until he suddenly performed a rather complicated series of rhythms and then went back to the basic rhythm he was
showing me. A few minutes later a man who had passed at that moment returned with two bottles of beer.”

African “talking drums” were key to organizing slave rebellions, and so were strictly banned on pain of death after a rebellion in the South Carolina colony in 1739. From the official account of the rebellion:

“On the 9th day of September last, being Sunday, which is the day the Planters allow them to work for themselves, some Angola Negroes assembled, to the number of twenty, at a place called Stonehow…. Several Negroes joined them, they calling out “liberty!” marched on with colour displayed and two drums beating, pursuing all white people they met, and killing man, woman, and child…. They increased every minute by new Negroes coming to them, so that they were above sixty, some say a hundred, on which they halted in a field and set to dancing, singing, and beating drums, to draw more Negroes to them, thinking that they were victorious over the whole province, having marched ten miles and burnt all before them without opposition.”

The Slave Act of 1740 in South Carolina barred slaves from owning or using “drums, horns, or other loud instruments.” Other colonies followed suit with specific legislation against the use of drums by slaves, such the Black Codes of Georgia, which forbade “beating the drum and blowing the trumpet.”

Following the Nat Turner revolt of 1831, all the states imposed similar restrictions, and forbade slaves to learn to read or write.

Although their drums, songs, and languages were outlawed in the colonies, African slaves held fast to the unique rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic features of their music. They continued to employ vibrato, tremolo, overtones, and hoarse-voiced and shouting African vocal techniques to convey many shades of meaning. Over time they mingled all these features and techniques with the work songs they created and with the European hymns and folksongs they heard to create the blues.

Antiphonal singing–call and response between a lead singer and a chorus–is another feature of African music that survived slavery and vitalized American popular music. Africans working in American fields did what they would have done at home: they improvised call-and-response shouts on the spot, to the rhythm of the task at hand. A lead worker chanted the opening lines, and the chorus of workers would answer. We hear this
when James Brown sings “Get up!” and Bobby Byrd answers “Get on up!”

African work songs praised the gods and gave thanks for the harvests, but in America the slaves were not allowed to refer to their gods and were not of a mind to give thanks for anything. Barred from singing in their languages, they sang in self-taught English, retaining the accents and syntaxes of native dialects as they shout-sang their laments:

No more driver call me
No more driver call me
No more driver call me
Many thousand die

In church, the elements of African music — syncopation, polyphony, shouts, and call and response —transformed European hymns into spirituals that rocked the walls. In the
fields, these elements became the improvised work songs that birthed the blues.

Although very early blues did not have the twelve-bar, three-line AAB structure of the classic blues of the 1920s, the three-line structure of the blues verse that eventually emerged was a function of call-and-response singing. The lead singer would repeat a line twice while waiting for another singer to improvise a response. African spiritual chants often repeat an important line. Yorubans, for instance, rely on the poetic chants of a
Divine oracle called Ifá for insights into their personal problems:

The life of Ifá surpasses water’s coolness
The life of Ifá surpasses water’s coolness
The speaker-of-all languages married a woman
Who herself bathed only in water that is cold
The life of Ifá surpasses water in its coolness

Work songs were primarily sung a cappella, but after Emancipation, the guitar and harmonica made it possible for traveling country blues singers to earn money playing for juke joint dances, passing their songs along in the process. Over time, the blues developed into music played and listened to for pleasure, not for work. It became music that expressed the singer’s individual struggles and passions, both carnal and spiritual. It is interesting that the idea of the instrumental solo, relatively unimportant in West African music, became very important in the blues, which emerged in a country that idolized the individual and had steamrolled over the concept of tribe altogether.

Charters wrote in The Roots of the Blues that “The blues function in American black society as a popular love song–in the early period almost obsessively concerned with infidelity.” It is possible, however, that all those songs about wreaking revenge on a “no-good woman” who kept a man “in chains” were metaphorical expressions of the determination of African Americans to free themselves from oppression—in line with the African-American tradition of signifying (using innuendo and doubletalk that is fully understood only by members of one’s community to express bold opinions or feelings without fear of repercussion).

