The apparent Blues renaissance that seemed suddenly to explode in the late forties and early fifties in my view wasn’t a renaissance in the real sense at all, merely a major increase in exposure due to emerging recording and broadcasting technology.
The almost unknowing rejection by white society of ‘race’ music prior to that was like a dam holding it all back. Even following more recordings becoming available, until less biased markets discovered this underground river of genius and re-presented it to America, things were still slow to take off.
Other difficulties applying the brakes to the Blues’ broader exposure have been well recorded, but not here for now. Here I’m seeking to offer an additional possible ingredient in the recipe of why and how the Blues evolved to become such a lasting if not permanent phenomenon.
Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard were all people with the desire and ability to make music just like anyone else today, and as always popular music is subject to a developing influence applied by those with whom it resonates.
Like regional accents, what we hear sinks in and kind of papers our inner walls; we build on this. For those guys and of course countless others, huge inspiration sprang from the giant Blues performers that preceded them. But it didn’t just suddenly stop there, these guys and others like them fueled the continuing if less obvious process of a perhaps more subtle evolution.
Imagine being out late one night in the Southern States during the 1930s and overhearing a Blues based boogie thumping out of a ramshackle old barrel-house or bar with someone like Albert Ammons drawing the soul out of an old piano – how could you not be thrilled, not wonder how on earth he did that and how it happened? What was it that he was tapping into? Why as a genre did it last for so long and in fact to this day displays no sign of fading?
This may seem like a strange comparison: the Browning 9mm automatic although not formally introduced until 1935, Mr Browning had designed the mechanics of it much earlier. Apart from a few peripheral tweaks it’s fundamentally the same now as it was then. One of the reasons that Fender guitars have done so well and lasted in their current form for so long is that they pretty much got it right the first time around – they too remain the same.
I believe the same concept applies to anything that is clearly identifiable as ‘finished product’ like the basic twelve-bar structure, the framework is the same now as it was a hundred years ago.
Whilst general taste and presentation will generate minor fluctuations, the basic thing cannot be improved upon, it was already a polished and finished item all those years ago; not something that could be further developed structurally for the better.
The Blues continue to evolve along with everything else but the underpinning product is what it’s always been. At the other end of the musical spectrum lies classical music – a piece by Mozart is also recognizable as a completely finished item; three hundred years down the line why is that still prominent? Same reason – it was recognizably fully finished the first time around.
With all these things, tangible or abstract, tampering with the finished product would risk pushing it beyond what it is; diminishing what it already is. Imagine a pair of scissors where someone had added an extra blade. This may seem like a good idea to some but it wouldn’t really improve the item, the extra bit would serve only to complicate, to lessen the item’s appeal.
Regional accents, even languages themselves if you go back far enough, evolve on their own through the medium of practice, common usage; no one person decided how a language would be made up anymore than one person invents a regional accent. It happens of its own accord through a collective awareness and social mixing.
Likewise, work-songs or simple vocal melodies alleviating the tedium of days spent working the land were not suddenly invented by an individual – again, like regional accents they evolved through the same collective awareness.
As all interested parties know, the unique circumstance of Negroes suddenly finding themselves dumped down amongst the early Euro-Americans and thus exposed to their music, gave rise to the evolution of the Blues.
Far more Negroes, victims of the slave trade, were exported from their homeland to Brazil for example than to America. Again hybrid music evolved there as the more obvious clear cut African beat was injected, mixed into the already established Latin rhythms, but it wasn’t the Blues. The musical evolution there emerged from modifying a different base material.
There are structural issues of course – the classic twelve-bar, three chord arrangement is something which resonates readily in the European mind. Many similarly structured folk songs and church choir arrangements traveled to the New World along with the people. These provided a different base material to be kneaded, re-worked into a new form (almost beyond recognition) once the African rhythms were added, fed into the collective mangle, which would henceforth present a completely fresh and more solidly dynamic ingredient.
If you think about it these work-song based rhythms are linked directly to and governed by physical movement – work, especially repetitious work. Awareness of rhythm, possibly based on heartbeat is a human thing. Several people doing an identical and repetitive task found themselves to be more comfortable and I suspect more efficient when ‘in step’ so to speak. An optimum tempo for this movement would evolve on its own, dependent on the physical requirements of the task, so a song or sound to go with it was, if not an inevitable then a predictable next step.
Rhythm drives movement, marching, dancing, rowing a slave galley, whatever; the tempos are all geared to the rate at which we need to move, and as human beings at a rate at which we have always moved. Too slow or too fast wouldn’t work and for sure wouldn’t make you tap your feet.
This all but tangible, historical joining between certain rhythms and physical movement is I believe a strand in the rope supporting why Blues music has lasted so long and will continue to last. These tempos resonate with being human, not just in the emotional sense, which is perhaps the more obvious, but also in the physical sense; rhythm in my view being an inseparable element in human movement.
Time and space are the same thing – so in many ways are sound and motion – a dancer might reflect a melody without necessarily hearing one, a melody might generate a mental image of dance.
Partly by design, although I’d guess the more deliberate bits came later, and partly as a by-product of the cultural mix, driven by the emotional as well as physical elements of being human, the Blues emerged, the audible distillation of human spirit.