The Significance of Blues for American History
Author(s): Douglas Henry Daniels
Source: The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 70, No. 1/2, (Winter – Spring, 1985), pp. 14-23
Published by: Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2717635
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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BLUES FOR
Douglas Henry Daniels*
Americai s deeply rootedi n Negro culture:i ts colloquialismsi,t s humor,i ts music. How ironic
that the Negro, who moret han any otherp eoplec an claim America’sc ulturea s his own, is being
persecuteda nd repressedt, hat the Negro, who has exemplifiedt he humanitiesi n his very existence,
isb eing rewardedw ith inhumanity.
– Sonny Rollins**
In recent years cultural historians have acknowledged the appropriateness of
Afro-American music as a primary source of chronicling black history. Spirituals,
shouts, and work songs express the nature and the contours of black culture in the
nineteenth century, while gospel, blues, and jazz reflect Afro-American values,
life,and history in the twentieth century. Some writers stress the singular importance
of blues for Afro-American life in this century. I shall argue the issue is even
more fundamental-that blues are of singular significance for understanding the
American historical experience, which has the tragi-comic characteristics of the music.
Also, blues is essential for transcending what seems to be the nation’s limitations,
specifically, its unwillingness to include blacks and colored peoples as equals
in its political and social system.’
There are inherent difficulties in discussing black music and culture in a scholarly
fashion. A basic problem is that one has to deal with two distinct audiences whose
knowledge tends to be mutually exclusive. Academicians familiar with scholarly language
and methods know very little of black music, history and culture, and people
knowledgeable of the latter are not numerous in American universities. In tackling
this problem, one risks losing either one or the other audience. For these reasons it is
necessary to delineate some aspects of black music culture and blues before discussing
the usefulness of blues for understanding United States history.
Black music’s value in Afro-America is barely appreciated by outsiders, though
the ones involved in merchandising popular songs have one idea of its worth. Afro-
Americans, however, often lacking concrete reasons for identifying with American
patriotic sentiments, have found other means of expressing values and sentiments
which approach patriotism in terms of the devotion it inspires.
Afro-American music, whether religious or secular and popular, is like a flag or
nation for black Americans. Conversations and observations in Afro-America have
convinced me of the supreme importance of black music for its listeners. Once in
Washington, D.C., I was one of four Afro-Americans visiting with a friend who had
* DouglasH enryD anielsi s a Professorin the BlackS tudiesa nd HistoryD epartmentas t the University
of Californiaa t Santa Barbara
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BLUES 15
just moved into town. Someone asked “Where is your box [record player]?” The
newcomer explained that it was still in storage. The questioner looked around, noted
that the quarters could be comfortable, but emphasized the need for music. “A box
is basic,” he added. Everyone laughed in agreement. This seemingly insignificant
observation, that music is essential for making life livable, is rarely articulated in
Afro-Americab, ut it is a sharedv alue nonetheless.I t is one of those maximst hat is
lived or demonstratedm ore than it is expressedv erbally.
In predominantlwy hite universitiesb, lack professorsa nd administratoras nd staff
often play radios in their offices, listening to black music as if it were their lifeline to
the world from which they are temporarilyi nsulatedb y white institutions.A nd in
another segment of Black America, the dedication of black musicians to their craft
often leads to the sacrifice of material success and illness and early deaths. Their
willingness to suffer deprivation to play black music is another illustration of the
importanceo f this portiono f black culture to Afro-Americans.
While we have stereotypicali deas of musiciansa s inarticulate,p articularlyb lack
jazz musicians, they have quite eloquently, and at times forcefully, expressed their
ideas about music, popular culture, and American society. Interviews in jazz and
tradej ournals,r eminiscencesa nd autobiographiesa, nd more recently,o ral history
collections constitute a vital source for scholars interested in black music culture
and values. The first jazz oral history collections began at Tulane University in the
1950s,a nd then more followedi n other universitiesi n subsequentd ecades.B y combiningt
his oral historym aterialw ith newspaperin terviewsa nd publishedb ooksa nd
articles that date from the 1930s, the scholar can sift for insights and observations
on a variety of topics germane to the significance of black music culture.2
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, one of the most prolific composers and distinguishedb
and leaders,c ommentedo n and interpretedb lack music and culture in
numerous interviews from the 1930s. “The music of my race,” Ellington explained,
“is something more than the ‘American idiom’.” Its unique essence reflected a singular
experience, one shared by no other group. This music was “the result of our
transportationto Americans oil, and was our reactioni n the plantationd ays to the
tyranny we endured. What we could not say openly we expressed in music, and
what we know as ‘jazz’ is something more than just dance music.”3 This early expressionb
y a creatoro f black culture is noteworthyf, or Afro-Americana rtists are
rarely accordedt his kind of consciousnessa nd level of awarenessa s to what their
activity involves and the historical significance of the music.
