Blues Evolution – Hello my blues friends! In this history episode we’ll go back to the 18th century to see the conditions slaves lived in and how the traditions of different peoples were mixed until the Civil War. Well, life for slaves in the 18th century was still very cruel. There were laws that permitted physical punishment, even killing one’s own slave. Moreover, gatherings of large groups were forbidden for fear of rebellions. Contrary to South America where interracial interbreeding was quickly accepted as a reality, in North America it was a taboo and was prohibited. Nevertheless, sexual abuse was common between white masters and black women.
For example, in New Orleans, during the French rule there were many more black women than white. Many of them got abused by their masters and their half black children, called Creoles of Color, lived alongside whites and slaves. Now, let’s talk about the sacred music of that time. Toward mid-century the country experienced its first major religious revival.
The First Great Awakening swept the English-speaking world in the 1730s and 1740s increasing the interest and participation in religious activities. After the mid of 18th century some of the plantation white masters slowly christianized their slaves to make them docile and more manageable, and up until the end of the century blacks worshipped in churches alongside their masters, singing the same psalms and hymns as the whites. Soon, Independent African American churches began forming in North America.
Initially they used the same psalms and hymn books as the white churches, but later on, pioneering black preachers introduced their own hymnals. In this period, black religious music evolved into the hymns and religious songs known as Negro Spirituals. Spirituals were written by black musicians who had studied white music and many of them were inspired from Protestant hymns, British hymnals and Bible verses.
Spirituals also had African characteristics like improvisation and “Call and Response”, with themes mostly about freedom and the hope of freedom. As it happens in folk music tradition, the Spirituals that appealed to the members of a congregation or a community were preserved, becoming part of the repertoire, while others were discarded. The best of the Spirituals traveled from one congregation to another and from one region of the country to another, carried by the ministers, preachers, watermen, slaves etc.
Spirituals can be divided into three main categories. “Call and Response”, where a leader begins a line, which is then followed by a choral response, Fast and rhythmic songs that often tell a story in a faster, syncopated rhythm, and Slow melodic songs with sustained notes, expressive phrasing and generally slower tempo. In these religious songs slaves had for the first time the freedom of expression, that was also used to communicate subversive messages of support, unity and revolt.
For example, many Spirituals referred to the “underground railroad”, a network of people, places and routes that provided shelter and assistance to escaping slaves, from early to mid 19th century. Now, let’s see what was happening during the early to mid-19th century in the United States.
New Musical Styles Before Cultural Exchange
During the 18th and 19th century, many slaves in America learned how to play European instruments and Euro-American popular tunes like British ballads, folk songs and hymns. They learned new techniques and performance practices, which they superimposed onto black songs. They also superimposed black techniques and performance practices onto white songs, bringing to life new musical styles. Of course white culture also got influenced by the black in many aspects.
The two races lived too close together and relied upon each other, so it was inevitable their traditions to develop hand in hand. Furthermore, during this cultural exchange, African instruments evolved into new ones as well. For example, the Banjo which later became a key instrument in white Country music, is a derivative of Western and Central Sudanic lutes, played by griots in West Africa.
The Instrument – Banjo
Until mid-19th century banjo had transformed from a 4-string instrument with a traditional gourd body, to the modern 5-string with the drum shell body we all know. Another African instrument that evolved in America during slavery was the Diddley Bow, which derives from monochord zithers used in West Africa. It consists of a single string of wire tensioned between two nails on a board, over a can or a bottle, which is used both as a bridge and as a way to magnify the instrument’s sound. A slider of some kind is also used.
Many famous bluesmen have stated that this was their first instrument to play as children, before they graduated to a guitar. During this period, in the Appalachian mountains another music genre was about to be born. White immigrants with ethnic heritage mainly from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales who lived in the Piedmont area since the 1700s, expanded through and into the Appalachians. Musical traditions from home such as anglo-celtic folk ballads and instrumental square dance tunes were important links to the past so they were cherished and passed down to the next generation.
The Doctor And Cotton Boom – The History
As always, mutation took place in every aspect of their music. Lyrics changed through time to reflect American locations and way of life, and new instruments were used. In the 1850s the railroad reached the Appalachian mountains. Τhe construction work was done by blacks who sang work songs. In the mountain communities, blacks and whites were living side by side and “borrowed” each others’ dances, music, instruments and techniques.
Later in this century Medicine Shows, as well as Minstrel Shows, provided exposure for mountain music. Many songsters were employed in Medicine Shows, where “doctors” used them to drum up interest and soften the crowd’s resistance for their miraculous medicines. Now, let’s see what was happening in the South. In that period two key events happened.
The first was the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1793, which revolutionized the production of cotton, leading to the so-called “Cotton Boom”. Many cotton plantations began to establish in Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia and West of the Appalachian Mountains and as a result demand for slave labor was increased. Slaves were now used to clear land, plow, plant and pick cotton. Secondly, in 1803, USA, which had already gained independence from Great Britain after the Revolutionary War, purchased the Louisiana area from Napoleon Bonaparte.
In the next decades, Amerindians were removed and English-speaking farmers moved to the Mississippi region. Demand for slave work was growing and although imports of slaves were banned in 1808, smuggling continued for decades afterwards. Meanwhile, 1 million slaves were sold from the Upper South to the Deep South in order to work in the Cotton farms.
The migration of these populations into new working and living conditions was an unintended stimulant for cultural developments, making the Delta a cultural melting pot. It also led to mutation in playing techniques, and later in the 19th century to the rise of new forms of music, mostly performed by solo musicians or small bands. Contrary to the Deep South, in the much more tolerant region of New Orleans, large group music survived. From the early 19th century there were dances on Sundays on Congo Square. African Americans would gather to dance and play music, using drums and horns, and cross-pollinate their traditions.
Generally, whites saw this tradition as savage and idolatrous and in most places the Ring was criticized and even forbidden. During slavery, music and dancing were important to African Americans as a way to keep some of their cultural memory alive. African Americans also got influenced by the popular music of their time. One of the most widespread forms of entertainment in American North was Minstrelsy, a kind of theater in which white actors would blacken their skin to resemble stereotypical African American figures.
It was something like a presentation of African American culture, in a cartoonish way. Minstrel shows included songs, dances and comedy. It was the first time Negro music spread beyond the plantation. Various instruments were used in these shows such as the banjo, fiddle, tambourine, bones etc. Another influential tradition of that era was the British Music Hall.
Many English “Music Hall” Artists Travelled to The USA And Toured Extensively.
US and England sent popular ideas to each other and many contributions of “common stock” songs came from the English tradition. This “common stock” would later become an available pool of songs for the songsters to perform. The English “Music Hall” Tradition evolved around the 1830s and 1840s reaching its peak in the end of 19th century, by which time the Blues had also grown to maturity. Both traditions influenced another by oral transmission and later by recordings, as many English artists recorded in New York.
Another popular style of that time in the United States was the Marches that military and other large bands played. Besides the influence of the English tradition, German, Italian and Irish immigrants also had a major impact on the American brass band tradition that emerged in early 19th century and grew rapidly after the 1850s. For example, Brass Bands that played in carnivals, parades, funerals, parties etc were typical in New Orleans and mainly played military March music. In New Orleans, there were also other cultural influences except for the European and African ones.
For instance, after 1809, many French speaking Creoles from Saint Domingue and Cuba fled to New Orleans carrying their Afro-cuban musical traditions with them. As we’ll later see, this multiculturalism led to the birth of Jazz in the late 19th century. In the next episode we’ll talk about the social conditions after the Civil War and how the Spirituals and Minstrel shows developed in the last decades of the 19th century. Keep in touch! .