Of all America’s creative gifts to the world, does any touch humanity more than the captivating music we call the blues? Rock & roll, rhythm & blues, rock, soul, funk, jazz, heavy metal, and pop music in general, are just some of the musical genres that have rolled out of the blues. For lovers of popular music, how can blues not be one of America’s greatest gifts to the world?
The blues songs below were recorded by Alan Lomax in 1947 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Mississippi. Around this time, and even earlier, many rocking blues songs were sounding like rock & roll. From where did these songs, and all blues, including prison blues, evolve? The most obvious answer is Africa; but the story is much more complicated than that, and I want to prove it by publishing excerpts from America’s Gift on this blog. If you’re interested in the origins of the blues, look out for them.
During my research for America’s Gift, I combed through hundreds of accomplished books on blues, important academic papers and invaluable blues websites, each explaining different areas of the mysterious evolution of the blues, often in great depth. My endeavour was to put all these different insights together, like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, add my own discoveries, and present to you a more complete picture of the blues than perhaps existed before. I hope I have achieved this and thank all those authors, well known and not so well known, who have provided unique or breakthrough insights into how blues evolved. My sources, you’ll see if you buy America’s Gift (and I hope you do), have been credited as we go along: not as footnotes, but as part of the story, for this is a journalistic rather than academic history of the blues.
My story ends in the 1950s, during the golden age of the second Chicago blues era. Although immensely important, blues in the second half of the twentieth century has been so thoroughly documented, and is simply too well-known to most educated blues fans, to justify being retold here.
Now, a word about spelling. Many words like ‘theatre’ and ‘colour’, for example, are spelt the English way, except when referencing American writings. Then, in deference to my source, I use American spellings such as ‘theater’ and ‘color’. The same goes for punctuation. Should you find a variant, it’s because before 1900 American English was still seemingly in transition. Some Americans used traditional English spelling while others preferred using the emerging American English.