1. Have you ever read a book called ‘Right on: From Blues to Soul in Black America’ by UK sociologist Michael Haralambos ( Written in the early 70s, I believe, he puts forward quite a subtle argument about race and music. Though racism is rarely mentioned explicitly in the blues, the music expresses a mood of fatalism – ‘that’s the way life is’ etc. Lyrically, it is expressed in terms of relationships gone wrong, being down on your luck, hard times and the world being generally unfair. Racism is all-pervasive, a kind of background noise. It always makes me think of how US technology companies famously used to described IBM, not as ‘the competition’ but as ‘the environment’, so omnipotent were they.

    To the children of the millions of black Americans that migrated north in the 40s, the blues was alien. They latched on to the positive and joyous language, both musical and verbal, of black gospel (blended with a bit of jazz and rhythm and blues of course) to express the optimism that urban life and increasing economic prosperity garnered. All this, despite ongoing racial inequality and the struggle for civil rights. The optimistic mood can be found in fairly obvious metaphors such as the train moving forward (the Impressions ‘People get ready’ being the most famous example), or even the way many (mainly) Detroit singers used to incorporate a kind of musical laugh into their songs (Darrel Banks’ ‘Angel Baby’ – “Ha ha ha ha ha yeah!” is very typical but there are loads of examples). What a contrast to the downbeat vibe of the blues, and what a change in peoples’ sense of themselves, over only one generation.

    The book doesn’t go any further than the 60s if I remember correctly, but you can see that by the end of the decade and into the next that the mood and the music starts to change dramatically as America slips into decline, black political movements run their course and fail to deliver, and opportunities and possibilities seem more elusive.

    For me, the emergence of rap and hip hop at the end of the 70s represented the final, extinguishing of 60s optimism. They seem to express a mood of bitterness and cynicism, devoid of any vision for change and improvement. More than anything they say to the world, “fuck you”.

    What amazes me though is that regardless of social and economic circumstances, people still feel compelled to make music, to express themselves, to create and innovate. And, what very different forms that musical expression takes, depending on broader influences. Personally though, I can’t wait for something a little more optimistic to come along.

    • I think the story is more complex than you allow. It’s true that the blues often expressed a sense of fatalism, But they were also an expression of resistance, and a means of giving slaves a collective voice. The music of the 60s was more optimistic. But don’t forget that the blues travelled to Chicago too. And that from the Stones to Hendrix, from Dylan to Marvin Gaye, the music of the 60s was deeply indebted to the blues. Don’t forget too the much darker strain of 60s r’n’b – songs like Marlena Shaw’s Woman of the Ghetto or Curtis Mayfield’s Pusherman, or indeed the work of Gil Scott Heron.

  2. Robert Greenwood

    Thanks for posting this tribute, Kenan. Honeyboy really was the last
    living link with the great Mississippi blues musicians.
    There is something irritating in the insistence, or the assumption, that the blues really should be a protest music. No other music is made to bear this sort of pressure.
    Most of our knowledge of the blues comes from the huge amount of recordings made from the 1920s onwards. These records were made for commercial purposes. Social comment and even artistic merit came second to record sales and profit for the recording companies. It’s doubtful whether any record company would have entertained the idea of recording songs that protested openly against racism. The music, however, was the music of the black American working class and grew out of that way of life. Blues songs tend to be about the material insecurities of that life and its hazards and pitfalls such as unemployment, violence, insecurity of housing (whether from poverty or natural disaster) and of relationships, and the consolations and miseries of alcohol and gambling. We know when we listen to the blues that it comes from a world very far removed from the Broadway musical. The blues is also a music full of witticism and contains a sort of pithy vernacular poetry expressed in such lines as Big Bill Broonzy’s “Starvation’s in my kitchen, rent sign’s on my door” that sum up, in a few words, a whole way of life. It is true that racism is rarely mentioned explicitly in the blues, but the blues, like other similar forms of black American vernacular music, expressed the resilience and determination of black Americans to survive against the odds.

    • Thanks for this. Yes, I agree both that we tend to romanticise the blues and expect of them a social role we don’t expect of other genres and that the blues are more complex than usually assumed.

  3. Hi Kenan,

    thanks for the reply. I admit it was a fairly crude attempt to condense the argument of a book I read 10 years ago, but I think what appealed to me about the author’s approach is that it indicates that there is more to music than lyrical content. Apart from a few obvious examples, black american music, but probably soul more than any other, was largely dismissed by what used to be called the ‘rock press’ who held up artists like Dylan as their benchmark and seemed interested exclusively in the ‘message’ and the degree to which it expressed in poetic terms. And like you say, the story is more complex than that. I think we are still living with the legacy of that approach to popular music that was most prevalent in the 70s with the NME, Melody Maker, Old Grey Whistle Test and so on. It’s interesting that black American music has over the last 30 years, come in from the cold, just when it’s probably at its lowest ebb since the dawn of jazz at the start of the 20th Century.

    Marlene Shaw was one of those artists who was talented enough to be able to flit between different forms of music. She was as much a jazz singer as a soul singer and I think that jazz has a longer tradition of addressing social problems than soul. With Pusherman and the work of Gil Scott Heron we’re into the early 70s when the optimism had ebbed away and soul music began to address social issues. Interesting that Curtis Mayfield was at the forefront during both phases. He made such a huge contribution not only with his solo work but with the Impressions, with his record label Curtom, as well as providing a leg up to many other musicians, bands and singers such as Leroy Hutson who replaced him in the Impressions.

    Nothing sums up the change in soul music in the early 70s than this video of a breathtaking performance given at Sing Sing prison by ‘The Voices of East Harlem’. They were an extremely talented ‘girl group’ whose first album was produced by Mayfield protegee Leroy Hutson.

  4. Robert Greenwood

    Thanks, Kenan.
    Re. what you say in reaction to Niall, I think it’s more accurate to say that the blues, like jazz & gospel, emerged in the era of segregation rather than during slavery. Songs from the slavery period are part of what went to form the blues as a genre along with ballads, work songs, ragtime, and songs associated with minstrel shows, but slaves did not sing the blues as such. Most of the great blues singers were born at the end of the 19th century or at the beginning of the 20th during the period when Jim Crow laws began severely to prevent full citizenship and deny civil rights to black Americans. The blues & gospel helped to build black pride & solidarity, added to which, the life of an itinerant musician was preferable to sharecropping.
    Following the great migration of black Americans from the rural South to the industrial North, the blues did move principally to Chicago where the necessity for electrical amplification of instruments & voices brought the inherent defiance & swagger of the blues to the fore. In cities like Los Angeles, Kansas City, & New Orleans, regional styles of the blues merged with some aspects of jazz & big band music and singers like T-Bone Walker, Joe Turner, Walter Brown, Wynonie Harris, Smiley Lewis & Roy Brown belted out the blues with strident brass & saxophone accompaniment. There was not much sign of resignation or apathy in a music that expressed a new mood of confidence among black Americans newly-urbanised but still experiencing discrimination.
    In reply to Niall, I’m not sure that “jazz has a longer tradition of addressing social problems” although it is true that a version of Free Form Jazz rejected all previous forms of African American vernacular music as an accommodation to racial subjugation and declined along with the US Black Power movements of the 1960s & 70s with which it had sought to become identified.

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