Ellington’s thoughts on black music (he disliked the term “jazz”) shed light on
Afro-Americanm usicc ulture,g ivingu s backgroundfo r understandingth e originso f
blues and jazz. Because this music and its producers are often denigrated in the
United States, it is necessaryt o explaini ts importancea nd to explainw hy it is not
accorded the respect it deserves. “There is no necessity,” Ellington wrote, “to apologize
for attributinga ims other than terpsichoreant o our music, and for showing
how the characteristicm elancholym usic of my race has been forgedf rom the very
white heat of our sorrows, and from the groping after something tangible in the
primitivenesos f our lives in the early days of our Americano ccupation.”A s the title
of the article, “The Music of My Race is Going to Live,” indicated, Ellington expressedh
is opiniont hat Afro-Americand ance music had such value that it would
16 JOURNAL OF NEGRO HISTORY
endure long after other forms-which won praise in their day-were forgotten: “I
think the music of my race is something which is going to live, something which
posterity will honor in a higher sense than merely that of the music of the ballroom
of today.” Nor was Ellington the only musician to hold such views. Tenor saxophonist
Budd Johnson and others expressed similar sentiments regarding jazz in their
In the early yearso f the DepressionE, llingtonc haracterizedb lackd ance musica s
racial and stemming from specific historic circumstances shaping the lives of its
creators. The racial nature (“something more than the American idiom”) that Ellington
stressed would be rejected by some critics, who would emphasize the contributions
of whites-Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, and others. It should be
noted, however, that another major bandleader of the era, Fletcher Henderson,
sharedE llington’sv iews. Perhapst he first to lead a swing unit and develops ome of
the concepts associated with the dance band era of the 1930s, Henderson claimed
that “jazz music began as a racial expression.” Both appreciated the fact that
black artists, such as themselves, and black musicians, dancers, and audiences laid
the foundationf or every form of Americanp opularm usic in the twentiethc entury.
Besides shaping the music of the dance hall, record player, jukebox, radio, and
night club, black musicians and audiences behaved in accordance with Afro-American
values. As we shall see, the artist who created the music stressed feeling over
technique;p ersonalc ommitmentf;r eedomo f expressiona; nd the freedomo f life associated
with this musical world. These are core values insofar as they were acquired
at an early age and expressed repeatedly by musicians as having singular
importancein their life choices,i n their developmenti,n their mode of playing,a nd
in the raison d’etre of their art.
Lonnie Johnson, a New Orleans blues guitarist who recorded with Louis Armstrong
in the 1920s, explained how early he learned to express his innermost feelings
in musica nd, also importanth, ow he acquiredt his tendency.I n his childhoode veryone
was a musician:” Everybodyp layed something.M aybe if you were a little boy
and you couldn’t find anything else you would start playing a cigar box on the front
door step.” The human element of expression was most important, more so than
age, experienceo, r instrument”. It didn’t make any differencew hich instrumentw e
played, “cause the feeling” was there and that’s all you needed, to get started
One of eleven children, Johnson was born in 1889 on Franklin Street near Rampart
in the Crescent City and played in the family band in pavilions and dance halls
in Storyville and in the suburb of Milneburg. Around 1915 he began his life of
rambling, moving North, living in London after World War I, alternating a musical
life with the best musiciansw ith back-breakingw orki n the steel mills. Significantly,
this varied life experience was not atypical for musicians, many of whom had to
work at laboring jobs at the outset of their career or when their musical life no
longer produced the incomes their families needed. Such contact with everyday
working life and people helped them to appreciate the freedom of a musician’s life.
