Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The History of the Blues

by Francis Davis

As part of my ongoing efforts to expand my musical horizons, I've been reading quite a few music books. Compared to the huge fucking text book about classical music I read last year, this book about the blues was very light and easy reading. Mainly because the blues is fairly colourful subject matter (most of it's foremost practitioners were shady characters at the best and many were criminals), but also because the author has a very engaging, informal voice, (although not always a good natured one, as he often digresses to bring the snark against fellow blues historians, substandard blues popularisers and rap music).

The book was very enlightening, although I can't claim to have an opinion on the blues itself from reading it, as I yet lack the important experience of listening to all the stuff he talks about, but the book at least gives me loads of recordings and artists to start with. One thing that struck me was the similarity of the blues in the early 1900s to rap music today. Both styles are the music of a black underclass which serves to work out the frustration of social injustices while almost never dealing with these subjects directly. Davis suggests that the subject matter of most blues songs, and the no-good personas of the performers, are internalisations of the white prejudices of the black underclass. It's easy to see the parallel to gangster rap. In the 80s urban black youth were characterised as a race of degenerate criminals, so along came a musical subgenre where the performers loudly proclaim themselves to be the biggest, most degenerate criminals around. See also the use in the rural blues of the derogatory term 'coon' and rap's use of the word 'nigger'. On the other hand musically the two styles have absolutely nothing in common.

It was a fun book to read, but it perhaps assumed a little more knowledge of the music it refers to than I have. Hopefully I'll remedy that soon.


Benevolent said...
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Joel said...

I really should do some reading of musical styles that go further back than 1970. I mean I listen to a fair amount of classical music now and then (for some reason I quite like Brahms) but haven't actually read much about what was going on, who was influenced by who etc.

Jon said...

Yeah it's a huge subject and it takes a lot of listening as well as a lot of reading to get a handle on any unfamiliar musical genre. Especially classical, there's just so damn much of it.

Joel said...

Guess it'd be like talking about 20th century music in 200 years time ;)

There are really many categories of "classical" but to us people in the future it seems all pretty similar unless you actually learn about it.

Jon said...

Yeah classical all seems the same to us, but really there's hundreds of years of development between Vivaldi and Ravel, and they're as different as metal and bluegrass.