geographically and culturally, Africa is the place that is usually
associated with the roots of the Blues, by the layman, this is
acknowledged for the most part to be on a musicological basis, by the
Blues writers and aficionados. Even then traces of Africa are only
glimpsed momentarily, like the sun on a cloudy day. Some African words
have been retained in black American culture, including that of the
Blues singer, but they are exceptions rather than the rule.
However, a lyrical
search for the roots of the Blues brings us nearer home. Right home in
fact, to the British Isles! Ever since slavery times, the American black
has always been noted for being part of one of the most conservative
socio-ethnic groups when it comes to retaining the language of a
dominant culture. Many seventeenth century English words remained in
American black usage, well into the twentieth. This was as true of their
songs as well as their speech. In particular, the Blues, which was sung
in the same vernacular that the singer used in everyday conversation.
They "sang like they talked."
I intend to show,
by tracing several 'early English' examples in the Blues, that
colloquial links existed to a far greater degree than is generally
realized. At the same time, in some cases, a link can be established
well beyond the seventeenth century which reached far beyond British
shores. The U.S. black term "crow-jane" is examined in some depth to
this end. This usually referred to a prostitute or "low-down woman" in
the Blues singer's parlance.
As with the word,
so too with certain phrases. The latter crop up in the Blues either as
they were spoken originally, or in a corrupted but recognizable form. Of
course, many of these phrases were passed on by the well-tried 'oral
tradition' method. From the same sources, on, occasion, whole lines from
an earlier British source, have been incorporated into some Blues
lyrics. This is also true of some themes of English folk song which have
parallels in Blues recordings. Once again, at least one of these
themes can be traced back well beyond the seventeenth century.
The logical step
to the foregoing is a complete song which has passed from an earlier
British culture into the world of the Blues. I have included two
examples in the final chapter. While the words and phrases might be
altered in the hands of the southern Blues singer, there is sufficient
similarity in theme, lay-out and structure, to include the earlier folk
these particular Blues examples in one 'family'.
One of the main
reasons why there are British colloquial links with the Blues is the
rural isolation that blacks found themselves in during the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, in the U.S.A. Isolation from the mainstream of
American life, in the throes of industrialization, which was already
shaping its own independent character. I intend to show that these links
are more prevalent than has been assumed in the past.
© Copyright 1990 Max Haymes
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