Blues
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137 Blues Blues emerged as a distinctive musical style, the product of polygenesis in the deep South (east Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama), around the beginning of the twentieth century. First heard on front porches and juke joints where black Americans gathered on Saturday evening, early blues was a synthesis of the traditions that preceded it: most notably country dance tunes, minstrel songs, secular ditties, spirituals, field “hollers” (aka “arhoolies”), and so on. Because of its dispersed origins, it is impossible to assign a specific date and geographic location for the first blues performance. By the early teens, however , blues appeared in sheet music and, by 1920, on commercial phonograph records, which helped to standardize the now familiar twelve-bar blues form. Blues surfaced during a period when Jim Crow racism added misery and hard times to the black community. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, mail-order guitars became more readily available and very popular among folk musicians. Black folk musicians found the guitar an ideal instrument—it was portable, its primary chords (I, IV, and V) were easy to play, and its strings bent to accommodate the flatted tonality common to the tradition. Built upon a series of rhymed couplets, blues lyrics often focused on mistreatment, money problems, and difficulty between the sexes. They were played at house parties and dances rather than formal concert halls, while audiences shouted encouragement, danced, and joined in the singing. Thus, blues promoted a dialogue between the musicians and the audience, and provided a critical creative outlet for frustration in response to increased repression and a renewal of hard times after the heady, progressive days of Reconstruction. Like field hollers, the first blues songs were rather free-form, and early blues musicians played cycles of flexible bar-lengths depending on the words (often between ten and fourteen bars). The standardized twelve-bar format appeared in sheet music as early as 1912, but coexisted with other, more fluid forms in the years of early phonograph recording. Blues developed in distinct areas of the South; thus, the early down-home styles can be assigned to three general regions: the Southwest, mid-South, and Southeast. Blues continues to display the symbiotic, interactive relationship between secular and sacred that has characterized the history of black American music. Many blues players routinely incorporate religious songs into their repertoire. Ark-La-Tex native Lead Belly, for example, felt comfortable playing a mixture of sacred music (including gospel songs and spirituals) and secular music (including blues, country dance tunes, ballads, and protest songs) throughout his life. Likewise, African American religious music often draws on its secular brethren. The most striking instance of this merging is the gospel blues that originated with Rev. Thomas Dorsey in Chicago during the 1930s. But sacred and secular were also blended in the formalized spirituals performed for concert audiences across the world by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and similar “jubilee ” groups at (now) Hampton University and Tuskegee Institute. In a distinct musical style that shares the same word, jubilee gospel singing began with groups like the Golden Gate Quartet in Norfolk, Virginia. The Gates, as they were often called, initiated a style of black gospel quartet singing during the mid-1930s, which featured vocal effects, high rhythmic interest, strong lead vocal, and a “pumping” bass. The Ever Ready Gospel Singers (who formed ca. 1948) provide an example of this black gospel singing tradition based in Shreveport. Scant attention has been paid their story, which includes a series of recordings beginning with Sitting In With Records in 1950 and a long history with Shreveport media institutions like KWKH, where they were the first African American group to broadcast from its studios. Dan Garner, who contributes a sketch of Shreveport’s storied Blue Goose neighborhood in this section, sketched their career as the liner notes to a 1997 recording made at Louisiana Light Studios in Shreveport, Union of the World.1 That recording includes guitar work by the Rev. Eddie Giles, the same Giles who recorded as a soul singer in Shreveport during the small label boom that followed World War II. Other Shreveport musicians made footnotes in the history of African American music, although sacred music rarely draws the same amount of popular or scholarly interest as its secular counterparts. For example, Rev. Utah Smith, who evangelized with his electric guitar, was raised in Shreveport but spent much of his adult life in New Orleans. His late-1940s recording of BLUES 138 “God...


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