Early Blues: The African American Experience and Temporality
Updated: May 7, 2021
The blues was born out of the long and regrettable history of slavery in the American South. We will never know the names of the people who created this music which is the underpinning and soul of all American music that followed.
What interests me is how the rhythms of a blues song echo the call and response of work songs and field hollers. The sheer monotony of life on the plantation as a slave or sharecropper gave rise to the almost incessant repetition of a blues song. The temporality or the way they experienced time is right there in the songs. If you listen to the music carefully, you can hear the rhythms of their lives. The repetitive days, weeks, and years with very few new or noteworthy events to break the pattern.
The simplicity of the songs and lyrics that focus on telling a story about the present moment reflect their inability to foresee a future. They sang about what was happening in the present and what they were feeling at the moment. Their lives were lived fully in the present. The slaves and sharecroppers of the American South were not able to plan for a future because they were trapped in a never-ending cycle of slavery or sharecropping so all they had was the present moment.
They nailed wires to fence posts to create music. They sang in the fields or on a front porch to comfort themselves. This music that is now performed on stages to many thousands of people was created with the intent to simply comfort a few. It was the creative expression of souls that had no voice in the world in which they lived. The blues is an interesting art form to listen to because as the music hits you, you feel the strange and unique joy hidden in it. The blues is comfort music. It fills the soul.