The Blues: A Case Study on the Influence of ‘Outside’ Factors in Shaping Music Genre.
The Blues: A Case Study on the Influence of ‘Outside’ Factors in Shaping Music Genre.
A Brief Introduction to ‘outside’ influences:
Perhaps the most common problem facing those wishing to research and define music genre is the very fluidity of musical style itself. While many can agree that in order to fully understand a music’s form and structure (historically, as opposed to its musicology) one must consider the need to fight the “desire for a single chronology” (Thornton, 1990), it is also important to consider notions beyond this, addressing common misconceptions made when forming genre boundaries. Music, like any other art or culturally dependent form, is subject to the social and political climate in which it emerges and develops, therefore removing it from the simplicity of a linear narrative. These social and political aspects, to which the ‘outside’ factors of my title refer, can take many forms; cultural shifts, changes in national prosperity, oppressive political regimes, war and its range of influences and upheavals, mass migration, restrictions and censorship, advances in technology and entrepreneurial nous, and countless others.
While these could all be considered of equal relevance, the areas of technological progress and mixing of cultural groups tend to be the main catalysts in the birth, cultivation and evolution of genres. Guthrie Ramsey, for example, discusses a basic instance, explaining that something as simple as the longer playing capabilities of new 12” LPs was “well suited for the inspired freedom of jazz solos” (2001), an idea supported by David Evans’ discussion of the development of blues: “”The use of a microphone enabled records to convey a wider frequency range of sound, reducing surface noise and allowing regional accents and rough voices…to be heard better” (2003).
Reacting to the political environment it finds itself within is another method of transformation for a music genre. The twin societal dividers in mid-20th century America; the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, provided a huge range of material and anger for artists of all genres to draw from, and “opposition to the American intervention in southeast Asia [became] the single most important issue defining the social movement sector in the United States” (Eyerman, R & Jamison, A. 1998). Modern day countries, particularly those of the war-torn Middle East, contain artists constantly fighting against the restrictions of censorship imposed on them by dictatorial governments. The recent Bahman Ghobadi film No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009) follows the Iranian indie band Take It Easy Hospital as they desperately try to advance their music career in the hugely oppressive Muslim state, in which all ‘Western’ music is banned, an effort that ultimately takes the shape of emigration to England. The band’s music, as well as that of other musicians in the film, is obviously influenced by their social situation, but all are careful to keep their grievances discreet for fear of persecution.
Perhaps an all-encompassing way of summarising the influence of these ‘outside’ factors is provided by Keith Negus, who states:
New music and new cultural dialogues are made within the context
of the possibilities provided by existing social relations (the industry
organization, the political arrangements, the entire patterns of
mediation and methods of social distribution), technological means
(studio and instruments of music making, methods of storage and
distribution) and aesthetic conventions (the complex of performance
practices, bodily techniques and discriminations to select
chords, sounds, notes, words and imagery, and then combine them
in a specific way) (1996).
The blues: development and response to political and social factors.
The roots and evolutions of blues music are more closely associated with cultural, societal and political influence than perhaps any other historical and contemporary genre. Various musics that challenge this assertion offer microcosmic re-enactments of blues development, often within much shorter time spans. While the fluidity of genre constructing presents the problematic use of a linear chronology, as discussed previously, blues is roughly agreed to have escaped its amorphous beginnings and formed a certain definition sometime in the second half of the 19th century. It wasn’t until the birth of the recording industry in the first half of the 20th century that the necessity to create a distinct set of musicological and aesthetical properties for the genre arose.
