Horned Head Dresses and Cowtails Makin’ Music on a Sheep-Skin covered Gumbo Box
The blues is ultimately derived from African music. West African slaves brought between the 16th and 19th centuries arrived with their indigenous music and beliefs. Along with their beliefs they brought drums, stringed instruments, wind instruments and various vocal styles. These were the Griots, singing stories of wealth and praise of Kings and Queens and magic and folklore I like to refer as Chantefables.
Music consisted of drumming, hand clapping and improvised call and response singing. Extra devices such as rattles and bells were attached to instruments and individuals to create a complex polyrhythmic groove. Simultaneous melodies known as polyphony was present in parallel thirds, fourths or fifths. Some vocalizing consisted of whooping or sudden falsetto which we can hear in the styles of Pre-War Delta artists like Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Skip James and Peetie Wheatstraw.
African music was always participative. Group situations such as religious rituals, farming, building or just partying offered plenty of opportunities for making music. This can be traced to the field hollers and work songs of the delta.
Eventually drums and horns were banned by slave owners. This became known as the Black Codes and also prevented slaves from congregating. Without indigenous instruments and freedom to gather and worship they were reduced to voice and body percussion called ‘patting juba’. Allowed to use Civil War instruments like snare and bass drums along with flutes the music of drum and fife corps was created. Which meant when not playing traditional European songs for white owners and family, slaves could reestablish their musical identity.
Goin’ Where The Southern Cross The Dog
The Black Codes, with the exclusion of ‘patting juba’ and the drum and fife bands, ultimately dealt the death blow to the marriage of African polyrhythms and what became prewar delta blues. This along with the fear and repression of African slaves, customs and beliefs gave way to the matrix of Vodoun religions.
Voice masking, deep chested growls, false bass tones, strangulated shrieks and other bizarre effects are other African vocal techniques used in early blues singing especially by the greats Charley Patton and Blind Willie Johnson. During ritual possession the voice is modified to match the spirit and mask being worn.
The guitar wasn’t the sort of strummed accompaniment associated with high plain drifting cowboys or the minstrels of Europe or even the precise picked ragtime banjo. Instead, it set up an intricate pattern of rhythmic accents and responses to the singer, it became both drum orchestra and second voice much like the sounds from the far away and almost forgotten Slave Coast.
Slide guitar evolved from the African single-stringed bow ( diddlebow) and it was played with a knife, rock, or bone. Eventually giving way to the bottleneck thanks to Hawaiian guitarists.
With the slider one can hit the in between notes and produce a very voice like sound.
Can’t Tell My Future, I Can’t Tell My Past
Seems Like Every Minute Sure Gonna Be My Last
So now we come to my proposal of the union of polyrhythmic drumming and the recreation of the delta blues. In other words what would have Charley Patton or Robert Johnson sounded like were they allowed to evolve with the ever-present trance inducing, hypnotic, metaphysically transforming grooves of the drums?
The deep blues makes you remember your joys and lusts, it makes you confront your losses and sorrows and above all awakens your mortality. It’s the story of a small and deprived group of people who created, against tremendous odds, Hope.
“Ain’t no heaven, ain’t no burnin’ Hell
Where I’m goin’ when I die, can’t nobody tell”
“The sun gonna shine in my back door someday
The wind gonna rise, gonna blow my blues away”