The soundtrack of slavery, the rhythms and sounds of the fields, enriched American culture and helped to form the American identity. The cross-fertilization between Africa and America that came about through the slave trade impacted many areas of American culture, but none more so than the development of new genres of music including jazz, gospel, and above all else, the blues. The blues, which arose deep in the region known as the Mississippi Delta, has helped shape the American identity by providing a distinct sound incorporated into many genres of music and by providing a voice for those that previously had none.
Music helps define culture, and America is no exception. Used to ...view middle of the document...
Blues first arose in the Mississippi Delta region, a rural area of farms, swamps, and forests, located near the Mississippi river, close to Vicksburg. While the first significant blues recordings come from the early 1920’s, music scholars have found descriptions of music that appear similar to the blues going back to the latter half of the 19th century. For example, according to musical historian Ted Gioia’s Delta Blues, during 1901 and 1902, an archeologist named Charles Peabody visited the Delta region to excavate mounds left by the Choctaw Indians. During the course of his excavations, Peabody heard work songs whose descriptions sound very much like the music we know as the blues (Gioia 22)
While jazz, gospel, rag-time and many other American musical genres arose in cities and towns, the blues’ origins are primarily rural. According to Gioia, from Charley Patton to B.B. King, nearly all early blues musicians were farm workers. Their work informed the themes of early blues songs – which focused upon poverty and life’s hardships (Gioia 2). Delta blues often featured just a guitar, and occasionally a violin or piano due to the poverty of the Delta region, which made musical instruments luxuries.
Life in the Delta during this time was harsh. As Charles F. McGovern, Associate Professor of American Studies at the College of William and Mary wrote, “In the cotton South, African Americans endured harsh conditions: an endless cycle of debt in farm tenancy and share-cropping, peonage, curfews, and lynchings. The daily humiliations of Jim Crow and the constant threat of violence made life difficult and often dangerous” (“The Blues and Gospel Music - America's Music.”). Nowhere was this more true than in the Mississippi Delta.
The hardships of life in the Delta went far beyond just oppression. Grinding poverty was pervasive. Ever since Reconstruction, the Mississippi Delta has been one of the poorest regions in the country, consistently ranking last in per capita income, last in retail sales per capita, last in nearly every metric of affluence. ("Scratching a Living." The Economist.) In the 1920 and 1930s, when many of the first great recordings of the Delta blues were being made, the region had the lowest percentage of residents with electricity, and was the last in the telephones and cars per household. “As late as 1937 fewer than 1 percent of farms had use of [electricity]” (Gioia 2). The Delta has always been, and remains to this day, poor, rural and overwhelmingly populated by those of African American descent. What is more, throughout the region there was a sharp racial divide between rural and urban life. The blacks of the region were poor, rural, and their lives were deeply tied to the land. “Whites outnumbered blacks two to one in cities such as Vicksburg and Natchez; but the reverse held true in the surrounding countryside…” (Gioia 3).
The rural nature of the people of the Delta helped shape the music itself. “Simplicity and...