The origin of the Blues is a matter of considerable contention. I like Alan Lomax’s explanation in The Land Where Blues Began, but I believe that the truth is intensely complex. All history is an interweaving of many strands, and the history of the Blues is no different.
The Blues belongs to its own place and time. We have only fragments from that time, because this wonderful music was not considered significant during its formative years. Indeed, Bluesmen were considered racially inferior, and most of the early recordings were made not by music lovers but by museum anthropologists recording a foreign culture. Under the bizarre Jim Crow laws in the Southern US, Whites were prohibited from entering establishments frequented by Blacks.
Charlie Patton was one of the first Blues guitarists. By 1911 he was travelling the South, and playing at Saturday night juke joints. Tommy Johnson may have been the first to tell the story of the Devil tuning his guitar at the crossroads and giving him the spirit of the Blues. He recorded in 1918. The music Patton and Johnson played reaches back to the field hollers of the Black slaves, and the worksongs of the muleskinners.
Muleskinners is an unfortunate term for men who drove mules while the Mississippi Levee was being built. The Levee features in Led Zeppelin’s (or indeed Memphis Minnie’s) When the Levee Breaks. The Levee is the largest work of human engineering so far created, even bigger than the Great Wall of China. It was an attempt to contain the mighty Mississippi river. Lomax explains that the builders of the Levee found that Black muleskinners got more work out of the animals than their Irish precursors. It seems that this was because the Black muleskinners sang to their mules.
But the Blues is a fusion of cultures. It has origins in West Africa, but, as Jimi Hendrix observed, Irish folk music has similarities to the Blues. And the cradle of the Blues is also the home of Bluegrass and Country music. Popular Jazz intermingled Black Afro-American music with Western Classical music and songwriting from the Jewish tradition (such luminaries as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin). Blues and Jazz draw from similar roots. Indeed, the separation between them is to some extent academic. In the 1920s, a Bluesman such as Lonnie Johnson often recorded with Eddie Lang, nominally a Jazz guitarist. Technically there is nothing to choose between them, and Lang usually played the accompaniment.
Africa provided a far more complicated suite of rhythms than Europe. It also gave tonal variation – heard as a sustaining and flattening of notes. European music provided the simple form of the song. It seems odd to suggest that the song – and most especially the love song – is an invention that belongs to a particular culture or time, but it may well be true. The love song can be traced back to the Troubadour movement, at the time of minstrelsy and chivalry. It’s entry into European culture seems to have been the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the twelfth century.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was the wife successively of a king of France, and of the English king, Henry II. Henry was arguably the most powerful monarch in the Western world. He was Duke of Anjou, Brittany and Normandy. With his marriage to Eleanor, he controlled most of modern France (although he owed fealty – or loyalty – to the French king for these possessions). He also ruled most of Wales, and the Irish Lords asked him to intervene in their disputes, which for all practical purposes made him King of Ireland. Eleanor and Henry were the parents of Richard I, called Lionheart, and John I, who figure in the Robin Hood myth. Henry II goes into history as one of the most influential lawmakers the world has seen. Eleanor goes into history as a crucial influence on culture.
The simple expedient that led to the chivalric movement, which dominated intellectual culture for hundreds of years in Europe, was the admission into Eleanor’s court of Jews from the Islamic world. It was the general practice in Christendom to exclude members of both of these religions. Indeed, Eleanor’s son Richard was to expel the Jews from his territories, and to wage a savage and despicable campaign against Islam. By tolerating religious differences, Eleanor stands at the inception of the Little Renaissance, the first stirring of the Renaissance, in the 1100s. Arab scholars had treasured the Classics of Greece and Rome – largely ignored or destroyed by the Europeans of the so called Dark Ages. They had also adopted the Indian number zero, and developed mathematics. Arabic numerals have been universally accepted for centuries. But another essential aspect of Islam was the love song.
Many years ago, I saw a TV documentary about a family of Pakistani Qawali singers called the Sabri brothers. These fine people tour Pakistan playing concerts in which they perform songs in five languages – ranging from the Urdu of present day Pakistan to Classical Persian. Peter Gabriel has said that Qawali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is simply the finest singer alive.
Qawali singers have been persecuted by Mosque and State alike, because they warn anyone who will listen to live decently rather than to simply obey the dictates of authority. Many of the songs are love songs, in which some huge, beardy bloke takes on the role of an innocent bride singing to her bridegroom. They are songs of adoration, often very similar to the simple pop songs of the sixties.