Repeatedlyt he musiciansm entionedf reedomo f expressioni n their music and life
as primaryc onsiderationsf or their chosen profession.D rummer Jonathan “Jo”
Jones, leading swing-era musician, claimed, “The only free person I know is a musiTHE
SIGNIFICANCE OF BLUES 17
cian. If you don’t like it, you give two weeks notice.” Barney Bigard, New Orleans
clarinetist with Duke Ellington, maintained “a great jazzman plays with feeling because
that’s the way he feels way down deep within himself.” As early as 1942 he
called this feeling “soul,” suggesting there was a close connection between the artist’s
very spiritual essence and the music he played. Moreover, the act of playing
provided supreme joys. Ellington altoist Johnny Hodges contended “I believe in
what I play because I enjoy it.” In fact, such pleasure in playing “was the most
important requirement for any instrumentalist.”6
Jazz and blues musicians traditionally differ from Europeans and Americans
whose specialty is the Eurpoean “classical” music and for whom freedom of expression
is more likely to be subjugated to the written score. The joys of improvisation
appealed to Afro-American jazz and blues artists and, furthermore, highlighted a
humanistic aspect of black culture. Saxophonist Johnny Hodges and many others
agreed that “What you have to express is much more important [than technique],
and so if you don’t have your heart in what you’re playing I see no reason for
playing at all.” By dreaming and visualizing pretty pictures, the musician communicated
his feeling and enjoyment to listeners. This was one of the main reasons for
playing. “If you get a big kick out of what you’re playing the feeling will be transmitted
to the listener.” Musical inspiration stemmed from memories of life: “Picture
pretty things as you play.”7
Duke Ellington also stressed the importance of personal satisfaction that came
from a career in the music world. Although he made a fortune in show business, he
did not consider this to be of primary importance. In much the same way black
musicians rejected mere techniques for expression, they rejected materialism for humanistic
values, in this instance expression of feeling and personal satisfaction. “It’s
just a case of doing what you want to do.” was the way Duke explained his life in
music. “There’s no fun going through life just making money. Even with ten million
dollars you can’t be more happy.”8 Ellington pointed out that “people on the wrong
side of the track laugh and find happiness and they do it on bread spread with lard
and a dish of corn pone.” Rejecting the pursuit of wealth, Ellington noted: “People
talk glibly about happiness, as if it had some relation to money. I wonder, I’ve been
working my heart out for all these years , running around the country playing at
dancesa nd theaters,m akingr ecords,w ritingm usic, rehearsinga t four in the morning,
and sleeping when the rest of the world works-yet sometimes I suddenly find
that I can’t laugh as spontaneouslya nd sincerelya s those peopleo n the wrongs ide
of the tracks with their bread spread with lard and their corn pone.” The affluent
band leader reflected, “all the money I’ve made-and I can’t laugh the way they
Few black musicians or listeners-or whites for that matter-enjoyed Ellington’s
opportunitiesN. onetheless,H erb Hall expressedt he same idea in similar language
in an interview in San Antonio, Texas. He explained that, if he had another chance
to live his life again, he would still choose to be a professionalm usician.H e was
“satisfiedw ith. . .life.” After all, life, he claimed, is “happiness.”” It’s doing the
things in life that you want to do. … If you’re not happy with what you’re doing,
you could be making all the money in the world, that wouldn’t help.”‘0
18 JOURNAL OF NEGRO HISTORY
Admittedly other institutions besides music reinforced the antimaterialism in
Afro-American values. Traditionally, the Christian theology of black and white
Americanse schewedt he adorationo f wealtha nd the easy life. This aspect of Christianityw
as of particularim portanceto slaves,w ho could own nothing,a nd freedmen
or sharecroppersw, ho managedt o own very little. The importanceg iven to extended
family relationshipsa nd kin networksm ight also weaken materialists trains in the
culture. And, of course, some of these musicians, such as Ellington, followed standard
business procedures to maximize income, but still they realized there were
limits to what money could accomplish.
The humanistice lementsi n black music cultureh ave not been sufficientlya ppreciated
by criticso r scholars.B esidesv aluingp ersonale xpressiono ver money,f eeling
overm echanistice xecution,a nd individualf reedomo verc onformityt, hese musicians
led lives which exemplifiedt heir warm feelings towardh umanityi n general.A s an
integralp art of their work, they communicatedt heir feelings-joy, sorrow,l oneliness-
to others for entertainment’sa ke and for more seriousr easons:t o reach out
to others and make life’s hardships bearable.
