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  • “I Got the Blues” Epistemology: Jayne Cortez’s Poetry for Eco-Crisis
  • Kimberly N. Ruffin (bio)

Thin grass and sparse growths of pine cover the low, rolling hills. The roads are cut into the red, sandy clay, and they stream with water in the spring rains. . . [I]n the fields the older people still sing the work songs of the slaves who toiled in the sun a hundred years ago; and across the fields at night, the yellow light from an oil lamp brightening a rain-streaked window, there is sometimes the lonely sound of the blues.

—Samuel B. Charters (30–31)

[Blues] is an affectively important way of apprehending a musical process and the human world; a way of steering through musical composition and through worldly affairs. . . . While being blue or “having the blues” is easily if inadequately equated with being sad or down, doing blues must involve far more.

—Steven G. Smith (41)

Mr. & Mrs. Crab are not into destroying the world they are crawling to the mud flats to take in some rotten insects . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The person who OK’s biological weapons should not cry about the stench of new diseases The one who cuts off the trees so the orangutans can’t hang should not wonder about ecological devastation

—Jayne Cortez, “Endangered Species List Blues” (Jazz Fan 68)

The written word is a crucial tool for African American creativity; however, the place of musicality, aurality, and orality in this tradition cannot be denied. Music has been with African Americans through a host of environments, and its sonic and cultural DNA contains its African and “New World” parentage. One of African American musical tradition’s most famous offspring is the blues. In the first epigraph, Samuel B. Charters places blues at the meeting grounds of people, and in this case, rural place. [End Page 63] Clyde Woods expands our understanding of places where the blues joined people with their environment: “Blues accompanied those who worked on the levees and roads, and in the forest, fields, and prisons. They surrounded them at home, in their neighborhoods and juke joints, and at picnics, churches and other uncensored spaces where African Americans explored the parameters of their daily life, spirituality, and vision” (108). Woods puts the blues at the nexus of changing environments, philosophical need, and everyday living. Indeed, the blues contain people’s responses to the world around them and social circumstances. Houston A. Baker, Jr., suggests that the blues “constitute an amalgam that seems always to have been in motion in America—always becoming, shaping, transforming, displacing the peculiar experiences of Africans in the New World” (5). I contend this “amalgam” contains wisdom assembled from the accumulated ecological agency of African Americans.

Elements of the blues sound and ethos are directly related to the changing relationships between African Americans and their ecological experience. Blues origin stories usually begin in the lush setting of the Mississippi Delta. Once filled with swamp and forest, the Delta was transformed by ambitious planters who took advantage of the Mississippi River’s nurturing impact on soil health. This rich, alluvial soil was stewarded by enslaved Africans accustomed to singing while they worked. Their specific agricultural tasks informed the sound and content of their work songs; tools were used percussively, and rhythms and content shifted to accommodate various circumstances. Ted Gioia writes, “[S]ugar cane demanded an aggressive, slashing attack to clear the fields . . . tobacco . . . needed to be handled with greater delicacy. Cotton was somewhere in the middle, but though collecting it demanded considerable handwork, it was still picked in rows and required an organized, paced flow of work” (44–45). These various relationships with nonhuman nature birthed key elements in the sound that would become known as the blues: call and response, improvisation, backbeat emphasis, and the “blue notes” from an African-inspired tonal system. After slavery, the responses to the more solitary work of sharecropping are credited with the formation of the “field cry” or “field holler,” which expressed the freer-formed moans, shouts, and “arwhoolies” of African American workers. Unlike collective work songs, hollers spotlighted a singer’s individual voice. Hence, the blues emerged as the collective work songs of enslaved, primarily...


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pp. 63-80
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