While Charters was in Africa, he observed that “the voices of griots and blues singers had a great deal of similarity in tone and texture. If a griot like Jali Nyama Suso had sung in English the sound of his voice would have been difficult to distinguish from an Afro-American singer. There was the same kind of tone production, the same forcing of higher notes. In the gruffness of the lower range and the strong expressiveness of the middle voice I could hear stylistic similarities to singing I had heard in many parts of the South.”

Blues guitarists transferred African vocal devices to the guitar, bending the strings to reach intervals beyond the limitations of the frets, and mimic singing. They flatted the thirds, fifths, and sevenths into quartertones–blue notes.

Alan Lomax offered an interesting take on this in The Land Where the Blues Began. He theorized that “interval size is correlated cross-culturally to those factors that restrict the social independence of the individual.” He noted that where strict castes have developed, such as in India, musicians use quartertones and other intervals smaller than a second. In contrast, hunters and gatherers from more easy-going societies, such as Native American and African Pygmy, sing songs filled with great leaps, such as octaves and fifths. In sub-Saharan Africa, “where only a modest level of social layering stiffened social intercourse,” the most common intervals were thirds and fifths. These were sometimes flatted but not nearly so much as they are in the blues.

Lomax attributed this favoring of narrowed intervals among blues musicians to “the painful encounter of the black community with the caste-and-class system of the post-Reconstruction period.” Freed by the Civil War, yet hemmed in by racism, African Americans wound up on very bottom of the social heap as day laborers and sharecroppers. “Homelessness and orphaning were the order of the day for Delta working-class blacks, creating the wellspring of melancholy whose theme song was the blues,” Lomax wrote.

This very expression of a tough situation, however, became a way out of poverty for some African Americans. The country blues, sung by one singer accompanying him- or herself on guitar or banjo, evolved into the classic blues of the 1920s and 1930s, sung by such stars as Bessie Smith in front of a big band or piano-led combo. The blues gave options to women like Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith, who without it might have
spent their lives scrubbing white peoples’ floors and washing their clothes. The blues drew together the descendants of once disparate tribal people who had suffered sickening humiliations in a foreign land.

This new African-American community invigorated American music with African musical techniques and its unique aesthetics for musical improvisation. While describing Ewe master drumming in Studies in African Music, A.M. Jones wrote, “To play a string of master drum standard patterns even if each is repeated several times is simply not African music. The full flower of the music is in the variations, of which the standard pattern is the nucleus. The musical technique is this: the master announces a standard pattern and repeats it several times to establish it. Now each standard pattern consists of several phrases or sentences. Any of these can serve as a nucleus for variations.” Jones might as well be giving the aesthetic code for a blues jam or American jazz.

Another African aesthetic that survived slavery and became fundamental to blues improvisation is the definition of mastery of an instrument as the ability to choose the perfect note to evoke an emotion, as opposed to dazzling technical displays. As Chernoff learned from his drum teachers, “One note placed at the right point in the music will prove the strength of the drummer more than the execution of a technically difficult phrase.” This is a guiding principle for blues musicians and is what distinguishes mature masters from showoff-y youngsters.

To see this more clearly, substitute “guitarist” for “drummer” in this observation from Chernoff: “One might imagine that the lead drummer would proceed directly through many styles in order to display his skill and make the music interesting with accentuation. Instead, those drummers considered to be the best do just the opposite. They take their time…. The aesthetic decision which constitutes excellence will be the timing of the
change and the choice of a new pattern.” It’s not about how many notes the musician plays; it’s about whether he or she has cultivated the sensitivity and maturity to choose the right note.

“The blues contains those values,” Texas blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan told me, adding, “If a musician can get the blues and what it says about space and feeling…the space is as important as the notes. Because if you don’t have space, you don’t allow time for the listener to feel what has been said.”

Somehow, as Africans became African Americans, they maintained their aesthetic codes — even as their languages and songs were stomped out. Their great achievement was that they transferred these values to a new world and created a new music that today transcends racial and cultural boundaries, such that American blues artists can fly to Japan or Poland and be met by hordes of screaming fans who may not speak their language — yet understand their music.

As guitarist Robben Ford likes to say, “The blues is a big house.” An astonishing amount of music has been birthed under its roof, all of it based on what is proving to be one of the strongest, most flexible, and inspiring musical frameworks ever created.

“Death Letter Blues” – Son House

“Hobo Blues” – John Lee Hooker

Pick up a copy of The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu at Bluescentric


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