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Cotton Pickin' Blues


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Blues began with enslaved African peoples' work songs in the cotton fields of the Deep South of America. The Slave Narrative of Mr. Sam Polite, given at 93 years of age, chronicles that life. It was written on St. Helena, a cotton producing Sea Island in the Carolinas, where Mr. Polite was born into slavery. The Sea Island slaves were cut off from the mainland, there were no bridges and they had no boats so the musical traditions were locked in.

"Slabe wuk till daak on Sattidy jest lak any udder day but on Sunday slabe dont wuk en can visit back and fort on de plantations. I wuk in field on Maussa Johnnie Fripp plantation. Sometime we sing wen us wuk. One song been go lak dis

"Go way Ole Man, Go way Ole Man / Were you bin all day / If you treat me good I stay Till de judgment day / But if you treat me bad I sho' to run away."

On Sattiday night ebery slabe dat wuks gits a peck ob corn and pea sometime meat and clabber [soured cream]. You hab straw in your matress but dey gib you blanket. Ebery year in de Christmas month you gits four eider fibe yaard cloth 'cording to how you is. Out ob dat you haffa mek you clote [clothes]. You wears dat same clote till de next year. You wears hit winter en summer. You dont git no coat but dey gib you shoe. If slabe don't do tas [task] dey git licking wid lash on naked back. I see plenty sell on banjo table. Dey put you up on flatform en dey sell you. I see my uncle sell he brung one hunred dollar."

Source: Library of Congress

The poignancy of those words speaks loud. Loud too is the rhyming poetry in the song learned in an ante bellum time when Mr. Polite was old enough to work in the cotton fields. The cadence of poetry added rhythmic power to the work songs and made the words easier to learn by rote. Poetry is often in rural music but this was in a language that was neither truly English or West African. In the coastal Carolinas and Georgia it was Gullah—an Anglo-African dialect derived from the Gula ethnic group in America. They originated in the borderland between Liberia and Sierra Leone. Gullah is now officially recognized as a language.

The blues music genre is American. The word blues derives from an Old English expression blue devils, used to describe figures seen in hallucinations during alcohol withdrawal. The music comes from the African experience in America which Mr. Polite recounted so vividly. Early rural blues was not recorded nor heard on the radio, those did not exist then, neither was the music written down. It was music learned and sung in the fields in the same oral tradition as storytelling.

For entertainment, the songs were accompanied by the simplest of household items turned into makeshift instruments, a washboard made percussion, a wooden box and broom handle with a string, the bass. A store bought harmonica and a homemade guitar were added, sometimes with only one string. They played gliding the neck of a bottle or a knife along the string. The musicians were not paid, there was little or no money among the enslaved people unless it came from the plantation owner in payment for a hog raised behind their shack, as Mr Polite attested.

"You kin sell aig [egg} and chicken to store and Maussa will buy your hawg. In dat way slabe kin hab money for buy ting lak fish and watebber he want. We dont get much fish in slabery cos we nebber hab boat. You kin ketch possum and racoon wid your dawg."

Work songs are an African tradition. One man calls the first line, the others respond together. Early rural Blues opened with four lines of lyric the same, which later reduced to two repeated lines. Work songs gave a shared rhythm and purpose, a sense of team effort to complete tasks.

"Sometime one tas [a quarter acre] sometime two tas and sometime tree. You haf for wuk till tas tru. Wen cotton done mek you hab odder tas. Haffa cut cord ob maash grass meybe [spartina marsh grass].

Mr. Polite records that slaves worshiped together with owners on Sundays in Prayers or Praise Houses and brought their music in from the fields to church, where it was adapted for religious teaching using repetitive lyrics. A spiritual style evolved based on church teachings mixed with expressions of hope, and aspirations like" I'm Going to Walk in Jerusalem, Just Like John" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot."

Mr Polite: "In Slabery we go to white folks chuch. Slabe dont know nuttin bout baptising. Wen slabe dead you cant knock off wuk for berry um. You haffa wait till night time for put um in de grabe."

