BLUE WORLD ORDERS/Part One
A Chronological Ordering Of The Blues: Presented by David Howard Sawyer
For The 2009 “Each 1 Teach 1” Conference in Pittsburgh, PA
There is a blue note in American history. It has an origin and an evolution. The original source is arguably the middle point of a high-pitched wail and a low-end moan of voices participating in the otherwise inarticulate speech of the heart. Whose heart, whose moan, and whose wail may not be certifiable. But like most human origins, it most likely came from the continent of Africa. “When” is as undocumented as whose, but to get quickly specific in this intended to be brief account, The American Blues became unmistakably relevant with the separation of families which occurred as part of the Atlantic slave trade, dating back to at least 1614. This could be called the Black Blues. The Red Blues, just as significant, will be dealt with in another discourse. Suffice it to say that it started perhaps one hundred and twenty two years earlier-1492.
Weaving its way through those initial cries, wails, and moans, around the bending of those sounds into beats and tones, instrumental sighs meeting strings and bones, the blue note brought definition to the anxiety, pain and self determination of a people bound, branded and bonded to a culture of struggle and all the tragedies and triumphs inherent therein. Field hollers and chants, biblical references and back of the house plantation parties all make their way through into the ultimate voice of what has become a spiritual calling and testimony to both the personal and the collective soundtrack of Americans so far at least until tomorrow morning. The genre has been interpreted throughout the land, from cotton fields in the Mississippi Delta, through the bordellos of Louisiana, up river to Memphis, Saint Louis and Chicago heading east to New York, DC, Philly and Baltimore, informing Stephen Foster in Pittsburgh and Count Basie in Kansas City.
The language of the blues started out with West African dialects, such as Yoruba, Ibo, and Ashanti. As the slavery induced devaluation of the mother tongue took hold, a form of “pidgin” English evolved. Soon enough, however, the biblical influences informed the lingual structure of both conversation and song in the slave culture. Caribbean influences fused with the development of a unique African society in America are arguably the roots of the music that eventually came to be called “the blues.” Of course, having the blues was a condition not dependent upon a song style. Feeling blue led to singing the blues, nonetheless.
In 1798, George Colman the Younger of England wrote a drama put on popularly at the time called “The Blue Devils.” In 1912, a gentleman of German descent named Hart Wand, a fiddler and bandleader from Oklahoma City was credited with the first ever publishing of a twelve bar blues arrangement, a tune called “The Dallas Blues.” I mention these two anecdotes to demonstrate one of the most prolific aspects of the blue condition. It was caused by pain and suffering and it evolved through slavery, treachery and thievery. Let us now take a look at what happened between 1798 and 1912.
Richard Allen was ordained as the first African American Methodist deacon. (1799)
John Chavis became the first African American home missionary commissioned by the Presbyterian church as a missionary to the slaves. (1801)
Richard Allen developed the Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns, Selected from Various Authors,
the first African-American hymnal. (1801)
New Jersey Abolishes Slavery (1804)
Mississippi becomes a state (1816)
Araminta Ross (Harriett Tubman) born (1822)
Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in Southampton, VA (1831)
The Trail Of Tears leading the Cherokee nation from Carolina to Oklahoma (1838-39)
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, French-Haitian and other Caribbean
(Jamaican, Cuban, Yucatan) regional influences developed relationships with the transport of goods
(sugar cane, rum, molasses, cotton, and soap) to and from the States, leading to multi-dialectic
conversations, songs and even written discourse, forming the origins of Creole culture, particularly on
the Gulf Coast, in western Florida, and in New Orleans.
Voodoo and Santeria culture mixed in with Catholic, Baptist and Methodist culture. Work songs of the South (cotton picking, peanut and dairy farming, blacksmithing, mansion maintenance, etc.) met up with work songs of the north and west (railroad building and transport, shipbuilding and harvesting, leatherwork and milling) often bringing indigenous tribal culture into a mix with slave and free black culture. The Choctaw Stomp dance styles and the Seminole freedom chants were heard by blacks and incorporated into their “story” songs, particularly at fireside parties on the plantations in the Delta. Banjo pickers, fiddlers and wood flutes filled the summer night with songs accompanied by bones, spoons and tambourines keeping time. The voices of women who worked in the master houses joined in with tales of the master’s work and this sharing with field workers brought a new dimension to the content of the story songs, eventually becoming the roots of the minstrel shows later cultivated by whites in “blackface.”
The Christy Minstrels, a blackface group formed by Edwin Pearce Christy, a ballad singer, were formed 1843.
