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Thursday, June 27, 2024

The discovery and exploitation of the blues


The history of blues music is deeply intertwined with the experiences of black Americans, from slavery to the early 20th century. The blues emerged from the profound cultural and emotional landscapes shaped by the labor, struggles, and resilience of black communities. This essay explores how black blues artists were discovered and exploited, their origins in slave labor and field work, the distinctive musical innovations they brought, the myths surrounding them, and their lasting legacy.


☝ Historical Context: Slavery and Labor


Black blues music originated from the African American experience, rooted in the brutal realities of slavery and later, the grueling work of freed laborers. Enslaved Africans brought with them rich musical traditions that evolved under the oppressive conditions of plantation life. After emancipation, many blacks worked on railroads and in cotton and corn fields, where their songs became a means of expression and solace. These work songs, spirituals, and field hollers laid the foundation for what would become the blues.



☝The Birth of the Blues


The blues began to take shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was characterized by its raw emotion, often lamenting the hardships and injustices faced by black Americans. Early blues musicians wrote and sang about themes of sorrow, love, labor, and resilience. They utilized a distinctive guitar technique known as "slide guitar," which involved using a metal or glass slide to create a wailing, expressive sound that mimicked the human voice.



☝Discovery and Exploitation


The commercial discovery of black blues artists began in the 1920s when recording studios and talent scouts sought new sounds to profit from. Labels like Paramount Records, Okeh Records, and Columbia Records recognized the commercial potential of blues music but often exploited the musicians. These artists were paid minimal fees for their recordings, with little to no royalties. The recordings were marketed primarily to black audiences, but as interest grew, the music began to reach wider, predominantly white audiences.




Notable early blues artists recorded between 1910 and 1950 included legends like Bessie Smith, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Robert Johnson. These musicians played pivotal roles in shaping the genre, despite often facing exploitation and racism.


☝ Myths and Legends


The blues genre is replete with myths and legends, most famously surrounding Robert Johnson. Tales of Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads to achieve musical prowess have become folklore, highlighting both the mystical and misunderstood aspects of blues musicians. These stories, while intriguing, often overshadowed the real-life struggles and genius of these artists.




☝Segregation and Cultural Appropriation


Despite the talent of black blues musicians, their music was rarely played on mainstream American radio due to racial segregation. Many songs by black artists were re-recorded by white musicians, who received more airplay and financial success. Artists like Elvis Presley popularized songs initially written and performed by black musicians, often without proper credit or compensation to the original creators.



☝ Exploitation and Rediscovery


Blues pioneers were undeniably exploited, receiving minimal financial reward for their contributions. However, the British blues scene of the 1960s and 70s, featuring artists like Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and the Rolling Stones, brought renewed attention to the original blues musicians. These British artists idolized the black blues musicians, often citing them as major influences and helping to bring their music to new audiences. This period marked a resurgence of appreciation for the blues and its pioneers, leading to belated recognition and, in some cases, financial restitution.




☝ Legacy of the Blues Pioneers


The legacy of black blues musicians is profound and enduring. Their music laid the groundwork for numerous genres, including rock 'n' roll, jazz, and modern R&B. The emotional depth and innovative techniques of blues continue to inspire musicians worldwide. The stories of these pioneers, from their struggles to their artistic triumphs, are celebrated today, ensuring that their contributions to music and culture are never forgotten.


In conclusion, black blues artists navigated a complex landscape of discovery and exploitation. From the fields and railroads to the recording studios, their music reflected the pain and resilience of black America. Despite facing significant exploitation and cultural appropriation, their influence persists, and their legacy is honored by contemporary musicians and historians alike. The blues remains a testament to the enduring spirit and creativity of its pioneers.

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