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To Be Blue is to Sing the Blues

To Be Blue is to Sing the Blues

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Published by Erwin Bosman
The article aims at gathering some of the statements and arguments in the over debated question on the balance of the European and African cultural elements in the blues. It finds that the different positions in the debate bear a remarkable resemblance to two theoretical schools in the cultural anthropology, namely the cultural evolutionist approach and the contextual approach (cultural ecology). A number of explanations are put forth why the debate persists. The author is not optimistic as to the probability of a substantial progress in the debate, unless emphasis in research shifts towards a more inclusive perspective instead of the dominant fragmentary view. In particular, the need is felt for more comparative studies which would offer elements against which the findings related to the blues could be articulated. This leads the author in the margin to the inevitable question why only the vernacular ‘bluesy’ African American music has succeeded in influencing western popular music but not other vernacular ‘bluesy’ genres as tango or fado.
The article aims at gathering some of the statements and arguments in the over debated question on the balance of the European and African cultural elements in the blues. It finds that the different positions in the debate bear a remarkable resemblance to two theoretical schools in the cultural anthropology, namely the cultural evolutionist approach and the contextual approach (cultural ecology). A number of explanations are put forth why the debate persists. The author is not optimistic as to the probability of a substantial progress in the debate, unless emphasis in research shifts towards a more inclusive perspective instead of the dominant fragmentary view. In particular, the need is felt for more comparative studies which would offer elements against which the findings related to the blues could be articulated. This leads the author in the margin to the inevitable question why only the vernacular ‘bluesy’ African American music has succeeded in influencing western popular music but not other vernacular ‘bluesy’ genres as tango or fado.

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Published by: Erwin Bosman on Sep 26, 2011
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- To be blue is to sing the blues
Posted on September 26th, 2011
 Abstract:The article aims at gathering some of the statements and arguments in the over debated question on thebalance of the European and African cultural elements in the blues. It finds that the different positions inthe debate bear a remarkable resemblance to two theoretical schools in the cultural anthropology, namely the cultural evolutionist approach and the contextual approach (cultural ecology). A number of explanations are put forth why the debate persists. The author is not optimistic as to the probability of asubstantial progress in the debate, unless emphasis in research shifts towards a more inclusive perspective instead of the dominant fragmentary view. In particular, the need is felt for more comparativestudies which would offer elements against which the findings related to the blues could be articulated.This leads the author in the margin to the inevitable question why only the vernacular ‘bluesy’ African American music has succeeded in influencing western popular music but not other vernacular ‘bluesy’ genres as tango or fado.
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Is it the blues in life which has given or gives rise to the blues in music?A simple question, which I believe most of us – including myself – will spontaneously affirm. And, yet, itdeserves a closer inspection. If at the end of reading this article you agree with me that a simple affirmationis probably a bit too simplistic, then I consider my mission as accomplished. I will have succeeded insharing with you the flavor of some of the many questions I have been struggling with lately as it were from‘can to can’t’. But beware, before reading any further, there are more questions than answers. Don’t blameit on me when you are left more puzzled at the end than what you are now.My original intention of the article was to shortly describe the magnificence of the joyous events that tookplace in the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th century on the “Place de Nègres”, in NewOrleans, a place commonly known as the “Congo Square”. Slaves gathered there on Sunday not only tosing and dance in their style, but also to organize a market for goods they were allowed to sell. The CongoSquare was on Sundays bubbling over with life, contrasting sharply with the more restrained activities onthe Sabbatical day on the northern plantations of Virginia and Carolina. In a later article, I intend to comeback on the Congo Square which even today inspires artists not only in America (see the “Congo Squaretheatre” in Chicago), but all over the world (“Congo Square” is e.g. also as a company formed in the winter of 2002 to promote jazz and blues in India).F.W. Evans has very recently published the results of her research during more than 15 years on theCongo Square. On the cover of the book I read comments as : “The bloodlines of all important modernAmerican music can be traced to Congo Square”, and the “Congo Square is iconic in African Americanhistory. The music and the dance of the gathering place transformed the art forms of this country”. I cansubscribe to the importance of the magnificent work that F.W. Evans has accomplished to give us moreinsight in this major cultural monument in American cultural history. However, we need to put the Congo
 MyBlues
The way I feel about blues
- To be blue is to sing the blues | MyBlueshttp://www.myblues.eu/blog/?p=15171 van 1526/09/2011 12:30
 
