What is so distinctive about American blues?
Why is it that the Blues have grown up or developed in the United States? Well, it really boils down to the African-American experience in this neck of the woods. Starting from slavery there was a lot to be blue about. There was a lot to be sad about. There was a lot of angst, a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression, and unfortunately, the creative outlet for such emotions was actually quite limited.
There is always the traditional African-American spiritual but the religious aspect of this musical form ensured that a lot of the topics that the Blues normally talks about have remained unspoken. They remained unexplored for a long time until the blues came on their own in the early part of the last century.
Generally, the history of the blues grew from the Mississippi Delta. This is where the final form of the blues was pioneered, enhanced, and standardized. From this part of the country, it spread wherever African-Americans found themselves due to the Great Migration of post-World War 2 America.
Viewed from this lens, it's easy to see how the evolution and the spread of American blues tightly tracked or mirrored the demographic movement and development of America's African- American community. Thanks to the massive deployment of American males to Western Europe as well as the Pacific theater in World War 2, there was a massive employment shortage in many parts of the north of Northern America.
This presented a great opportunity for African-Americans who historically struggled with poverty in the Deep South because of limited economic opportunities. Instead of simply resigning themselves to a generation after generation of work as sharecroppers or farm workers, African-Americans were given a tremendous opportunity to migrate as industrial workers or factory workers. This formed a backdrop of the great American blues migration.
Unfortunately, African-Americans got hit the most. They're the ones who suffered the most. And this abrupt break from a factory in an industry-based livelihood to the uncertainty of a service economy brought with it a tremendous amount of family disruption as well as all sorts of pathologies.
This is why there's a lot to be blue about after the great promise of World War 2 fizzled out first for African-Americans and later on for working-class white Americans. It is also in this context that the blues became really popular across many different demographic groups. It is not just the black community that has embraced blues music as a valid musical form. But slowly and surely, whites embrace the blues music.
The Reluctant Rise of Blues Music in White America
Interestingly enough, blues musicians had to go to Europe for them to get the kind of respect they deserved in the United States. Funny how that worked out, right? Well, it turns out that western Europeans, in particular, the British were more welcoming of a truly homegrown American musical forms like the blues than the Americans were.
It is no surprise given this context that famous bluesmen like Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and yes to a certain degree Jimmy Hendrix, only became famous in the United States after they first became familiar in Western Europe. Maybe this was a legacy of racism. Maybe this was a legacy of the Jim Crow laws and segregation in the South.
Regardless of its origin, this was the fact. A lot of highly talented and trailblazing blues music pioneers had to go to Europe and make a name for themselves for them to even register on the radar in the United States. This happened for quite some time. In fact, one of the most influential rock and roll bands out of England was nothing but a glorified blues cover band.
I am of course talking about the Rolling Stones. In fact, the name of the band comes from a blues song. A Rolling Stone is a man who doesn't set down roots. Maybe he has kids. Maybe he has many girlfriends. But he moves from place to place and he gathers no moss. In other words, he doesn't create long-lasting relationships.
Again, this is a consequence and a legacy of the tremendous amount of social and economic disruption in the African-American community in the Deep South. It was very hard to form families during slave days and that's why the idea of a Rolling Stone began. And it's quite interesting that the Rolling Stones can easily name themselves after a blues song without possibly understanding the deep implications of that name.
But they would hardly be the first band to be guilty of this because a lot of white Europeans simply fell in love with blues music without a full appreciation or understanding of where the blues came from. Like it or not, accepted or not, blues music is rooted in America's slave past.
There were a lot of shattered dreams and a lot of broken people and destroyed families from those times and their consequences as well as their legacy continue to haunt us to this very day. And American blues music is really a conversation with this long-troubled and disturbing past. Nobody's really being helped if people tried to sweep things under the rug and deny that this is the case.
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