Blues music at its inception is the music of the downtrodden and poor. Having its roots in the plantations of the South, blues music gave expression to the trials and sufferings of African-Americans who had suffered slavery, injustice, and poverty. According to Scaruffi (2003), “Music remained the main vehicle to vent the frustration of a people, but the end of slavery introduced the individual: instead of being defined by a group (the faithful or the workers), the black singer was now free to and capable of defining himself as an individual. His words and mood still echoed the condition of an entire people, but solo singers represented a new take on that condition, the view of a man finally enabled to travel, and no longer a prisoner of his community, although, sometimes, more lonely. The songs of a negro were the diary of his life (road, train, prison, saloon, sex), often an itinerant life, as opposed to the diary of a community (plantation, church)” (1)
The blues is a song of lamentation of self pity. The songs often deal with themes that deal with an individual’s pain and are often told in a tongue-in-cheek manner. It is a highly personalized account of what an individual is going through, and is reflective of the harsh realities of life of the American Negro faces in the deep South. Oftentimes the lyrics of blues deal with unhappy situations brought about by being jobless, poor, lonely, hungry, or being betrayed and deserted by an unfaithful lover.
The whole essence of blues music was pain, but while the songs seems to be a paean to an individual’s plight it does not wallow in tragedy but rather it celebrates it and recognizes the inevitability of the situation. And in the song Folsom Prison Blues Johnny Cash has managed to capture all of these elements and succeeds in telling a story about a prison in-mate who landed in prison because he killed a man so that he could see how he would die. (2)
There are two physical elements in the song that is consistent to the tradition of blues music. The first is the prison and the other is the train. These two elements can be seen as metaphors for two themes that were important to the downtrodden and dispossessed negro – the reality of being a slave, both literal and figurative, and on the other hand the longing for freedom and redemption which due to his place in society he can never have. For the prison in-mate in the song his prison cell is a reality he can’t escape from. It is a reality brought about by his own actions and to some extent it is a reality that he accepts and concedes to. While the train that he sees from his prison cell represents all the things in life that he would want to have but can never have due to his social status in life. In fact the train with all its rich folks is actually taunting him making him feel bitter about his situation.
Scaruffi makes mention of this stating that, “Theoretically, the civil war that ended in 1863 freed the African slaves (slavery was officially abolished in 1865), and, in fact, the first collection of negro songs was published shortly afterwards, Slave Songs of the United States (1867). In practice, it did little to improve the condition of the black man: same job, same discrimination. Even for the blacks who left the Southern states, the cities of the North promised freedom, but mostly delivered a different kind of slavery”(1)
This discrimination and the inability of African-Americans to escape the imposed state of things can be clearly reflected on Johnny Cash’s song albeit with a prisoner taking the place of the black man with the train representing “white” society. The social condition that has spawned blues music is still in existence today in the black ghettoes of America and is seen in the “implied” racism that most of the poor working class African-Americans are still suffering from. It is for this reason that blues music and the themes that it deals with are still relevant today as it was then. But like any form of popular culture that gets assimilated in the mainstream blues music today has lost its socio-political power and is now viewed more of a musical genre and is celebrated more for its contributions to the world of music. Today most people with equate blues music with such bands as the Rolling Stones and other white musicians who were influenced by such blues legends such as Muddy Waters and BB King.
But if you define blues broadly as the music of the downtrodden and the dispossessed then one can say that the blues music has influenced every form of music that has embraced the themes and issues that blues musicians sang about. During the 1950’s blues music gave birth to rock and roll a musical style that took blues guitar chords and riffs and brought about a whole new form of expression that went against conservative values. Blues themes also found expression in the late 80’s in the musical rebellion called punk music. Like the blues punk music was born out of the suffering and despair of a marginalized social stratum – this time instead of black plantation workers you have the disillusioned working class youth singing about their plight.
Rap music can also be seen as the direct descendant of blues music. Like the blues, rap music is a vocal expression of the African-American youth of today to illustrate the problems that he is facing in a society that has constantly denied him redemption and has marginalized him. According to Parker (1999), “For today’s Black youth, rap music is this medium. It is a musical voice and expression of the unjust and violent society in which they live. Is rap music a trend that has never been witnessed in America before? No, rap music is a continuing line of Negro expressions including; Spirituals, Blues, and Soul, all of which were inspired in trying times in our society, even more so than that of today”(3).
While blues music can never be separated from and will always be integral to African-American history and struggles, the themes the blues sang about has a universal appeal which speaks directly to all of those who has had to endure a life of struggle against social inequality, personal trials, and injustices. The challenge of an individual to rise above his social conditions and the limitations that society has imposed upon him is a situation that anyone can understand, empathize and relate to.
Psychologically the blues is an outlet for the frustrations that a Black man has to face in American society. A blues musician Tampa Red sang a song called Depression Blues. The song lyrics tell of how if only he could tell all his troubles then his heart would be at ease. This shows that for blues musicians the blues is a cathartic activity which helps them deal with the troubles they are facing. Singing and music has been shown to influence the mood of people. An organization called the American Music Therapy Association even claims music helps individuals with mental health conditions to address depression by making them conscious about their feelings and be more in touch with their emotions and moods (4.). It is therefore clear that singing the blues does help us deal with personal issues by bringing out this issues out in the open in the form of song and music. It gives find us a safe form of expression wherein we could channel emotions and emotional release.
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