Native American Influence in the History of the Blues
By Joe Gioia
The Guitar and the New World (Excelsior Editions, 2013) offers an entertaining yet informative social history of the world’s most popular instrument—the guitar. Author Joe Gioia investigates a hidden chapter in American music’s history that spans the ancient world to Sioux Ghost Dancers. In this excerpt taken from the chapter titled “Hey-Hey,” Gioia proposes a Native American influence on the history of the blues.
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No question, something new was at large in America in 1901—a sense of greater mysteries floating above prevailing ideas of science and progress. The same summer Buffalo held dueling visions of technology and magic, William James presented his Edinburgh lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience, which argued in favor of what James called a “pluralistic universe,” one in which the Christian God might compete on equal terms with other supernatural beings. Also that summer, James’s Harvard colleague, the anthropologist Charles Peabody, while excavating a pre-Columbian Indian mound in the Mississippi Delta at Coahoma, became, he said, distracted by strange music. Professor Peabody is not remembered now for any artifacts he uncovered, but for what he discovered in the air, what he called the “extraordinary” songs of the black men working for him.
The History of the Blues
Two years later, in “Notes on Negro Music,” published in the Journal of American Folklore, Peabody said the men’s singing was unlike anything he’d heard before, something he described as “autochthonous music [of which] it is hard to give an exact account”:
The music of the Negroes . . . may be put under three heads: The songs sung by our men when at work digging . . . unaccompanied; the songs of the same men at quarters or on the march, with guitar accompaniment; and the songs, unaccompanied, of the indigenous Negroes.
(By “indigenous” he meant the men hired in Coahoma rather than those brought from Clarksdale, ten miles away.) Peabody noted the popularity of hymns and that the guitar playing “was mostly ragtime with the instrument seldom venturing beyond the inversions of the three chords of a few major and minor keys.”
Of great interest to later folklorists was Peabody’s remark that, in the song of one mule driver in particular, he heard “strains of apparently genuine African music. . . . Long phrases that were without apparent measured rhythm, singularly hard to copy in notes.”
One evening Peabody heard a woman singing a lullaby “weird in interval and strange in rhythm; peculiarly beautiful,” and compared it to something like contemporary Greek singing, albeit “better done.”
There was another singer, a very old Negro employed on the plantation of Mr. John Stovall of Stovall, Mississippi . . . His voice as he sang had a timbre resembling a bagpipe played pianissimo or a jews harp played legato, and to some indistinguishable words he hummed a rhythm of no regularity and notes of apparently not more than three or more [sic] in number at intervals within a semitone. The effect again was monotonous but weird, not far from Japanese.
When researchers in the 1960s began an academic search for the roots of blues music, Peabody’s account was considered crucial evidence of time and place. Stovall and the neighboring Dockery plantation were already recognized to be the home ground for a generation of musicians born between 1880 and 1910 who made records that embody what has been regarded by many later listeners as the essential blues: a black man’s conjuring of hard times with a voice and a guitar.
However, Peabody had qualified his observations in “Notes” with a word that music writers tend to ignore. He wrote “apparently” when citing “genuine African origin.” Going forward, the assumption has been that the music could only be African. Left unconsidered also is exactly how much African music Peabody was familiar with. More definitely, he had compared what he heard to Japanese music, which, considering the nineteenth-century fad for oriental arts in elite Victorian Boston, was probably something he had at least a passing familiarity with, if only by way of The Mikado. More likely Peabody imputed African origin to what he heard strictly on the basis of the skin color of the singers.
The other renowned early account of the blues was written by W. C. Handy in his 1941 autobiography, ambitiously titled The Father of the Blues. In 1903 he was a coronet and guitar player leading a small Delta dance orchestra when one night, stuck in the train station at Tutwiler, Mississippi, about thirty miles south of Coahoma and fifteen miles outside Clarksdale,
A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly.
Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.
The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.
Handy and Peabody are usually paired in books like this one as clear evidence of a vivid music unique to the Mississippi Delta. Handy called it “a kind of earth-born music.” Earth-born is exactly synonymous with autochthonous, which is a synonym for indigenous. Somewhat undercutting his claim to be the music’s father, and the theory of others that it originated in the Delta, Handy also said that it was “familiar throughout the southland.”
