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At what point the blues actually began is a question that is more difficult to answer than you can possibly imagine. Who first sang the blues and turned what was then negro work songs and spirituals into the form we now know is also an impossible question to answer. But what we can speak about is its roots and influences, the musical forms and traditions that eventually shaped the blues.
It, of course, all began in West Africa. There, storytellers known as Griots sang of legends and religious tales while playing an instrument that would become an important ingredient of the shaping of the blues, the Riti. A Riti was made of an elongated gourd that was dried until it hardened like plastic. It also had five strings down the middle. By the time this instrument reached the American south via the slave trade it evolved into the banjo. It was then changed, remodeled, and eventually popularized by a white man, Picayne Butler, and his black-faced minstrel shows.
The term "blues", as applied in a musical sense, was coined in 1911 by Hart Wand who played a violin. Once, when Wand began playing at his father's tent drugstore, a customer heard his tune and replied "That gives me the blues to go back to Dallas". When Wand asked friend Annabelle Robbins to arrange his music for publication, he titled it "The Dallas Blues". When jazz and marching band composer W.C. Handy published his "Memphis Blues", also in 1911, and then "St. Louis Blues" in 1914, the term the "blues" finally entered the public's consciousness. Lifting the term from Wand's earlier "Dallas Blues", Handy's blues were more ragtime jazz and marches than the blues as it's now known. Commercial recording of the blues didn't start until eight years later, in 1922.
Of course, we can only speculate, but the most likely birthplace of the blues is, without a doubt, Mississippi. There, the blues roots took shape, in the form of spirituals, chaingang chants, African Griots and even ragtime.
The blues at first did not have many restrictions as a form. It consisted of rags, folk ballads, country rags, gospels, and even children's songs. The reason the blues we know today resembles such a restricted style which eventually made it stale, is due to the fact that most recording companies of the time only recorded what they thought would sell.
Even though we may never know who sang the first note of blues we can certainty trace its origins and roots. From Africa to the American south, from chaingangs to dancehalls, the blues has had an amazing development.
Next: The Country Blues
"The Enlightenment" is ©2002 by Terence Nuzum. Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova. Contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review is ©2002 by Nolan B. Canova.