Bluesa nd jazz musiciansw ere reflectorsa s well as creatorso f both the worlda nd
the Afro-Americand omain which black folk shared. Jo Jones made this clear, as
well as the dedication of musicians, when he explained “to become a good jazz
musician, you must try to hear and see things that are beautiful. Be like a sponge,
absorb experience and play it.” He also emphasized the music’s curative and spiritual
powers when he claimed, “Music is therapy for people, and the most stimulating
music there is, is jazz. It is also the most spiritual of all musics.””
Blues singer Jimmy Rushing, a member of the Basie band along with Jones, expressed
the same idea. “The blues is a reflection of life; of things that happen to a
person.”H e maintainedt hat Bessie and Mamie Smith were real blues singers,s inging
blues “that speak of the world and its people in a realistic, life-like way.”
Personali nvolvementw as essential in order for these artists to sing or play convincingly
and to communicate their messages effectively. Rushing contended, “I
don’t like to do a blues until I feel like it. I’ve got to give something of myself.” And
Jo jones averred that, as a jazz musician, you “can’t play unless you have found
yourself, and it takes time to find ourselves.” Moreover, “an individual who plays
music and a musician-those are two different things.”‘
The fact that the musicians’ lives were burdened by racism makes their dedication
and humanisme ven more noteworthyF. or years critics have noted the protest
elementsf oundi n spirituals,f olk songs,a ndj azz, and there is no reasont o doubtt he
significanceo f this strandi n the body of black music. Nonetheless,i t is noteworthy
that there are no songs which counsel blacks to resist oppression through violent
struggle.T he reworkeds piritualso f the 1960’s,t he civil rightss ongs, were part of a
protestm ovement,b ut a non-violento ne-non-violent for the activists,t hat is. This
alone should remindu s of the humanisticc ore in the Afro-Americanh eritagea nd
the kinds of values it perpetuates.’1
New Orleans clarinetist Johnny Dodds, who recorded with Joe “King” Oliver and
Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, discussed the obstacles Afro-Americans faced and
noted that he was a messenger of good will in a hostile world. “It’s hard for a
colored person down South-so much discrimination-that’s why most of us never
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BLUES 19
went back except for a short trip sometimes.” But then racism never left them
alone, as Dodds observed “a lot of us found it hard up North, too,” particularly
becauseo f job and housingd iscriminationa nd exclusionf rom restaurantsa nd resorts.
R athert han expressingb itternessa t these conditions,D oddsw as ratherr eluctant
to condemn. “Maybe that’s all right, I don’t know but you could get a chance
Dodds elaborated on the hostility that he and other musicians encountered in
seekingw ork,a nd he did so in terms that are quite memorable”: The minute I step
throught he doore verybodylo oksa t me as if I were a strangea nimal-turning their
heads and staring at me like I was going to hurt them.” Dodds pointed out that he
did not stare at them, and then stated what might be the credo of these artists: “I
wouldn’t do anything to them except give them as much pleasure as I could if they’d
Black musical values stressed giving pleasure, and they also served as a basis of
humanr elationshipsb etweenm usiciansa s well as betweent he artist and his audience.
In order to give, one had to be a willing recipient, that is in order to play for
peopley ou had to learn how to play with people.T he distinctioni s noteworthya nd
was made by Jo Jones. He contended that the music and lives of different musicians
was so intermingledit permittedt hem to sit down and play together” as thoughw e
just playedy esterday”e ven thought hey had not performedf or years. “Musici s just
that close. . . . We understand each other.” The reason for this understanding was
to be found in learning “how to play with people, not for people.”‘6
Jones explained that at times he was listening more than he was playing, meaning
not what it seemed, for in each instance he played, albeit differently depending on
the situation. “I was always an audience. I will be an audience as long as I live.”
The drum,m oreoverw, as “the first instrument,”b ut still, contendedJ ones, himself
a drummer, “without the bass fiddle [accompanying him] I don’t know how to
play.” The interrelationshipb etween artists was just that important:m usic was
based on sharing their lives and work and upon close cooperation.17
Tenors axophonistL ester Young, knowna s “Pres,”t hat is, presidento f the tenor
sax among jazz musicians and fans, was the apex of all they believed in and expressed
ideas similar to Jones. Both played together in the Basie band for years
before coming to New York City. In an interview, Young emphasized the interdependency
of musicians and the necessity for restraint to allow room for the individual
soloist to express himself. The Basie rhythm section, he recalled, “was good
because they played together. . . . They played for you when you were taking a
solo. They weren’t playing solos behind you.”18
In the 1950s Young led bands and explained that despite criticism, he always
allowed room for his musicians to solo and to express themselves. Young often
played with the musicians of the area where he was staying, and listeners wanted to
hear more from the leading proponento f a style of tenor sax playing for over two
decades. Pres recalled, “Sometimes I get bawled out by people who wanted to hear
me play more, but I believe if you’re paying a man to play, and if that man is on the
band stand and can play, he should get a chance to tell his story.” To accomplish
this one should not only give the soloist space but not interfere in one’s accompaniment.