Peabody’s trenchdiggers and Handy’s depot guitarist are essential figures in a folklore describing how music rooted in African modalities and created by Mississippi sharecroppers was captured in the recordings of Delta performers, that it was part of the great black migration to the north, especially to Chicago, where it took on an electric, sexy, big-city throb that captured the imaginations of young white people as nothing quite had before. Next stop on the narrative is, inevitably, how it gave birth to rock ’n’ roll.
That broad outline is fundamentally correct. But like most broad outlines, it hides a lot. For example, after decades of looking, no one has ever discovered any musical forms in Africa that can be considered to be the clear and unambiguous roots of the blues.
The writer Francis Davis puts it succinctly in The History of the Blues: “[T]o hear the blues as a west African import creates its own share of confusion. In the absence of recorded evidence, we can’t even trace the blues back to slavery, much less Africa.” Blues historians, erring on the side of caution, date the birth of the form to the late nineteenth century, in the wake of reconstruction. As Davis notes, “Even [W.C.] Handy . . . goes on to allow that his ‘fondness for that sort of thing’ began a decade or so earlier.”
Native American Influence
If the music was, as Handy said, “familiar throughout the southland,” then its origin may well be much earlier than the late nineteenth century, to a time when the Delta was still the haunt of Indian, panther, and bear. Historically, the ubiquity of the music has been credited to itinerant musicians in the minstrel and medicine shows that toured the rural south, playing to black and white audiences, from the 1840s until the Great Depression. Increasing rail connections in the same period, where track miles more than doubled in the South between 1880 and 1890, are also considered an influence.
But we must guard against mistaking catalyst for cause. While increased communication between once-isolated communities undoubtedly helped musical styles evolve, it does not explain why Handy felt the music was at once so familiar and so weird.
By 1925, as Elijah Wald relates in his fine book Escaping the Delta, the blues was already a national pop music fad, having begun a few years earlier as a haunting song style of certain female vocal entertainers, mainly, but not exclusively, black: big stars like Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Sophie Tucker, and Bessie Smith. If Scott Fitzgerald can be taken as an authority, the blues captured a national mood of sadness and drift among the nation’s youth in the wake of World War I. The success of blues records encouraged companies to seek out similar material from a variety of artists.
With the advent of the electronic microphone in 1925, the old harsh, nasal style of singing, useful at a time when singers had to be heard in noisy places, gave way for subtler vocal effects, including quietly sung phrases, spoken asides, and falsetto vocals. In his book Deep Blues, the writer Robert Palmer notes specifically that falsetto singing is an African effect. Bantu vocalizing, he wrote, “includes whooping, or sudden jumping into falsetto range, which seems to derive from the pygmies who were the area’s original inhabitants.”
In raising the idea of an indigenous geographic influence on musical style, Palmer never considers what connection Peabody’s ditchdiggers, with whom he begins Deep Blues, may have had with the original inhabitants of Coahoma County. Neither does he mention that falsetto singing is also a feature of Native American music, where it represents the voices of spirits.
One senses something in Palmer’s writing that the author can’t quite name. Consider his description of Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield, on the occasion of Waters’s first recording session, in a shack in Stovall in 1940, for the song collector Alan Lomax: “Muddy was a vigorous twenty-six-yearold,” Palmer writes, “with high cheekbones and cool hooded eyes, features that lent him a certain Oriental inscrutability.”
The question of North America’s original, or indigenous, inhabitants hardly ever comes up in popular histories of American music, the assumption being that the land inhabited by the European arrivals, and their slaves, had been mainly clear of earlier people and empty of song. Africa and the British Isles were seen as the only possible sources of the music that evolved from that place and time. The possibility that the musical traditions of indigenous peoples might be central to American harmony has never been articulated, much less considered at length.
This is pretty remarkable, not only because so many of the musicians—black, white, and brown—had pronounced Native American roots, but by the given historical details of the settlement of the North American continent. Professor Peabody’s reactions to the workmen’s songs—“monotonous” and “weird,” he said—is pretty much how Europeans described American Indian music. That Peabody may have been closer to the mark when he said the music sounded Asian is, for many, counterintuitive.
