The United States of the Blues

The blues is the original American genre of music. The blues is rooted deep in the history of this country, from the cotton fields of Georgia, to the delta of the Mississippi, to the birth of jazz and country, to the bright lights of Chicago, to the influencing of rock n’ roll musicians from yesteryear and today. I am going to focus on the growth of the blues in the Mississippi delta, and showcase one of the most recognizable delta blues musicians, Eddie “Son” House. Second, the reasons behind the great blues migration from the south to Chicago, the differences in musical style and life style after the migration, while showcasing one of the greatest blues musicians from the Chicago era, Muddy Waters. These two eras in the history of blues music are the reason for the expansive reach it has attained over countless musical genres.

The blues was born out of a dark time in American history, slavery. Passed down over generations and generations of black southerners, the blues finally rose to prominence in the Mississippi in a style known as, Delta Blues. In his book, “The Land Where the Blues Began”, author Alan Lomax explains perfectly why the Mississippi delta was the perfect birthing grounds for the blues stating, “Feelings of anomie and alienation, of orphaning and rootlessness-the sense of being a commodity rather than a person; the loss of love and of family and of place-this modern syndrome was the norm for the cotton farmers and the transient laborers of the Deep South a hundred years ago.” (Page ix). The musician often referred to as the “Father of Delta Blues” is Eddie James “Son” House Jr., more commonly known to fans of the genre as the legendary Son House. Among others, Son House helped pioneer and shape the style of Delta blues. The Delta blues style characterized as a singer typically playing a guitar with an emphasis on rhythm or bottleneck slide guitar playing. One of the most famous songs of the Delta blues style is Son House’s own “Death Letter Blues”, featured below:

A less frequently used style of the Delta blues was an acapella approach. Son House helped pioneer this style as well which consisted of a solo singer clapping along to the song as showcased in a classic Son House song, “John the Revelator”, featured below:

Despite the success, like all other African Americans in the south at the time, Son House was victim to the discriminating laws of Jim Crow. Jim Crow laws and general racism was one many reasons for the migration of millions of African Americans, among which were some of the greatest artists in the history of the blues. Some Jim Crow laws including crimes against, “‘vagrancy’, ‘loitering’, and ‘having no visible means of support’ as crimes, African-American men and women just standing around talking to each other could be rounded up, thrown in jail, convicted and given fines they were unable to pay.” (Nall, From Down South to Up South). One of the most bustling Northern cities for the blues was Chicago, Illinois. One of the most notable blues musicians to make the trip up north is legendary blues guitarist and singer, Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters helped bring about a change to the blues style, and in so started an explosion in the popularity of the blues.

Muddy Waters helped pioneer the style of blues known as Chicago blues. Though the AAB form, and one four five chord progression of the music stayed similar to the delta style, Chicago blues added a backing band, more professional recordings, and the electric guitar. Muddy Waters is arguably the most talented, most recognized, and most influential guitarist in the history of the blues; influencing famous guitar players such as Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jack White and countless more. Muddy’s most famous song is widely considered to be “Mannish Boy”, known as one of the greatest guitar riffs ever written, as shown below:

The migration from the south to the north brought about many changes for blues musicians, as well as all African-Americans who made the journey. Dr. John D. Bakersville of the University of Northern Iowa writes, “The mass migration of African-Americans to the North and West during the early decades of the twentieth century not only changed the racial composition of these regions, but also helped to produce great tension within the African-American population. This tension, caused by the racial barriers impeding African-American progress and the realization of the “American Dream,” forced African-Americans to look inward and engage in a cultural revitalization movement. This movement aided in the revival and strengthening of central cultural beliefs and values and helped to build strong productive communities.” (Bakersville, African-American Migration, webpage). This is saying that the struggle of making the migration brought African-Americans together, and in so they would settle in the same neighborhoods. This is evident in the daily lives of blues musicians as for the most part, to use a common expression, they all knew each other. This can be seen in the video below featuring Son House and blues singer, Howlin’ Wolf, in an argument, featured below:

The blues is music about life, and everything in between. There is blues music about the good times, the happy times, the sad times, and the desperate times. All human emotions have been conveyed in some form through the blues. Blues is rooted deep in our country’s history, from the beginning until now. To understand ourselves, we have to understand the blues.


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K’Naan: Africa for the Masses

There is no arguing when it comes to hip-hop being one of the most popular musical genres in the western world. Hip-hop since its birth has been an African-American dominated genre, this is also undeniable. Over the years there have been numerous hip-hop artists to incorporate African musical elements into their music. One of the most recent examples, and closely related to Africa is Somalia born rapper K’naan. He has several songs using African beats and a majority of his songs are about growing up in Somalia.

The first track off of K’Naan’s debut album is a song called, “Wash It Down”. The song uses a beat from a sample African water slapping. Through the use of this beat K’Naan was likely trying state his African pride. Being the first song on his first album, I believe K’Naan was making it clear that Africa, and his time living in Africa is his largest influence. The song is posted below:

The most obvious example of his time in Somalia is his song simply titled, “Somalia”. The song uses a classic, simple Somalian chorus line. He raps lyrics about the hardships of being a child in Somalia:

We used to take barb wireMold them around discarded bike tires / Mold them around discarded bike tires / Roll em down the hill in foot blazin’. / Now that was our version of mountain bike racing (Source: K’Naan. Troubador. A&M/Octone. 2010. CD.)