“I don’t get in his way, and I let him play, and he shouldn’t get in mine.”19
20 JOURNAL OF NEGRO HISTORY
Such values as these permit people to express their innermost feelings, communicate
joy and sorrow, and cooperate with others, and they have a great deal to offer a
nationi n which competitivenessi,n dividualr ights, and the sanctityo f privatep roperty
are apostheosizedT. his is to suggest that the wisdom of the rich and their
tremendouse nergya nd talent for obtainingw ealth is of limited utility. The experiences
of the materially poor people who are in touch with their selves and their own
reality, and whose humanism is manifest in their philosophy and lifestyles, need to
be consulted for the extension of democracy within the nation’s borders as well as
for its survival.
It may be unclearw hy it is necessaryt o tap the wisdomo f Afro-Americansa nd
to appreciate the values underlying their music culture. The problems the nation
faces in the late twentiethc entury-poverty, unemploymenth, igh interestr ates, unproductivem
ilitarys pending,f oreignc ompetitiona, nd the declineo f traditionalv alues
which lead to the increase in forms of violence (homicide, rape, child abuse), are
not going to be solved by some panacea. Neither hard work, thrift, computer literacy,
prayeri n schoolsn or a returnt o the fundamentalsw ill permits urvivalo r promise
much in the way of prosperityin light of the problemsf acing us. Our rich material
resources once permitted citizens to avoid confronting many dilemmas, but
today it is clear that there are limits to our abilities to exploit the resources of other
nations and to utilize our own efficiently.
If we view the nation’sh istory from the perspectiveo f Afro-Americansw, e can
understand that racism, slavery, oppression, and exploitation of our natural resources
have ranked among the more fundamental aspects of the United States’
charactera nd policies;t hey are not aberrationsin an otherwisef lawlessd esign. The
free enterprises ystemw hichi s glorifiedm ost by those who have benefitedf rom it in
a very personal and tangible fashion is seen more clearly for its inequities when
viewed from the perspective of the victims. Capitalism marched in lock-step with
slaverya nd other formso f exploitationo f labor.I t may not be coincidencet hat legal
segregation followed slavery and occurred precisely at that time when businesses
became monopoliesa nd large-scalec orporations.
And despite the recent changes during the Civil Rights era-political reforms,
includingt he end of legal segregations-fundamentale conomicp rogressh as not occurredi
n Afro-America( or among the poor). The generallyi mpoverisheds tate of
Afro-Americans’h, igh mortality and unemploymentr ates and the persistenceo f
ghetto life are solutions, not problems. This condition exists because powerful elements
of the society desire them, or do not dislike them sufficientlyt o do anything
What is significant is more than the failure of this experiment in democracy and
republicang overnmentn; or is it the success and achievementsw hich some citizens
continuet o glorify, ignoringt he perspectivet hat I have presented.R ather it is the
combination of these two streams, the continued failure to achieve its purported
goals in such a rich land, that is what is distinctive about the nation’s history. The
contradictionb etweent he rhetorica nd the realityi s encounteredo n numerouso ccasions:
white colonists demanded freedom from Great Britain while holding blacks in
bondage; five of the first seven presidents of the republic owned slaves; state politicians
promised to enfranchise property-less whites and immigrants while disTHE
SIGNIFICANCE OF BLUES 21
franchisinge ven the affluent,e ducatedb lack citizens;t he nationo penedi ts doorst o
Europeansw hile the SupremeC ourtd eclaredA fro-Americanws ere not citizens;t he
South seceded and risked war to protect the property of a powerful minority and to
fasten the slaves’ chains even more tightly; the Supreme Court declared that separate
institutionsw ere legal as long as they were equal and then ignoredt he effects
of their decisiona nd the ultimateo bjectiveo f Southernerst o humiliateb lacks;a nd
then the reverse higher court decision resulted in greater segregation in the North
Froma n Afro-Americanp erspectivet, he nation’sh istoryh as been characterized
by optimistice xpectationsf ollowedb y disappointmentT. his is the very essence of
the blues experience.T he disappointmenpt roducesa blue mood and a situationi n
which blues can aid in our comprehensiono f the experiencea nd perhapsh elp us to
arrive at a solution. During the present decade of the 1980s, any thinking citizen is
susceptible to an attack of the blues when he reads the headlines.