A form such as hip-hop, another genus regularly linked with especially political beginnings, utilised the blues template for transposing social upheaval into music, but over a much shorter timeframe. This limited the number and variety of ‘outside’ influences that were allowed to shape the style. The blues, on the other hand, could be considered to have spanned centuries in its evolution, slowly separating itself from its African roots, the religious connections of gospel and the drudgery of slave labour-fuelled work songs into a new form. David Evans sites these societal influences as crucial to the blues mould, saying “most blues singers were exposed to these types of work song and religious expression early in life and were able to adapt some of the melodic character, subject matter, emotional intensity, and spiritual depth…to the developing blues” (2003). Evans implies here that these important antecedents to the blues bypass the influence of African culture (imported through slave trading; an assumed historical knowledge here). David Monod agrees, suggesting that although many academics agree that the blues may hold an “ancient oral tradition”, that the majority of its content was “a personal and communal response to the changing patterns of repression and powerlessness among the poorest segments of South Eastern black society rather than as an established [historical] tradition” (2007). The thoughts of early blues performer W.C. Handy appear to back this up, claiming that he could only conjure up blues music when “forc[ed] to feel the blues [by] participating…in a larger current of black working-class feeling” (Gussow. 2001), while John Shepherd adds “different groups and cultures relate differently to [their] environment…their musics articulate that relationship through the way they utilise and articulate the harmonic-rhythmic framework” (1991).
This concept of blues as a form of musical expression, rather than a long historical tradition (a view that Monod asserts has “limited historical validity” (2007)), suggests that the genre is a perfect receptacle for ‘outside’ influences. The manipulation of the music by business is a common factor on any genre development, and advances in technology allowed the mass production and reproduction necessary for businesses to commercialise the form. As Eyerman and Jamison explain, “musical innovations are seen to be the result of commercial opportunities for individual genius…entrepreneurs, those who recognise the new demands and act to meet them” (1998) In pre-radio America, the transcriptions of those such as the aforementioned Handy, as well as early chroniclers like W.E.B. DuBois, were reproduced and sold nationwide, allowing the blues to develop via what George Lipsitz calls “an ongoing historical conversation” (1990). Evans also proposes that publishing the genre in this way was a “process of consolidation”, with definitions of the style beginning to appear, and given a name by the “appearance of published tunes bearing the word “blues” in their titles” (2003).
With the introduction of the recording industry, and indeed commercial radio, blues music suffered a similar segregation to that of its performers. Labels divided their demographics, producing the umbrella term “race” record for any music of African-American origin, as a “fragmentation took place, separating genres into different marketing categories” (Ramsey, 2001). Although this was obvious discrimination, Ramsey suggests that it aided in shaping “the formal procedures of race music, and helped give it meaning and coherence for audiences” (2001), yet more consolidation of the genre. Monod questions the number of rural black southerners that had access to equipment needed to play new blues recordings, but is sure “there can be no doubt that country folk were well aware of the latest music and the most popular performers” (2007). He goes on to use the example of 1930s blues artist Willie Williamson, who claimed to have learned many of his songs from earlier performers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, utilising previous styles into a pastiche of the form (2007). This idea of pastichists within music is something that Keith Negus discusses in his study of misconceptions applied to the rock era. Negus defines pastichists as “performers who recognize that a new style has appeared or has become popular and so include this in their set as yet another style to be performed as part of a varied repertoire”, and discusses the importance of these artists to genre development (1996).
Between the 1920s and 1950s, more ‘Outside’ influences were to affect this rapidly growing genre, this time in the form of an economic crash and a world war. The Great Depression came first, severely damaging the recording industry that had sprung up around the blues, causing a shift towards the comparatively cheap medium of radio over LP production. As Monod explains, “blues sales were insufficient to save the [recording] industry. In fact, niche markets, like the blues, which had been established among consumers of restricted income, were among the first to collapse” (2007). World War II followed, and “the military draft…broke up many blues groups and removed musicians from their communities” (Evans, 2003). However, “industrial labour created by defence production for World War II provided unprecedented interaction among diverse ethnic groups and their musical sensibilities” (Ramsey, 2001), and during this time a real shift in the sound and style of the blues occurred as a result of a mass migration to the industrial northern cities by rural African-Americans living in the cotton lands of the south. Blues performers suddenly found themselves in a new and vibrant urban environment, surrounded by other performers with different styles from across the country. Where blues had initially thrived in the underworld, often shunned by the “religious segment of the black population who viewed the blues as sinful, or the upwardly mobile class” (Evans, 2003), there were now employment opportunities for working performers. The multi-cultural hybridisation afforded by the bringing together of rural black and urban white societies introduced folk and early Tin Pan Alley references to the porous genre of blues.