When a string is tuned above its classical pitch, the sound it makes becomes brighter and livelier. When a string is tuned slightly below pitch, it becomes flat, a morose, sad sound. Lower-tuned blue or worried notes were slurred between major and minor, shaken and bent to add effect. In a piano there are naturally occurring blue notes to keep sound spacing regular. A heavy walking bass line was a key element of blues, which they called the groove. Blue notes were sung to give emotional expression, instruments were pushed beyond their design limits, seeking the sounds of human anguish and joy. The African American diaspora carried blue notes to Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, Kansas City and everywhere they went in search of work and equality in the hundred years between Emancipation and Civil rights legislation.

Mr Polite: Wen gun shoot on Bay Pint for Freedom I been sebenteen year old wuking slabe.

W.C. Handy was an educated man, a trumpeter and minstrel bandleader who first popularized the Blues through his sheet music. On lyrics he declared "The three-line structure I employed was suggested by a song I heard Phil Jones sing in Evansville... While I took the three-line stanza as a model for my lyrics, I found its repetition too monotonous... Consequently I adopted the style of making a statement, repeating the statement in the second line, and then telling in the third line why the statement was made."

"I hate to see that evening sun go down —A lyric / I hate to see that evening sun go down —A repeated/ 'Cause my baby, he's gone left this town."---B reason or response

St. Louis Blues-W.C. Handy, (music written 1909, published 1914). The definitive recording of "St. Louis Blues" (Columbia, 1925) came from Bessie Smith with Louis Armstrong.

Handy was styled the "Father of the Blues." Such hyperbole was common in the early days of marketing. There were Kings and Queens and a selection of aristocracy dotted through the ranks of songwriters and musicians both in jazz and blues. The blues had many fathers in the cotton fields and on the front porches of shacks in the South, stretching back in time. Enslavement meant no travel but the people were traded to other plantations, an inheritance meant an acreage of land and the slaves to work it. So work songs spread out through The South, nobody knows how many years they were passed down through the generations but they came to light in the 1800's.

Mr Polite: "Slabe dont marry dey jest lib togedder. All slabe haf for stay on plantation in day time but wen wuk done kin wisit wife on odder plantation, hab pass so Patrol wont get um. My fadder b'long to Mister Marion Fripp and my mudder b'long to mister Old B Fripp. I sont know how mucher land neider how much slabe he hab but he hab 2 big plantation and many slabe-more'n a hunred slabe."

W.C.Handy was responsible for first publishing music using the 12-Bar blues chord progression around 1902. That structure remains the basis of much of modern music today. Listen below to a typical 12-bar blues by Wille Mae "Big Mama Thornton, "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog" (Peacock Records, 1953). The song is Rhythm & Blues but the dynamic 12-bar Blues structure lives on.

The blues work songs included call and response, which is also important in the conversation of jazz. W.C. Handy's "The Memphis Blues" was a rewrite of a song promoting a politician, Mr. Crump, recorded by the Victor Military band (Victor# 17619, 10" 78 rpm, 1914) a vocal recording followed. W.C Handy described it as a Southern Rag but it was more a jaunty Cakewalk, where traditionally, people paraded dressed to parody white folks sartorial finery, and win a cake as a prize. Confusingly, blues became a sales word. The word blues was used in titles whether the tune was blues, jazz, ragtime or neither. When Nick La Rocca's all-white Original Dixieland Jass band made the first jazz recording in 1917, the song was titled "Livery Stable Blues."

Actress Mamie Smith is credited with recording the first blues. Her "Crazy Blues" (Okeh #4169, 1920) reputedly sold a million copies in a year. She recorded with The Jazz Hounds, Johnny Dunn and Ernest Elliot on clarinets, Dope Andrews on trombone and Perry Bradford on piano and violin. " I can't sleep at night/ I can't eat a bite/ 'Cos the man I love/ He don't treat me right." Her delivery had more of a vaudeville lilt, too polished for raw rural blues, but that made it popular. As an African American lady she jolted record labels to realize the potential of "race records." She went on to cut 60 more sides for Okeh in that same storytelling vaudeville style. Ladies remained the most important blues singers until the late 1920's. After singing in church, Ma Rainey graduated to the minstrel shows and began recording in 1923. Over the next five years she recorded 100 tunes including "Bo weevil Blues" and "Moonshine Blues." The raw power, phrasing and plaintive moaning style of her delivery was particularly evident in those two recordings.