The Compromise of 1850 averted Civil War as free states and slave states agreed on provisions for territorial expansion of the United States. (1850)
Anti-Slavery settlers who had established Lawrence, Kansas (1854) were attacked and the town sacked by a posse of 1000 southerners led by Sheriff Samuel Jones. (1856)
John Brown led an abolitionist militia on a raid of the munitions foundry at Harpers Ferry (1859)
Julia Ward Howe heard Union soldiers marching beneath her window at the Willard Hotel in Washington DC as they marched into Virginia, singing “John Brown’s Body.” This inspired her to write “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” 1861. (The tune was adapted from a marching song hummed by slaves years earlier as they gained freedom via Harriett Tubman’s Underground Railroad.}
President Abraham issued the Emancipation Proclamation (1862)
Stephen Foster, American songwriter of ballads and early pop sheet music, died at age 37. 1864
The Civil War ended at Appomattox with a treaty signed by U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. President Lincoln was assassinated just days later. 1865
After the Civil War, there were more than four million freed slaves. The black church and educational institutions began to flourish in earnest, both in the North and the South. During the Reconstruction Era, blacks were elected to Congress and held high trade and merchant positions until the implementation of the Jim Crow laws produced a political socio dynamic that would take nearly another hundred years to begin rectification. Meanwhile, songs appeared. Ragtime and folk ballads, travelling shows, P.T. Barnum’s circus, etc. brought a mix of urban influences to the south and vice versa.
The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866.
W. C. Handy, called by some “The Father Of The Blues” was born in Florence, Alabama 1873
James A Healy became the first African American Catholic bishop. 1875
Tuskegee Institute created in Alabama 1881
John Isham,a white man, organized the first itinerant black revue, “Jack’s Creole Burlesque Company” 1890
Scott Joplin played in Chicago, just outside of the Worlds Fair grounds, playing cornet. 1893
“Maple Leaf Rag,” composed and performed by Scott Joplin, was published 1899.
Charles Thomas Walker formed the first African American branch of the YMCA in New York.1900
John Pierpont Morgan founded U.S. Steel Corporation 1901; Ford Motor Company founded in 1903
Francis Hillman “Scrapper” Blackwell, a guitar picker, was born in North Carolina 1903
T.O.B.A. (“Theater Owners Booking Association”), a network of theaters specializing in black performer shows formed 1907
Federal Bureau of Investigation was created 1908
NAACP was founded 1909
Robert Johnson, blues singer, guitarist, songwriter, born near Clarksdale, Miss. 1911
From here things get quite interesting. Scrapper Blackwell and LeRoy Carr played as a duet, mostly in Chicago style and Piedmont style. Many of Blackwell’s critics claimed he was more of a jazz stylist than a blues performer because he tended to improvise. Perhaps that is so, but he did most of his improvisations within a twelve bar schematic which is to this day considered the basic progression of the blues. This “school” of performing was greatly developed by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Ida Cox in terms of vocal interpretation, Louis Armstrong as both a vocalist and a bandleader while playing trumpet, and Mr. Carr’s piano predated the barrelhouse concepts by just a few years. The guitar and vocals grew to become the most dominant performance mode of the blues, however, emphasized by the works of Hudie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), Robert Johnson, Son House, and Charlie Patton, with Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, T-Bone Walker and Elmore James kicking it up an electric notch later on. And the social political development of the United States was right in time with the evolutionary music events. The Great Depression, most notably its aftermath actually, brought about an era of music that transcended the origins of the blues. Big band sounds (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jelly Roll Morton, Ella Fitzgerald, and many others) became highlighted, leading to “jump” music (Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway) and the Harlem Renaissance- which brought literary, photographic and film achievements from black artists in a flow that opened doors that later led to breaking down the walls of Jim Crow.
The life of the African-American changed drastically in this time period, with WWI finding the black war veteran coming home to a nation reluctant with its respect, bringing about a new set of blue circumstances, reflected increasingly in the music of the day.
Harriett Tubman dies 1913
Ma Rainey, of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, began her mentoring of Bessie Smith. Rainey was called the “Mother Of The Blues.” 1914
Mother’s Day was created in the United States 1914
The Apollo Theater opened on 125th St. in Harlem 1914
Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League founded by Marcus Garvey 1914
The United States occupation of Haiti begins 1915
D.W. Griffith directed “Birth Of A Nation,” portraying the Ku Klux Klan as heroes 1915
Hubert Harrison founded the Liberty League and The Voice in Harlem, touting a New Negro Movement, later called the Harlem Renaissance by others. 1917
Prohibition of alcoholic beverages introduced with the 18th Amendment to the U.S Constitution 1919
Pittsburgh’s KDKA Radio first U.S. licensed commercial broadcast station 1920
Bessie Smith released “Downhearted Blues,” by Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin 1923
Ralph D. Abernathy was born in Linden, Alabama. 1925
“The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson, is the first feature length motion picture utilizing synchronized sound dialogue, effectively portending the end of the silent movie era. 1927
Deford Bailey, a grandson of slaves, made his first appearance on WSM radio in Nashville, playing “hot harmonica” tunes on the Grand Ole Opry Show 1927
Antoine “Fats” Domino, notable rhythm and blues pianist, born in New Orleans 1928
Black Tuesday marked the crash of the US Stock Exchange October 29, 1929.
