The Enduring Influence & Tradition of the Blues

By Giovanni Russonello

Note from Lauren Campbell, Strathmore's Director of Education: Giovanni Russonello covers jazz and blues for the New York Times and he is a founder of CapitalBop, a DC nonprofit dedicated to preserving, promoting, and presenting jazz. We invited Giovanni to share his extensive knowledge and perspective on the blues as part of the mix of ideas we hope people will explore and debate through the Shades of Blues Festival.

“The blues” is a distinct musical form that came about near the turn of the 20th century. It’s built around a warped pentatonic scale and a song structure derived from call-and-response singing. The blues has become the basis for nearly every form of American popular music over the past 100 years: jazz, R&B, rock, hip-hop.

But the blues tradition is something slightly different: broader, deeper, and more generative. It’s the history of artistic resistance that has wound like a river through the claimed territory of America, giving life to so much of American culture along the way.

Throughout this country’s history, the black community has used forms of code—in language as well as art—to navigate life despite the burden of white imposition.

As the circumstances of perseverance have changed over the past century, the blues tradition has endlessly reshaped itself. It lives in much of the electronic music being made today, in certain forms of jazz, and in the visionary voices of many hip-hop emcees.

* * *

Charley Patton was one of the earliest innovators of the Delta blues. He was also one of the first major figures in American folk music to eschew traditional morality ballads and third-person narration for a more personal approach. It was a bold move.

“This is one of the fundamental distinctions between blues and the black music that came before it,” Robert Palmer writes in Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta. “The singer is so involved that in many cases his involvement becomes both the subject and substance of the work. . . . In the context of its time and place it was positively heroic. Only a man who understands his worth and believes in his freedom sings as if nothing else matters.”

The Mandekan language that is spoken in parts of West Africa has a term, yere-wolo, that essentially means, “to give birth to oneself.” It suggests the discovery of one’s own power, one’s essential quality, and the manifestation that follows this discovery. There’s no English equivalent, but this notion has become central to our American identity, largely thanks to black music.

In all blues-driven music, there is tenuous but stubborn work being done, work that is a kind of yere-wolo: It’s the work of self-assertion and of neutralizing limitations—often by ignoring them.

Patton embodied all this. With tanned-leather tension and squeezed-up toughness ringing in his voice, he sang of longing and escape—but projected an inveterate confidence. No matter where he went, how he suffered, whom he courted, he acted on his terms.

In doing this, Patton set a precedent for much of the American music that has come after, from Little Richard to Betty Davis to Solange.

I’m goin’ away, to the world unknown
I’m goin’ away, to the world unknown
I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long
—“Down the Dirt Road Blues,” Charley Patton (1929)

Like most of the original blues singers, Patton was part confessor, part Romeo, part wisdom figure. He spoke from his own perspective, but he also bore witness to the lives and dreams of others.

Fella, down in the country, it almost make you cry
Fella, down in the country, it almost make you cry
Women and children, flaggin’ freight trains for rides
—“’34 Blues,” Charley Patton (1934)

* * *

The blues became a national sensation in the 1920s, thanks largely to the so-called “city blues” style. It featured women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, dressed up for polite company, hurling irreverence and provocation. They weren’t asking for space in polite society; they were reshaping the values of that society. It wasn’t interesting to them unless they could determine their own place within it.

If I go to church on Sunday
Sing the shimmy down on Monday
Ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do

If my friend ain’t got no money
And I say, “Take all mine honey”
’T ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do
—“’Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” Bessie Smith (1923)

In the decades that followed, the Southern blues’ influence flowed throughout the nation, morphing into the electric blues in Chicago and combining with gospel to create doo-wop in black communities across the country. It fed into R&B and rockabilly, and then rock ’n’ roll (whose name came from a coded term for sex).

Along the way, there was jazz, which admitted heaps of blues influence but developed, more than is often acknowledged, apart from these other traditions. Jazz began in New Orleans, among the professional ensembles that had evolved out of the city’s longstanding brass-band tradition. As Amiri Baraka writes in Blues People: Negro Music in White America, “they played most of the music of the time: quadrilles, schottisches, polkas, ragtime tunes.”

The blues was certainly jazz’s nucleus. It was there in the African-derived harmonies, the tapestries of syncopation, and the bent notes that often seemed to imitate the grumbles and whinnies of the human voice. But jazz’s roots were cosmopolitan and relatively commercial: They sprang from the vocationalism of society bands and the hamming of vaudeville as much as from the unselfconscious patois of the blues.

Baraka points out that as big band jazz became more popular, it hewed more closely to the demands of a paying concert audience. The blues inside the music—the self-styling, the low furor, the professions of pride and desire—was given a narrower berth.

In the 1950s, many jazz musicians migrated away from dance music and into the small combos of bebop. The blues’ core truths stayed lodged inside of it, but they were often relegated to instrumental expression. The jazz tunes that did have words were mostly versions of show tunes. With some marked exceptions, blues poetry usually proved too much for the jazz economy, largely driven as it was by the demands of white audiences and white promoters. The lowbrow humor and social realism that had defined the work of artists like Rainey, Cab Calloway, and Fats Waller nearly vanished from jazz singing.

* * *

Ultimately it was soul and funk that more fully picked up on the blues mantle during the era of the Second Great Migration. The ultimate blues man of the second half of the 20th century has to be James Brown. He combined the hard-charging, virtuoso ambitions of the jazz musician with the unaccommodating subjectivity of blues storytelling.

Even his overtly political music was often lodged in the first person:

I’ve worked in jobs with my feet and my hands
But all the work I did was for the other man…
—“Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” James Brown (1968)

By the late 1980s, the baton held by the likes of Brown, Betty Wright, Eddie Kendricks, and Gil Scott-Heron had passed to hip-hop. Today rappers spit poetry that’s more aerobic and articulate than anything before known in popular music. But the continuum is clear.

In his verse on Isaiah Rashad’s “Shot You Down,” ScHoolboy Q raps:

Not a dollar on me, this home invasion a payday
Two-time felon, they jerkin’ me on my pay rate
Slavin’ all these hours but couldn’t shake that my rent late
Makin’ eight a hour, I’m leanin’ toward my AK

Moms think I’m vicious, don’t want me ’round the kitchen
My living room, bathroom, my bedroom was evicted
Missin’ from your homeroom, my good grades was crippin’
Before I even learned division, nigga, I learned the mission

See I'm from where fiends scratch that itch, won't hit the lotto
And I'm from where fiends fix that fix and not a bottle

This is poetry of both persecution and ingenuity. It questions a governing system that criminalizes poverty and offers so few options to so many people, but most importantly it places the listener’s focus on ScHoolboy—on his acumen and his will.

Hip-hop thrives in communities that are as socially sequestered and economically maligned as the plantations of the Mississippi Delta once were. The repressive work of Southern sheriffs and vigilantes has been passed on to paramilitary police forces and parole boards in cities across America. If the blues is rooted in an African American ethic of survival through grace, in a sense of self-empowerment despite denial, then its triumph as well as its tragedy is that it lives on.

Giovanni’s Playlist
Listen for the thread of artistic resistance Giovanni describes in this 26-song playlist, which spans early blues to contemporary hip-hop. Listen here.