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
© Copyright 1990 Max Haymes
1.Pyles & Algeo.p.314.
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