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British Colloquial Links and the Blues
by Max Haymes
(converted to web format from the original old typescript by Alan White)


When discussing the roots of the Blues, even the relatively uninformed, would make a vague reference to "somewhere in Africa". From a musicological standpoint there is evidence that there is some truth in this observation. African musical retentions in the Blues has been likened to a fleeting glimpse of the sun on a cloudy day, by a blues writer such as Sam Charters. There is even a small residue of African words in the speech and song of the Blues singer. "A few words from language spoken by blacks on the west coast of Africa have entered English by way of Portuguese and Spanish,"(1). Pyles & Co. tell us that "Juke (more correctly "jook") and 'jazz' are Americanisms of African origin."(2). While the word 'jazz', which was originally 'jass', has achieved international status, 'jook' has stayed within the predominantly working-class, black U.S. community.

However, it is increasingly apparent that it is to the British Isles we must turn for a great percentage of lyrical links with the Blues. Colloquial links in particular are very much in evidence. As we have seen, not only pronunciation of words, but the actual meaning has often been faithfully retained in the vocabulary of the Blues singer. It could be argued that certain themes are universal. For example, the theme discussed in Chapter II where the deserted lover wakes only to take comfort in hugging the pillow in the otherwise empty bed. But how many of the African slaves would have a concept of this scenario before being transported to the New World? If the answer, as I believe, is "none at all", then that concept was learned in the new environment via a new language. This would seem to support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which stresses the importance of language and how it can "... influence the way we think about the world and perhaps even the way we perceive it."(3).

Most certainly, the themes reiterated in Tudor England via the poem "I must go walk the wood" and Bluesman Walter Davis' 1935 rendition of "Moon­light Is My Spread" would be unknown in the cultures of West African tribes, before the turn of the century. In much the same way as Jaybird Coleman's advice from his mother "Son, you save your money, just to buy your clothes, Let these women go"(4), was reflected in one of Thomas Hardy's poems (see Chapter II), and was obviously exported to the United States in one form or another.

Again, in the themes of two particular Blues which are traceable back to British shores, imminent death by hanging and a man's listed bribes (see Chapter III) to seduce a woman, we see a purely 'Anglo-American' (or non-African) concept of life, and the way the world is viewed by these cultures. In the case of "Hangman's Blues" the English link stretches back into the fifteenth century, and I am not aware of a parallel in African traditional song. The colloquial links between the Blues and English folk song, broadside ballads, poems, etc. are far stronger than any similar links with Africa, and certainly far more prevalent than many people suppose. In fact these British links constitute a major factor in the make-up of the Blues from southern U.S.A.

© Copyright 1990 Max Haymes 


1.Pyles & Algeo.p.314.



4.Jaybird Coleman.


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