Delta Blues

I recently started reading a fascinating book about the origins of the blues, “Delta Blues” by Ted Gioia. I’ve always been intrigued by this chapter in music history, which to a large extent will forever be shrouded in mystery, inspiring endless debate and conjecture and stirring the imagination.

The Delta blues is the original blues; the proto-blues, which inspired all the other offshoots and changed the course of music forever. “Delta” here denotes an alluvial plain found alongside the Mississippi river in northwestern Mississippi (not the actual mouth of this great river) and has been called ‘the most Southern place on earth’.

Although no one knows the precise origin of the blues, the Delta is the place where it flourished like in no other. This raw and powerful music, which would revolutionize and reinvigorate music the world over was developed by the impoverished black rural population of this region. These musically untrained farmers and manual laborers sang and used mostly stringed instruments, like the guitar – often constructing them out of everyday objects.

The sound they developed turned traditional music theory, scales and aesthetic on its ear, introducing into music a hitherto unknown mode of expression, equivalent to the introduction of a new primary color or a new dominant strain of DNA into the world. This blue hue of the blues is now present in some concentration in most of the popular music we hear.

Yet it originated simply as a way of expressing the peculiar woes of an oppressed people, who had been practically forgotten by history and by mainstream American society. The sharecroppers who lived on Southern plantations really had little apart from their call-and-response work songs to mitigate their plight of endless toil and racial subordination. On some plantations that served as penal institutions, the blues as well as chants, work songs, hollers and spirituals flourished with even more fervor, literally becoming a means of survival.

So apart from the musical specifics of the blues, with its blue notes, dominant chords and twelve-bar forms is this purely human aspect. And Ted Gioia does a wonderful job of narrating the lives of the legendary and colorful pioneering masters of the blues. All these guys - John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and many others – each left their indelible, trademark stamp on the blues, shaping our definition of what the blues ought to be and inspiring some of the most enduring stereotypes of the rambling bluesman as well.

These people of the soil, who worked the land until they were finally set free by their music, were often elusive, disappearing after recording sessions until tracked down again by scouts. Some were in and out of jail (often for shootings and other violent crime), with serious drinking or drug problems; with affairs and illegitimate children all over the South. Some died in suspicious circumstances, never really being able to shake their underworld entanglements. In some ways, these blues biographies foreshadowed the lives of future rappers and hip hop culture in general.

The blues (the music, the history and the culture) is an endlessly fascinating subject for music lovers, stirring and reinvigorating the imagination (musical or other) with its direct and raw, earthy power.

The Big Easy vs. The Big Shots

“Get Funky Jazz Performers” by Renie Britenbucher

“Life without music is unthinkable, music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.”

- Leonard Bernstein

In early 20th century Western classical music, there was a growing, conscious effort to move away from ‘the confines’ of diatonic harmony and create a ‘modern’ approach to music. Ever-growing disdain for consonance and tonality was a hallmark of this period, and atonality – the ultimate musical ivory tower – the inevitable result. Touted as the most important musical development of the century, atonality has had almost no real impact on the music people actually listen to – unless we’re talking about ear-grating horror movie scores.

At the same time, New Orleans, Louisiana (including, to a large extent, the Mississippi River Valley all the way up to St. Louis, Missouri) had become perhaps the most potent musical hub in the world. As opposed to the official music capitals Vienna and Paris and the big Western universities, The Big Easy’s influence was undeniable and enormous; yielding the most influential musical styles of the last hundred years, including ragtime, jazz, blues, doo-wop, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, funk and disco.

Even if conservative, diatonic harmony were indeed starting to sound hackneyed to some, these offered solutions. For example, the blues employed blue notes (flatted 3rd, 5th and 7th notes) as well as adding 7ths to the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords, while maintaining their original functions in the harmony. Jazz involved unconventional improvisation, with harmony- and melody-bending interpretations of existing music that also moved away from, yet remained in the orbit of tonal music.

African-Americans such as Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and all sorts of intriguing characters of early rhythm and blues or jazz directly or indirectly shaped the destiny of of 20th century music. What is interesting is that the progenitors of these lively and groundbreaking styles weren’t at all interested in pushing the envelope; they just loved playing music. If the mainstream musical culture of the time had reached a self-wrought dead end, this explosion of unabated, raw creativity provided the escape route.

And it’s not about classical vs. popular music or high brow vs. low brow. Western classical music isn’t snooty or self-indulgent by definition; it had become subverted, beginning with bigheaded Romantic ideas. The same thing eventually happened to jazz. Its creators and proponents realized its sublimity and in the second half of the 1900s it became equally contorted and stale. Art, it seems, must remain a means to an end (that of enhancing the human experience); it must not become the end itself.

And it’s not just pomposity, (Romantic) solipsism or excessive refinement that result. It’s the self-conscious creative process whereby one strives to consciously be original or groundbreaking; observing oneself and attempting to tame and direct forces that are beyond one’s control. Truly fresh and imaginative songs and styles are born when this result is the last thing on one’s mind.

This touches on the general principle: On cause mieux quand on ne dit pas «Causons» (“One converses better when one does not say, “Let us converse.”) It’s like the children in C. S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”, who couldn’t enter the magical world of Narnia when they consciously wanted to. Art arises from just doing one’s job well and hopefully enjoying it. It comes from adversity and accidents and not conscious planning.