For an example of K’naan using the Somalian beat:

K’naan also has a song about living in Africa as a whole, “T.I.A” (acronym for This Is Africa). In the song he has lyrics describing a tough life for the common man in Africa. He talks of everyday violence and criticizes African-Americans for not understanding the true meaning of a tough up-bringing.

You don’t how hard it is here. / The streets is tricky in these parts  here. (Source: K’Naan. Troubador. A&M/Octone. 2010. CD.)

At the time being, K’Naan is the most popular and successful African artist outside of Africa, among my generation. There are several YouTube videos of his with over 10 million views. The single for his most popular song, “Wavin’ Flag”, has gone platinum 3 times over in Canada. Though not as successful in the United States he has gained enormous popularity. I can remember personally, after his second album and the release of Wavin’ Flag, my friends and I talking about K’Naan and discussing how much we enjoyed his music.

A remix for Wavin’ Flag was used as an official song for the 2010 World Cup. This particular video has over 21 million views on YouTube:

This song is also another example of K’Naan’s widespread use of African beats. The drum beat in the song is clearly African in nature.

K’Naan has successfully integrated genuine African musical elements into his own style of hip-hop. K’Naan is a musical ambassador for all of Africa. Through his music, K’Naan has shown the world what it means to be African. Perhaps his greatest achievement is his ability to be so successful all over the world, while at the same time sticking close to his African roots.


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Peter Gabriel & Africa

Peter Gabriel rose to fame as lead singer for the progressive, rock band Genesis. In 1975, Gabriel left the group and embarked on his solo career. Despite the fame of his Genesis days and the success of previous solo releases, Peter Gabriel’s solo career reached superstar status with his release of the album, “So”. Over the years Gabriel had intended to bring the sounds of Africa, which had increasingly influenced his music, to the western world. Through the use of layering, drum rhythms, and even so far as African song concepts, Gabriel has been arguably the most successful artist to ever incorporate African music into his own.

African music is often described by western ears (as well as in our class) as chaotic, especially when broken down. The vast number of various instruments, creating so much sound at once, can be overwhelming to western music listeners. The process of taking several instruments and developing them into a rhythm is called layering. Layering is the foundation for African music. This influence is clear in Gabriel’s music. Many of Gabriel’s songs seem chaotic, yet rhythmic simultaneously. In his song, “Big Time”, Gabriel showcases the chaotic and rhythmic characteristic.

The layering of the song is evident within the first few seconds. The polyphonic texture is difficult to wrap your head around, as the drums play their own rhythm while the guitar and bass, though sharing a funk music influence, are playing two completely different musical lines. This is evident of layering, as the instruments are placed on top of each other in order to make the entity of the song.

Drums are, without a doubt, essential to African music. Like many other forms of music, drums are the foundation of African music. The influence of African drumming is evident throughout all of Gabriel’s work. In the early days of his solo career, Gabriel banned all drummers he worked with (including former bandmate Phil Collins) from using any cymbals. This was in order to achieve the most authentic African drum sound possible. The example I am going to share is Gabriel’s song, “Solsbury Hill”, because within the song is featured a lunga drum. This African drum has a very distinct sound, in that by squeezing chords fastened around the drum, the drummer can create different pitches, earning the nickname “The Talking Drum”. The drum is featured in the song at the 1:17 mark in the song, though it is faint and you must listen carefully for the sound of dripping water. That “dripping water” sound is in fact the Lunga drum.

Arguably, Gabriel’s most popular song is the track, “In Your Eyes”. It is also an example of Gabriel’s inclusion of African drums. The song features a multitude of African drum beats, played on several African drums. A talking drum using a deep tone can be heard, as well as several different djembe drums, and other African instruments. From the beginning, when listening to the drum section, the African influence is clear.

The song also features African lyrics, which can be heard starting at the 3:30 mark. On several occasions,  Gabriel has performed this song live with African music legend, Youssouu N’Dour.

“In Your Eyes” is unique as it goes deeper than just incorporating African instruments. The song actually incorporates African song concepts. When writing the song, Gabriel was interested in the idea of there being no difference in African love songs between the love of a woman and the love of God, as he is quoted in the video posted below:

I believe this goes to show Gabriel’s true interest in African music. Many artists have used African musical techniques and drum patterns, but Gabriel is so heavily influenced by the music that he writes African songs. The lyrics of “In Your Eyes” make no mention that Gabriel is singing the song about a woman and could easily be interpreted as a man singing of his love for God.

Peter Gabriel’s music was my first introduction to African music. His music is evidence that music does not know cultural boundaries. He has shown that anyone can enjoy and play any music.


Works Cited

“Peter Gabriel Biography” Rolling Stone, n.d. Web. February 20th, 2012

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What is music?

The question is impossible to universally answer. The dictionary will tell you that music is a series of organized sounds, or something to that effect. My friend Joe will tell you that any music that does not suit his tastes is in fact not music. I lean towards the dictionary’s definition.

Music should be the purpose a person places on music in their life. Whether to relax, have fun, relate or explain, music can be whatever a person wants to make out of it. I believe if you were to ask one thousand people, “What should music be?”, I believe you will get one thousand answers.

The kind of music I like has to be different. I like music that is interesting. Music that sounds just like everything else I often find boring, and lazy. I also enjoy music that is heavy with emotion. I enjoy when I can relate my own feelings, whatever they may be, happy and sad to a song. That leads back to, “What music should be?”, as I often use music as a method to explain my emotions.

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