What is most meaningful about blues is that, in Afro-America, it is more than
just a mood. One does not simply wallow in disappointmentA. s Charles Keil and
numerousm usicianse mphasize,b lues is also an active agent, a meanso f overcoming
the sense of despair. Ultimately, the blues music and experience give hope and
strengtht o overcomed isappointmentsT. he protagonisti n Ralph Ellison’sI nvisible
Man, a blues novel, prepares for a new life at the work’s end, despite the reversals
he sufferedt hroughoutA. s Jo Jones noted, music is therapy,a nd this is particularly
the case with the sorrows ongs,o r spirituals,a nd blues and jazz. Keil has contended
something very similar: the secular bluesman serves a function similar to that of the
minister,p sychiatrista, nd counselor.21
Some black intellectualsh ave realizedt he significanceo f blues as therapyu seful
in life’s struggles. A South African writer, Lewis Nkosi, compared and emphasized
similar cultural patterns in Afro-American and African societies. He toured the
United States, visited Harlem,a nd listenedt o white and black entertainersH. e perceptively
noted that “the Negro approach to singing is not basically to entertain,
thoughp eopled o get entertained,b ut to celebrate-in Africa the collectivee xperience
of the people, in the Americas. . .the Self or Being.” Nkosi clarified his thinking
when he insistedt he distinctionh e was makingw as “fundamentatlo an appreciation
of the blues, which may have the most sentimental of lyrics, sagging under the
weight of self-pity, but will always sound as though the singer were celebrating
something-even pain.” Nkosi added that the acceptance of suffering as an existential
fact of life “is also paramount in the musical expression of the Negro.”22
An Afro-Americanw riter,R ichardW right, made a similar point when he wrote
the introductionto Paul Oliver’sc lassic, Blues Fell This Morning.D espite his Mississippib
irtha nd childhoodt, he leadingb lack novelisto f the 1940s and 1950s rarely
mentioned blues or music in his writings, but in 1959 he described the blues as,
“thoughr epletew ith a sense of defeat and down-heartedness[,b lues] are not intrinsically
pessimistic; their burden of woe and melancholy is dialectically redeemed
throughs heer force of sensuality.”F urthermoreb, lues leads to redemptiona, s they
constitute” an almost exultant affirmationo f life, of love, of sex, of movement,o f
hope.” Wright continued, “No matter how repressive was the American environ22
JOURNAL OF NEGRO HISTORY
ment, the Negro never lost faith in or doubted his deeply endemic capacity to
The active agent in blues, whether it is the music itself or the process, is particularly
relevant for grasping the fact that we can overcome the limitations of our
societya nd the resultso f our history.S uch activitiesw ill be meaninglessu nlesst hey
are groundedi n the ethos shared by Afro-Americansa nd their musicians.T hese
ethical values stress humanismo ver materialism,c ooperationo ver competitiona nd
individualismf,r eedomo ver uniformity,a nd artistic expressiono ver numbingw ork
or mere technique.
Thus blues, an art form developed in the nation by slaves and their descendants,
has a special significancef or every citizen who has an enlighteneds ense of the nation’s
history and its potential. The despair that will grip us as we come to realize
the hiatus between what we thought was true of the nation, and its history, and
what actually occurred, can be overcome. It does not have to signal the end of the
experiment-nuclear holocaust, or the rise of fascism, or even a decline into
whatever we fear most. It might constitute a necessary phase in which we realize
our mistakes, draw upon the blues experience, and find a means of realizing the
ambitions we have for the nation.
** The quotationb y tenors axophonisTt heodore” Sonny”Rollinasp pearso n his album” FreedomS uite”
(Milestones – SMJ – 6044M; originally issued on Riverside – RLP 12-258).
1 Leroi Jones, Blues People: Negro Music in America (New York, 1963); Charles Keil, Urban Blues
(Chicago, 1965); Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York, 1971); Lawrence
W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consc iousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery
to Freedom (New York, 1977).
