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Jae Sinnett: The American Blues

Photo: Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Blues singer Bessie Smith

The pulse of blues emerged in the USA in the late 1800s. It has since been embraced, utilized and felt the world over, influencing millions of musicians. At its inception, the blues was sung, developed and shaped mostly by black men working in oppressive agricultural situations in the deep south. Utilizing and incorporating hymns, spirituals, work songs, field hollers, ragtime, minstrel show music and even to a degree, white folk music, the blues emerged as the most significant musical representation of the human emotional experience of oppression. Laced with truth, humor, hardship reflection, sarcasm and hope, the blues would eventually establish itself as the roots of most American genres that followed such as jazz and rock and roll. Even redefining some genres that preceded.

Events such as the Great Depression and the World Wars created a new geographical landscape for the blues. Millions of black people left the South regions to relocate to Northern cities and the Midwest for better prosperity. The blues, like any genre, would adapt and reshape itself to the new experiences of these locations. In many cases becoming more sophisticated in these unique and very different, and more acculturated environments. Song forms, lyrics, lyrical content and general presentation shifted. Separating itself from the less structured and raw urban country blues styles of the rural south, the solo bluesman with his guitar was now joined by a pianist or harmonica player and then enlarging the rhythm section by adding a bass player and drummer. The acoustic and later amplified guitars were already a permanent fixture in the blues.

Some irony in the history. While mostly black men started shaping the blues, the first recordings of the genre were by black women. The first appearing in the early 20’s beginning with Mamie Smith. Her version of Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920 was so successful and popular that the General Phonograph Company’s OKeh label produced a series, offensively titled “Original Race Records.” It was marketed exclusively to African Americans in Black-owned print media outlets. As a result of this success, white-owned record companies saw the deep profitable advantages marketing to the African American demographic - creating their own versions of “race records.” Classic blues legends Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters recorded for the Columbia imprint while Alberta Hunter and Ma Rainey recorded for Paramount, which labeled itself as the “Premier Race Label.” Over the years that followed the OKeh label would sign many more black innovative masters such as Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. The incredible success of “race records” profoundly helped to bring the blues to audiences previously unfamiliar with the form.

The classic blues style of an artist like Bessie Smith was very different than the urban rural country styles of Robert Johnson or Sonny Boy Williamson which was pure emotional content. It wasn’t as concerned with structure like classic blues. There weren’t predictable song forms. Traditional blues forms are 12 bars in the classic tradition but rural blues could be nine, seven or any number of measures outside of 12 depending on how and where the lyric falls within the form. Keys weren’t definitive in rural blues models. Tuning wasn’t as precise. Often time’s rural blues was played and recorded on out of tune guitars. All the “flatted” notes sung in the blues colloquial enhanced the poor instrumental intonation making for its own unique tension. Jazz followed in the classic blues tradition with the 12 bar structure. The flatted notes and emotional sensibilities of rural, classic and country blues all combined to act as the emotional foundation of jazz and rock and roll.

In jazz education circles, too often the blues is taught as an intellectual exercise as opposed to an emotional experience. When five blue notes formulating the Bb blues scale were introduced to students, Bb Db Eb E and F, the pedagogy was now if you play these notes you’re playing the blues. Far from it, but how can or do you teach emotional experiences or content in music? You can’t. My good friend and master pianist Allen Farnham said “you either hear or feel it, or you don’t.” Same with swingin' in jazz. You either hear or feel it, or you don’t. Simple enough but yet, not so simple. There’s much truth in the either hear and feel it or you don’t statement. The blues isn’t sad or happy but it is or has to be soulful. There are many types of blues that developed out of those sweat laced fields. Delta, Memphis, St Louis, Country, Chicago, Texas. Many, but they all represent or should, the same emotional soulful intentions. That’s the American blues.

Jae Sinnett hosts Sinnett in Session, The R&B Chronicles, and Students in Session on WHRV FM.  He also shares his love of the culinary arts on Cooking with Jae on Facebook every Sunday at 6 p.m. Plus, catch up with past episodes