Square in a broader perspective to comprehend and evaluate its full significance. It brings us ultimately tothe question of and how the forced migration of 0.5 million Africans has influenced American music. If weaccept that blues and its immediate relative, jazz, has influenced modern musical history – and there arearguments enough to support this assertion – then how and to which extent can we trace back the blues toits slaves antecedents? Are the bloodlines completely traceable or has blood been altered significantlyduring its lines of genealogy?I believe that we should in the first place be clear that there is no generally agreed definition of blues music.From a musical point of view, the genre can be described in terms of its emphasis on (poly-) rhythm,percussion, anti-phony, polyphony,… But as soon as such a definition is given, examples can be put forthof songs which do not fit the general criteria. Since I am a layman on this domain, I will limit myself here toreferring to the Encyclopedia of the Blues edited by Komara (2006: 105-110) which contains further references. It is also illustrative to look at the many attempts that have been made to pigeonhole thevarious past and actual styles in the blues.In cultural-historical terms the matter is not easier, on the contrary. It would be limitative to study the bluesin terms of a single, linear historical line that starts with slavery up to the first documented observations of blues by Jelly Roll Morton, Charles Peabody, Ma Rainey or W.C. Handy. The fact that the debate on this‘line’ is heavily burdened with ideological positions doesn’t make it any simpler. It is a small step fromraising questions about the degree of purity of the African element in the historical blood line of blues togetting involved in a fierce political and emotional debate about ethnic issues. All cultural dimensions are infine linked to their social-economic and political context, including music, but there are only few musicalgenres that are so closely linked to their social context than blues, and that are so much susceptible tocreating a vigorous discussion. The comparison is probably a bit unfortunate, but I feel that emotions in thediscussion on the nature and origin of blues are often as fierce as when fans of different football teamsmeet. Don’t get me wrong: this debate is inspiring. It is also fully comprehensible since at the end of theday the arguments that are put forth by the parties are related to their self-definition as member of aparticular social group. Discussing the blues is discussing about one’s soul as it is related to the group towhich one belongs. It is also a very democratic debate in which all social strata can participate: from theacademic to the musician, from the well to do business man to the man or women who has to fight eachday to make ends meet. Emotional arguments are often as valid as empirical evidence, which at the end of the day need a theoretical frame to gain meaning.I do not want to take a position in this debate in what follows, only to understand and to position it in alarger context. It was for me refreshing to realize that the “roots debate” can be brought down, in generalterms, to two different approaches that also exist in the cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology is abranch of anthropology – i.e. study of humanity – that focuses on the study of cultural variation in societiesand that collects data about the impact of global economic and political processes on local cultural realities.One such an approach posits that human beings share a set of characteristics and modes of thinking that
- To be blue is to sing the blues | MyBlueshttp://www.myblues.eu/blog/?p=15172 van 1526/09/2011 12:30
 
go beyond, that transcend individual cultures. It attempts to describe and to explain long-term changes inhuman ways of life. The term “cultural evolution” is used for specifying a focus on long-term changes not inproperties of a social group as such (e.g., its sheer size or location), but in the way of life – thecharacteristic artifacts, behaviors, and ideas –
of 
the group. This theory which primarily centers oncontinuity, on what unites the present with the past is called the cultural evolutionist approach
.
In another approach, denominated as cultural ecology, the cultural change is seen as the result of adaptiveprocesses in response to the specific context and characteristics of the local environment at a particular point in time. The cultural ecology will more than the evolutionist approach focus on the correlation betweena particular environment and the culture which it creates. Cultural ecology emphasizes that the specificcharacteristic of a environment (region or time period) plays a significant role in shaping the culture of itspopulation. It stresses the contextual element of cultural evolution.With some simplification one could compare those approaches to the “nature versus nurture” debate whichis one of the oldest issues in psychology: what is the relative contribution of genetic inheritance versusenvironmental factors to human development?With this distinction in mind I have collected a limited sample of statements on the history of blues andblack music that come from different sources, going from academic studies to forum discussions on theWeb. I then labeled each relevant statement whether it expressed an evolutionist or a cultural “ecological”approach. A number of statements, a minority, steered a middle course. Under here, I give a short overviewof the statements. Sometimes they are literally quoted (without referring however to the author), sometimestextual adaptations have been applied to make them more comprehensible and readable within the presentcontext.
The cultural evolutionist approach
- The history of the American Negro is the history of the strife and the longing to attain self-consciousmanhood, to merge his double self (an American and a Negro) into a truer and better self. This dual identityis a dominant theme in the Afro-American experience, which is reflected in his politics, religion and hismusic.- It is the
African resistance to total acculturation
that produced a hybrid culture known as African-American. By accepting certain attributes of the master’s culture which were essential to their survival or congenial to their past learning, and clinging to those aspects of the African culture to which they found nosatisfactory substitute, the Africans cut a niche for themselves in a predominantly white society.- The lives of all black people in America have been fundamentally shaped by the racial experience of slavery; the memory of enforced servitude in the past has molded attitudes and feelings in the present andhas conditioned the black American’s stance in the world. Since the end of slavery,
the blackcommunities have been searching for their identities in relation to white culture, in relation to
- To be blue is to sing the blues | MyBlueshttp://www.myblues.eu/blog/?p=15173 van 1526/09/2011 12:30

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