But as always with the Sufis, all is not as it appears. Qawalis are indeed part of that elusive and ancient movement that long predates Islam – Mahomet speaks with reverence of the Sufi sages – but is perceived by most to be part of that religion. The Sufis call themselves friends, and say that they travel the Way of Love. In discussing his belief in observation and experiment as the basis for science, the thirteenth century monk Roger Bacon actually credits the Sufis with its invention. Western texts prefer to call Bacon the originator of the scientific method. Similarly, the notion of evolution is credited to Charles Darwin (though he actually used the word descent himself). It had actually long existed in Sufi teaching, which also maintained the Classical Greek notion of atomic theory.
Sufis actually exist in all major religious denominations. They practice the dominant religion of the region in which they find themselves, and into that culture insert the scientific and compassionate ideas of Sufism. They have perhaps flourished in Islam because it is less prone to heretic burning than certain other faiths. As a side note, the word heresy houses its own dreadful concept – the word simply means choice. Something not permitted by bigots and dogmatists, and those who worship a bullying, intolerant god.
Sufis teach in a way that appeals to all intellects. So stories attributed to the Mullah Nasrudin are by now told as jokes in many cultures, but these apparently simple stories contain layers of meaning. They are parables, or analogies. When asked why he is scrabbling in the dust, the Mullah replies that he is looking for his key. Asked where he lost it, he explains that it is at his house, but he is looking here, because there is more light. Idries Shah explains that this is like a seeker who looks far afield for wisdom rather than in his own heart.
Nasrudin is an early take on the Marx brothers, but reveals many meanings (as of course do the Marx brothers – as Groucho said: time wounds all heels). Tibetans too speak of a teaching on the common level – for example the belief in demon exorcism – that has a different meaning to the intelligent – demons is just a term for hindering thoughts – and a further meaning to the enlightened – thoughts and demons are alike illusion, as the Buddha taught.
So it is with the Sufi song, preserved in its essence in the Qawali music of Pakistan. These love songs, just like the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament, are addressed to the Divinity, and speak of a permanent infatuation, the ecstasy of communion with God. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam provides a series of beautiful examples of this divided meaning. Where he speaks of ‘a glass of wine and thou’, Sufis will say that he is actually referring to the wine of understanding, and his love of God.
These mystical Sufi songs came into Europe at the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and with them a reverential attitude towards women. It is curious to think that the reversal of the metaphor – reverence to God expressed through a love song – should have initiated a movement where women were venerated. As of course they should be (and so should men). Out of the Troubadour movement came also beautiful songs directed to the Virgin Mary, as representative of the feminine. A fine example is the ethereal Lullay, Lullay, which recounts a vision of Mary.
This tradition of love songs was probably passed by White slaves – there were many Irish and Scottish slaves in the Caribbean and North America from the seventeenth century onward – to their Black companions. It is also quite possible that love songs had travelled to West Africa from neighbouring Islamic countries. With the fusion of West African polyrhythms and the love song, came the Blues.
Blues too often acts on at least two levels. Whether this is necessarily the intent of the authors is often unclear. Because they have frequently been persecuted, the Sufis have often buried meanings in their jokes, stories and songs. As with the Sufis, in the Blues secrets have to be concealed. The Vodou – or voodoo – background of many Bluesmen is obvious. Little Johnny the Conquer Root, the black cat bone, the Hoodoo man, and the Mojo are frequently referred to. Sexual references abound – many disguised to avoid punishment – so a man boasts of his jelly roll, and his ability to keep his damper down (called karezzo sex by Tantrists – it means being able to hold back and skirt the edge of orgasm). Only a couple of unexpurgated bawdy songs exist from the beginnings of the Blues (you can find one on Hot Nuts and Lollipops – Lucille Bogan’s distinctly obscene Shave ‘Em Dry).
The vicious campaign practised by the US against Haitian Vodou practitioners exemplifies the genuine need for caution among Bluesmen. At the very time that the Blues was developing, between 1915 and 1934, US troops occupied Haiti, and tried to extirpate the Vodou. Temples were burned down, ancient and venerated spirit-summoning drums smashed, Houngans and Mambos – Vodou’s priests and priestesses – tortured, beaten, imprisoned and murdered in a religious crusade. Vodou continues – as do the Sufis – to tolerate membership of any religion. And of course the Ku Klux Klan held sway in the Southern states through much of the twentieth century, lynching Black men who committed any offence to their redneck views.
And so we come full circle. The Blues represents the deepest urges and aspirations of humankind. And the Devil’s Music actually exalts God.