The Empire State Building opened in New York City 1931
Franklin Roosevelt becomes President 1933
Charley Patton records “Oh Death” for American Recording Company, dies two months later 1934
Social Security Act passed 1935
George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” premiered in New York and featured an entire cast of classically trained African-American singers 1935
Robert Johnson recorded “Terraplane Blues” in San Antonio 1936
Jesse Owens first American to win four Olympic gold medals in one day, Germany 1936
William H. Hastie is first African American judge on a Federal appeals court 1937
“Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly” published with John Lomax 1937
Big Bill Broonzy takes part in Carnegie Hall concert: From Spirituals to Swing 1938
Robert Johnson releases the last of his two LP recordings, dies in Mississippi, 1938
Billie Holiday performed Abel Meeropol’s composition, “Strange Fruit” at NY’s Café Society 1939.
McKinley Morganfield, AKA Muddy Waters, moved to Chicago for the first time 1940
“Native Son,” a novel by Richard Wright, was published 1940
Blues harp player Sonny Terry joined up with Brownie McGhee 1941
“The New Cab Calloway's Hepsters Dictionary: Language of Jive” published 1944
“Boogie Chillen” by guitarist John Lee Hooker was a million seller and jukebox #1 hit 1948
Louis Armstrong was the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time Magazine 1949
Gil Scot Heron, original rap poet and musician, was born 1949
During WWII, many black men and women fought in Europe, developing a new relationship with European culture. Jazz flourished in France, “race” records were popular in England, and the blues was evolving into rock and roll. By this time many forms of the blues had taken hold: boogie, jive, talking blues, skiffle and jug band blues, and much more thrived and brought a new boldness to the ongoing development of self determination for blacks in America. After the war, many blacks raised in the South migrated to the urban centers of the north and eastern region of the United States. More blacks attended college than ever before, but Jim Crow, the master of ignorance, continued to permeate the social economical and political landscape. And the blues took itself to a new level.
The 1950’s brought with it the emergence of a hybrid of many American cultures. Bluegrass fused with gospel, jump bands backed up vocal harmony groups, the Hit Parade grew out of juke boxes and Broadway musicals. Hillbilly music found the r&b side of things and some say the blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll. The 1960’s saw the evolution of integration, social and political turmoil, black power, youth movements, assassinations, counter cultural upheaval, hippies, communes, the New Left, and a soul music, fusing elements of gospel music with rhythm and blues. The 1970’s resonated with political malfeasance (Watergate) and the emergence of talk radio, a new era of black film making and the rise of reggae music, arguably the Caribbean form of blues rock. The 1980’s brought the blues back to basics with the evolution of hip hop.
Langston Hughes published “Montage Of A Dream Deferred” 1951
Cornel West, an African-American scholar and activist, was born 1953
The Supreme Court reversed its "separate but equal" provision for African Americans when it ruled in the "Brown vs. Board of Education" case. 1954
Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. 1955
Emmett Till, 14 years old, was lynched in Mississippi 1955
Nat “King” Cole, a pop ballad singer and black entertainment pioneer, hosted a nationally broadcasted variety show on NBC Television 1956. The show, enormously popular, was pulled due to” lack of national sponsorship” in 1957.
President Eisenhower oversaw the authorization of the Federal Interstate Highway System, 1956
Billie Holiday died at age 44 in New York City 1959
Chuck Berry appeared in the film “Go Johnny Go!” with DJ Alan Freed 1959
John Kennedy elected President of the United States 1960
Ray Charles releases “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, the first pop recording to be number one on the country-western charts and the popular music charts at the same time in Billboard Magazine history. 1962
John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas Texas. 1963
Sam Cooke, first Black pop singer to own his own publishing rights, is shot dead in Los Angeles 1964
Malcolm X was assassinated in NYC 1965
John Sengstacke purchased the Pittsburgh Courier and renamed it the New Pittsburgh Courier, a part of Real Times, LLC, the largest Black newspaper chain in the United States. 1966
The Black Panther Party was formed in Oakland, California 1966
Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix brought Black music to a new audience at Monterey Pop Festival Redding was killed in a plane crash five months later 1967
Jimi Hendrix released Electric Ladyland, called by critics the greatest blues fusion album of all time 1968
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee 1968
Nina Simone recorded the live album “Black Gold” at Philharmonic Hall in NYC, including the song “Young, Gifted and Black.” 1969
all in NYC
Gil Scott-Heron released “Small Talk At 125th and Lenox” 1969
Jimi Hendrix died in London, England 1970
Marvin Gaye released “What’s Goin’ On” 1971
Richard Nixon is impeached 1974
Etta James is nominated for a Grammy award for “Out On The Street Again” 1974
Jimmy Reed, blues musician on guitar, harmonica and vocals, died in Oakland, CA 1976
Sugar Hill Records founded by Joe and Sylvia Robinson and Milton Malden, released “Rapper’s Delight” 1979
B.B. King is inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame 1980
So you see, the blue note continues to evolve, as does the general culture of black folk in America, and therefore, America itself. I conclude with this notion. America created the blue condition socially, politically and economically and black folks created the response. Whether that response comes in the form of hip hop, rap, rock and roll, or jazz, it began with that high blue wail and that low blue moan and it resonates with each and every one of us to this day, regardless of ethnic origin. Hatred and cultural intolerance are products of fear. The Blues and its offspring are the products of love. Each one, teach one and may we never fail to reach one.
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