Between 1600 and 1840, three cultures—Native American, African, and European—each with a highly evolved choral tradition, came to encounter one another, in war and peace, by choice and under duress, in the old and new settlements of the vast American interior east of the Mississippi. To assume that only one of these cultures predominated in how the music evolved, or that another had no influence whatsoever, flies not only against logic but also in the face of any practical knowledge about how musicians work.
Consider also how connected to the specific landscape the Indigenous tradition would have been. If any musical style prevailed, it was probably the one that reflected the strangeness of the new land to those who had only recently, either by force or choice, arrived there; one that also reflected the despair, the blues, of those who saw the old way of life die.
Our accepted history says the blues is of African origin, and that any blue notes heard on early country music records, and there are a lot of high and lonesome twangs, got there by way of black musicians that the white musicians heard.
But something about that accepted history doesn’t add up. After almost half a century of extensive research and, beginning in the 1960s, a wave of associated books, blues antecedents in Africa remain undocumented. Though certain traditions of musicianship, along with the banjo, can be traced there, nobody’s proved that the regular rhythms, tonic intervals, vocal techniques, and the individual let-me-tell-you-how-things-are-with-me at the heart of blues music are originally African. Contemporary writers, such as Bruce Cook, Francis Davis, Elijah Wald, and Marybeth Hamilton, have maintained for over a decade that the origin of the blues is empirically unknowable, that the idea that the blues is even a distinct musical form is a nostalgic social fiction created by white songcatchers and record collectors.
Hundreds of blues songs were recorded in the 1920s and ’30s by black and white rural musicians from one end of the South to the other, the tip of an aural history that stretches back into the acoustic past, the music of churches, dance halls, political campaigns, neighborhood socials, minstrels, and medicine shows.
And given the ubiquity of the music across the South, and the flexibility of its form, we might consider if, rather than being transmitted from blacks to whites, the blues had been gained commonly by both; and that what we now call blues and country music are divergent branches of a single root, one indigenous to North America.
The blues—the popular twentieth-century song form—came first from the blues, a way of feeling in music. The flattened notes and vocal swoops, those high and lonesome sounds, sung by some as a hoot and by others like a yodel, were heard in Texas and Oklahoma, Virginia and Tennessee. Those sounds varied, of course, from region to region, depending on what different people wanted to hear, but not so much as to be unrecognizable.
There was, indeed, something like a shock of recognition when phonograph records finally let people at one end of the South hear music from the other. Black people in Arkansas enjoyed country stars like Jimmie Rodgers and Uncle Dave Macon. One mountain musician, Roscoe Holcomb, years later recalled first hearing a blues record by Blind Lemon Jefferson, a black man from Texas, and feeling something inside himself set free.
In 1928, some Creek musicians from Oklahoma, Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band, recorded a novelty record called “Indian Tom Tom,” a sprightly, two-and-a-half-minute number with a bouncy Native American chant backed by a swinging fiddle and guitar. What’s so interesting about the song is not the melding of two putatively unrelated styles, but how easily the older form fits into the newer one.
So there might be something wrong with our history. The hidden story of American music is spread, like dinosaur bones in the Gobi, in plain sight across a landscape of old 78s. And if those bones have not been noticed, it’s because people decided they shouldn’t be.
For 250 years, when the far west was still east of the Mississippi, three cultures clashed and combined in the great American interior. It might not be a coincidence that what is now considered the cradle of country music—east Tennessee, western Virginia and North Carolina, northern sections of Georgia and Alabama—covers exactly that land held by the Cherokee Nation at the end of the American Revolution.
History, of course, says that the Cherokee were forced out, rounded up by the Army and transported to the Oklahoma territory, a district set aside by the federal government in the early 1830s as a final homeland of the Native American nations of the East and Midwest. The South was cleared of its indigenous inhabitants in one decade. The Cherokee transit, in 1839, was the last and also one of the harshest, called now The Trail of Tears.
But history, it turns out, misses a lot; southerners were mostly interested in bottom land for cotton planting. Those Cherokee living far up mountain hollers in Virginia and North Carolina, some two thousand of them by one estimate, stayed where they were, either passing as white or protected by such white neighbors and kin they had.
