Blues – The Grandfather of American Music?

posted by Chris Valentine
Through the music of musicians like B.B. King, Blues became known as the Grandfather of American Music

Photo by CC user 9967007@N07 on Flickr

Could you define the sound of America? Most countries, like Japan, Ireland, Spain, and Germany, have a certain style that is easy to identify, but what about our own country? If you were to enroll in a music college, this is one of the questions you will address.

A History of American Music

The original American settlers were Europeans, and they brought music with them. Coming from different countries, the music was very diverse, and that remains true today. However, today’s music has certain specific properties that didn’t exist in those days.

When the settlers started to bring African slaves to America, music changed. Slavery suppressed African culture, with slaves having their language, religion, and traditions taken away. However, African cultures have always been oral in nature, so many of these efforts were in vain. It was the musical heritage more than anything that remained.

Before the internet, the television, and even the radio, people had to make their own entertainment. This came in the form of music and dance. Slaves quickly understood that they could improve their own lives by studying music, because musicians were in high demand. As a result, they learned about the music of the settlers, and they got to grips with their instruments. However, they also interspersed their own culture into this music, effectively changing it.

Europeans and Africans had very different takes on music. Very simply put, however, there were two specific differences:

  1. The rhythm pattern in African music is far more complex.

  2. The notes in the Western scale are very different to the African ones.

What slaves did, however, was apply their rhythm pattern to Western music, while at the same time reducing the scale. This sounded odd at first, but the white people soon learned to love it.

At the start of the 19th century, these influences can be clearly heard. However, after the Civil War, African Americans gained their freedom and were able to travel and experience music from other white and black people alike. This gave birth to a whole new style of music: the blues.

Truly tracing back the origins of blues is impossible, with many people believing it was actually first developed in Mali, West Africa. However, in America, it was first mainly played on the banjo, and then on cheaper guitars. The goal was for the sound to have almost human qualities, enabling the sounds that were emitted to come across as vocal techniques. This development is known as the “Folk Process”, which means that music changes and develops over the years.

So what is American music today? It is clearly a mixture of music from all over the world. There are strong influences, still, of the early European styles of music, but they are influenced strongly by African sounds as well, of which there are many. On top of that, there is the issue of Folk Process, which means that sounds develop and change over time. This entertaining sound of America, in other words, is beautiful. Blues is truly the grandfather of American music, as all other styles descended from it.

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