“We used to have all these pretty dance tunes…”



excerpt of interview with Elijah Wald from http://www.afropop.org:

If you interviewed anybody who was living in Mississippi in 1910 and 1920, and asked them when they first heard blues, at that time, those people, that generation, they did not talk about their parents in the fields, or their grandparents. They talked about the blues arriving on records by people like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. You talk to Son House, who taught Robert Johnson, and he says, “When I was growin’ up, wasn’t nothin’ pertainin’ to no blues.”

Blues came in from the north, on records. Now that doesn’t mean it didn’t have lots of roots in the older music. But it was a new, hot pop style. And you actually talk to older musicians down there, they talk about how blues ruined the nice old music. How “We used to have all these pretty dance tunes, and then that blues came in and wiped it all out.”

And the same guys who were working at that work song, their fathers were mostly fiddlers – if they played music – and they were playing square dances. That’s what people forget, is that the fathers of all of the black musicians we think of as the blues stars were fiddle players if they were musicians. In fact, Big Bill Broonzy himself was a fiddle player who moved up to Chicago and learned to play guitar. And they played black square dances. And we’ve just forgotten that whole tradition. But that’s as much a part of blues as the work songs, and it also is as much a part of the inheritance from Africa, where fiddles were a very common instrument.

I mean, the banjo is an African instrument! And looking at American Southern music and saying the African inheritance is the black work songs, not banjo playing, is a way of essentially rewriting history to say that all the slaves brought with them was their work songs, and not this involved, complicated instrumental tradition that we now think of as white hillbilly music, a lot of it, but they didn’t have that stuff in Ireland and England! And you know, we have to think of banjo playing as the African inheritance just as much as the work songs.

You can listen to the Mississippi Sheiks, who were the most popular band in the Mississippi Delta in the delta blues days, and they were led by a fiddle player named Lonnie Chatmon, and they did a song called “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” which was so popular that it was recorded by white hillbilly bands, by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and by Howlin’ Wolf in an electric hit, and which Robert Johnson turns into “Come On In My Kitchen,” and that’s typical fiddle music, but they also played square dances.

Then you listen to Son House, who was Robert Johnson’s teacher, and he does his version of “Walkin’ Blues,” which Robert Johnson recorded, and which a lot of people have since done. And he recorded that with himself on slide guitar, and a second guitar, a harmonica, and a guy playing mandolin, who also doubled on fiddle. That was very typical down there. American music, be it black or be it white, is absolutely affected each by the other, and country western music does not sound like Irish music, and blues does not sound like African music.

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