To synchronize time lines, blues was roaring at the same time as jazz in the 1920's. It was not uncommon then, nor today for jazz musicians to include a blues in their set list. City blues sung by ladies developed commercially perhaps three years later than jazz, even though its earliest rural roots began back in the mists of time. In contrast, jazz was an almost immediate amalgam of city based music styles and cultures. Electric blues began with the invention of the electric guitar in 1937 to give blues its full voice. By then, jazz had moved on to orchestral Big Bands and Swing.

The Mississippi Delta is a flood-plain, inland and upriver from New Orleans. It runs from Interstate 10, two hundred miles North to Memphis and includes some of the most fertile land anywhere. In 1890, a majority of the Mississippi Delta was owned and farmed by free African Americans funded by proceeds from logging out the land. State legislation, bank control of credit and overwhelming oppression forced African American farmers to forfeit their land and to work for a share of the crop yield. Their choices were dirt poor sharecropping or well paid work in factories in the North. Through the 1920's, many left the land to join the migration North. Blues musicians followed the same route as jazzmen had taken out of New Orleans from 1917. Blues left its rural home and came out into the city light. There were still deeply held Hoodoo magic and superstition beliefs in the country background of blues. Mississippi Delta blues musician Son House, renounced preaching against blues as the devil's music in 1927. He then turned to emotional singing of blues. He recorded with the slide guitarist and educated musician Charley Patton and another pioneer, Willie Lee Brown who played mostly as rhythm guitar sideman. They were all three mentors to long-fingered Robert Johnson. He was a nuisance to his mentors who sent him away. Johnson returned a year later, incredibly improved having added a 7th string to his guitar to play his own bass line.

Legend says Johnson went to the crossroads to learn guitar from the Devil. They played on street corners for tips, and in Juke Joints for a fee. Juke joints were makeshift African American dance and gambling roadhouses fueled by illegal moonshine. The audience wanted a loud and lively dance tempo in their music. In search of louder sounds for performance and recording, musicians changed flat tops for arch top guitars. It was not until 1937 that electric pick-up patents were filed for the Rickenbacker Frying Pan, the first electric guitar. That led to Electric Blues, featuring the music of childhood Texan friends, Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker. Now men played guitar and sang the blues too. Then came Chicago-style Electric blues man Muddy Waters and sharecropper's son John Lee Hooker who played Delta blues on an electric guitar. Electric blues established styles in Detroit, Chicago and extended out to the West Coast. Electric guitars became the most popular instrument of the 20th century. Amplification of instruments continued when Little Walter held a microphone close to his harmonica. In Memphis,B.B. King developed his fluid style of bending and shaking strings.

Boogie Woogie derives from the West African verb Bogi, meaning to dance. Jelly Roll Morton and Lead Belly Ledbetter both suggested its earliest origin as North Texas around the start of the 20th century. It features a rolling bass line on piano carrying a simple blue note melody. The hard driving left hand on piano made an excellent bass for dancing. Leadbelly later included the bass line style into his guitar work. Small jump bands came out of Big Bands in the post war period. They were led by electric blues guitar, joined by bass, rhythm guitar and drums, a rhythm section for the blues—Rhythm & Blues (R&B) had evolved. In the 1950's, Rock & Roll had a strong dance rhythm and snare drum back beat, it was tailored for teenage and young markets. Blues and its derivatives R&B, Jump, Country, Boogie Woogie, Electric, parts of jazz and gospel, all influenced the structure of Rock & Roll, later referred to more widely as Rock.

Orchestral music too included blue notes, and not just in pseudo Pops performances. Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" from 1936, may be the most deeply sad music, a dirge struggling to surface as a completed crescendo before dying, defeated. George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" starts with a clarinet glissando mimicking a police siren in New York City to such hollow perfection. Both make liberal use of blue notes, and call and response structures .

The influence of the blues genre can be heard across a wide spectrum of American music, not just jazz and direct derivations of blues. It appears in Appalachian hillbilly, Country, and Western country music, which later coalesced into Country. Each of the styles which make up blues derived music has diversified and developed separately. Blues is in jazz, as the walking bass line groove and the blue notes, and it is in popular music in the 12-bar blues progression. Recognizing a cohesive link running through American blues music from its earliest roots in the mid 17th century , three hundred seventy years ago—before America was even founded—identifies the single deepest cultural and artistic endeavor in American history.

American blues is a genre born in the dirt of the cotton fields, which changed music across the world.

Photo Credit: Sam Polite mending fishing net, St Helena Island, SC. courtesy Smithsonian Institute

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