The 1940s also saw a modernisation of America, especially in its major cities, and this “saw a remarkable number of shifts within the nation’s intellectual, political, cultural, economic and artistic life”, changing its attitudes towards music as a commodity and art form in the process (Ramsey, 2001). The blues was allowed to develop, and many record labels began to market a new form of city blues, or ‘Chicago blues’, after one of the genre’s major centres. David Monod suggests that the labels had also spotted a difference between styles, and credits them with establishing a “dichotomy between the urban and rural blues, and [promoting] the idea that country music was more authentic” (2007).
Summary of social and political ‘outside’ influences on the blues, and stabilisation of the genre into modern conceptions:
When analysing the points made previously, it could be said that the blues was born from geographical factors (the African Diaspora and slave trade, southern labour), nurtured and developed within the afflictions of oppressive society and economic volatility (continuation of persecution of race, mass migration to find employment, the Great Depression and WWII), and was eventually stabilised by the consolidation of it politics. This last point is in reference to the shape that blues took during the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The movement’s leaders were calling for a unified front of its members, and this left no room for the personal strife tackled in blue songs. As David Evans explains, “The Civil Rights movement stressed collective action and used adaptations of spirituals, sung by groups, to express its goals. It had little use for the individualistic and socially marginal stance of the blues singer” (2003). This is in direct contrast to folk music in America at this time; a genre often linked (invalidly) to blues. Here, as Robert Eyerman and Andrew Jamison point out, “the context of performance had generally been altered from a…collective group setting to a far more commercial and individualistic form…projecting a personal vision rather than a collectively political one” (1998).
Blues found itself in a period of contemplation, realising the need to look back and consolidate its traditions into a style with strength to survive. David Monod goes as far as to say that “in these years, a scaffold had to be built around the blues to sustain the weight being placed upon it by both the counterculture and the civil rights movement” (2007), leading to a defined version of the blues that has changed little since.
As well as responding to their social and political habitats, some genres are often cited as influencing these environments in a reversal of roles. David Evans argues that blues is one of these, admitting that it “had within it a strange fascination that demanded attention” (2003). There’s not a lot of compelling evidence for music ever changing societies, outside of cultural idioms and the resistance ideologies of a wide variety of genres such as folk and punk, but the blues has most certainly transformed western composition, “[influencing] almost all developments in American popular music of the twentieth century as well as much of the rest of the world’s music” (Evans, 2003).
Word Count: 2104
- Evans, D. 2003. The development of the Blues, Cambridge Companion to Blues and Gospel Music. PP.20-43. Cambridge University Press.
- Eyerman, R & Jamison, A. 1998. Politics and Music in the 1960s, Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century. PP.106-140. Cambridge University Press.
- Lipsitz, G. 1990. Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. University of Minnesota Press.
- Monod, D. 2007. Ev’rybody’s Crazy ‘bout the Doggone Blues, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Volume 19, Issue 2. PP.179-214.
- Negus, K. 1996. Histories, Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. PP.136-153. Polity Press.
- Ramsey, G. 2001. Blues and the Ethnographic Truth, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Volume 13, Issue 1. PP.41-58.
- Shepherd, J. 1991. The Analysis of Popular Music: Class, Generation and Ethnicity, Music as Social Text. PP. 128-152. Polity Press.
- Spencer, J. 1997. The New Negroes and their Music: The Success of the Harlem Renaissance. The University of Tennessee Press.
- Thornton, S. 1990. Strategies for Reconstructing the Popular Past, Journal of Popular Music, Volume 9, Issue 1. PP.87-95.
No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009) at IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1426378/