2 Some of the better autobiographies are Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (New
York, 1954); Sidney Bechet, Treat it Gentle (New York, 1960); Tom Stoddard, The Autobiography of
Pops Foster: New Orleans Jazzman (Berkeley, 1971); Alan Lomax, Mister Jelly Roll (New York,
1950);E dwardK ennedy” Duke”E llington,M usic Is My Mistress(GardenC ity, N.Y., 1973); Hampton
Hawes and Don Asher, Raise Up Off Me (New York, 1979 ed.) Arthur Taylor, Notes and Tones: Musician
to MusicianI nterviews( Liege, 1977) gives insightsi nto a numbero f aspectso f the music,v alues,
and lives of mid-twentiethce nturym usicians.
3 Paul E. Miller, “The Music of My Race Is Going To Live,” Music and Rhythm 2 (May 1942), 13.
4 Ibid., 12-13; Albert “Budd” Johnson interview, Jazz Oral History Project, Institute of Jazz Studies
(hereafter JOHP/IJS), Rutgers University Newark, N.J.
6 MarkT homas,” I’m A Roamin’R ambler:L onnieJ ohnson,”J azz Quarterly2 (No. 4), 18.
6 Dom Cerulli, “Jo Jones,” Downbeat 25 (June 26, 1958), 17; “Clarinet Advice by Barney Bigard,”
Music and Rhythm 2 (June 1942), 34 “Alto Advice by Johnny Hodges,” Music and Rhythm 2 (July,
7 Ibid.; Downbeat 26 (January 22, 1959), 19; March 19, 1959, 19.
8 Paul Miller, “The Music of My Race,”12-13.
1O Herb Hall interviewT, rinityU niversity.
” Dan Morgenstern”, TakingC are of Business,”D ownbeat3 2 (March 25, 1965), 35.
12 B. Korall, “I’ve Got to Get Close to A Blues,” Melody Maker 32 (September 7, 1957), 2; Morgenstern,
“Taking Care,” 35.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BLUES 23
13 Cedric Robinsion, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (London, 1983), 242-
47 points out that Afro-American rebels were historically and culturally predisposed to pursuing spiritual
and non-confrontative avenues rather than social conflict and offensive warfare.
14 Paul Roumaine, “Johnny Dodds is Dead, But His Soul Goes Swinging on,” Music and Rhythm 1
(November 1940), 77.
16 JOHP/IJS interview; see also “Jo Jones Speaks Out,” Jazz Journal 25 (December 1972), 6-8.
18 Nat Hentoff, “Pres,” Downbeat 23 (March 7, 1956), 10.
20 Sar A. Levitan et al., Still A Dream: The Changing Status of Blacks Since 1960 (Cambridge, Mass.,
1975) analyzes and assesses the significance of change, or lack of it, in Afro-America. Newspaper articles,
based on government statistics, substantiate the claim that Afro-American progress has been as
symbolic as it has been real; see, for example, Spencer Rich, “Black Lagging Despite Gains, Study
Says,” Boston Globe (December 15, 1982) and, despite the title, see “Gains for Black Couples Found in
1970,” Los Angeles Times (August 22, 1983), which claims “income gains for Blacks in general tended
to lag behind the overall population.”
21 Keil, Urban Blues, 164.
22 Lewis Nkosi, Home and Exile (London, 1965), 73-74.
23 From Paul Oliver,Blues Fell This Morning, as quoted in Nkosi, Home and Exile, 75. For Wright’s
ideas on blues and jazz, see John McCluskey, Jr., “Two Steppin’: Richard Wright’s Encounter with Blue-
Jazz,” American Literature 55 (October 1983), 332-44.
One of the better analyses of blues, their meaning, and relationship to Black history and culture, James
H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (New York, 1972), points out their similarity
to the spiritual. The other important studies of blues and bluesmen include Arna Bontemps (ed.), Father
of the Blues: An Autobiography (New York, 1970 ed.); Samuel Barclay Charters, The Bluesmen; the
Story and the Music of the Men who made the Blues (New York, 1967) and The Country Blues (New
York, 1959); William Ferris, Blues From the Delta (London, 1970); Michael Lydon and Ellen Mandel,
Boogie Lightnin: How Music Became Electric (New York, 1974 ed.) and Robert Palmer, Deep Blues
(New York, 1982 ed.).
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