By Ben Sandmel
The blues is a basic bedrock source of American indigenous music. For over a century it has flourished in its own right while profoundly influencing a wide range of jazz, rhythm & blues, rock, and country-music styles, as well as Broadway musicals, classical compositions, rap and hip-hop music, and more. In Louisiana and other Southern states, blues evolved in significant part from a broad African-American folkloric genre known collectively as ante-bellum music. The Latin words ante-bellum mean “before a war,” and refer in this instance (and in most usages) to the pre-Civil War era when slavery prevailed in the South. In terms of foreshadowing the blues, two ante-bellum song forms — field hollers, and work songs — were especially important.
In field hollers, solo vocalists sang about personal concerns and/or community conditions. For the most part these singers gave little or no thought to melody, or uniform length of verses (if verses were demarcated at all) while demonstrating a penchant for bending and stretching notes in a practice that is known as melisma. These traits differ radically from the standardized structural concepts of European music and reflect, instead, the musical aesthetics of West Africa. Other West African characteristics include the prominence and popularity of improvisation, and the lack of discernible boundaries between performers and listeners. These traits remain important in contemporary African-American music.
In work songs, a leader would chant or sing a line that was then repeated by laborers who kept time to the music with tools such as axes or hoes. Singing in this manner maximized efficiency for the task at hand. The tradition of call and response which this exemplifies is another important characteristic of West African music. While many work-song and field-holler lyrics were improvised on the spot, many others drew from a vast body of “floating verses” that appeared in numerous other songs in endlessly varying combinations. The floating-verse tradition remains prominent in blues to this day, and some of the verses still used are quite archaic.
Field hollers and work songs both morphed into more modern settings, such as the rhythmic chants of the “gandy dancers” who laid railroad tracks, and the “cries” of street vendors who would sing out a list of their wares to the public. Up until Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, the street-crier tradition could still be heard in New Orleans.
A fair amount of ante-bellum music was mournful and pessimistic, reflecting the brutal environment of slavery from which it arose, and its function, in that world, as an important vehicle for emotional release. Some contemporary blues is similarly glum and cathartic. It is important to emphasize, however, that ante-bellum music and blues alike also encompass a lot of joyous, upbeat and celebratory material. In addition, besides secular songs, ante-bellum music included a wealth of religious material, and is an important source of contemporary gospel music.
The origin of the term “the blues” to denote a sad or depressed mood can be traced to the ante-bellum era, and it maybe a shortened form of the phrase “the blue devils,” a phrase with the same meaning that can be traced back to eighteenth-century Britain. While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when or why the term blues came to denote an African-American musical genre, and/or the specific structures that denote blues songs, the first documented references to this were in the early 20th century.
Like early jazz, which made some of its most important evolutionary leaps in New Orleans, blues combines West African aesthetic traits, as identified above, with European instrumentation and such European concepts of standardized song structure…