Note too that the legendary Mississippi Delta is in fact a misnomer, being the broad alluvial plain of the Yazoo River, which joins the Mississippi between the bluffs of Memphis and Vicksburg two hundred miles downstream. Nearly all of the Yazoo delta was swamp until the 1880s. By then, the cotton land in the rest of the old Confederacy was exhausted from over-farming and infested with boll weevils. A syndicate of plantation owners began to drain and clear the Yazoo swamp with gangs of black workers. The work gradually revealed an immense level plain of black, wildly fertile soil that yielded astonishing harvests of cotton.
Much of the land remained wild into the twentieth century. “Even now,” reads a 1907 account, “deer, bears, panthers, wolves, and deadly snakes are not infrequent.” It was, in fact, the last untouched land east of the Mississippi.
The forests which still cover a large area are composed of a variety of trees—sycamore, ash, elm, hackberry, hickory, and more distinctively, the cypress, tupelo gum, the red and black gums, and the holly. The oaks, of which there are many species, are decorated with clusters of mistletoe; grapevines hang in myriad ropes and tangles; woodbines and other creepers clamber to the tops of the tallest trees, and palmettos give a semi-tropical aspect to the woods.
High-water berms formed by regular flooding created natural levees, which the first inhabitants built upon. These high grounds were flood refuges, home sites, and burial places for successive waves of Native people, and were home to the Natchez, Choctaw, and others at the European arrival in the early sixteenth century. The Spanish did not bother the Indians much, but around 1730 the French cleared out the Natchez, with Choctaw help, who themselves were removed to Indian Territory slightly more than a hundred years later.
But removal mainly stands for the invisibility the young American republic granted the Indians. The Mississippi WPA guide states that the Tunica people, who earlier lived along the Mississippi, “emigrated to Louisiana [in 1817] where they intermarried with both the French and the Negro,” implying that somehow they stopped being Native Americans. The WPA guide also says that three thousand Choctaws, in spite of the 1830 treaty, “refused to leave Mississippi [and] still till the soil of their ancestors.” The number of Choctaws who stayed is by some estimates thought to have been as high as seven thousand, living in the deeper reaches of the Yazoo delta, too hard to reach on land too wet to plow. The Creeks, a people composed of the shattered clans of other tribes, were sent west from Alabama in 1836, though several hundred of them managed to stay right where they were.
Only slightly better known is that the southern Native nations were slave-owning societies, one more European custom adopted by affluent members of the so-called five civilized tribes. Consequently, hundreds of slaves were transported to Oklahoma as property. To recall a time when cruelty like this was given the cover of law is, in no small way, to criticize everything that followed upon. Better then that people forgot.
Indigenous people have never based tribal membership along racial lines. Though a child of a Native mother was automatically a member of the tribe, membership was also conferred by adoption, a practice that became more and more common as native populations collapsed after exposure to European diseases. Consequently a person may look Indian and lack tribal status, while others who resemble mainstream Americans are tribal members. It cannot be emphasized enough that culture defines kinship.
It is more interesting that, however McKinley Morganfield appeared to the song collector Alan Lomax (and Lomax was fond of reputing Chinese admixture among Delta blacks), Morganfield told Lomax his name was Muddy Water (adding the plural s when he got to Chicago)—a name, he explained later, his grandmother gave him for how much he liked playing in puddles when he was a boy.
Muddy’s near Mississippi neighbor, and chief professional rival in Chicago, Chester Arthur Burnett, was called Wolf by his grandfather, a Choctaw named John Jones, Wolf said, for the animal which still prowled the Delta when Chester was a boy. (He added Howlin’ when he turned pro.) These two names, drawn from early encounters with the natural world and kept by those men through life as formative signs of power and accomplishment, are, of course, Indigenous emblems and eventually came to be more real than their Christian names, now known to only devoted fans.
In his introduction to a 2000 edition of collected blues histories from the 1960s, Paul Oliver, the dean of blues historians, concedes that “as the twentieth century has drawn to a close, there has been an increasing awareness of the most intractable problem in the history of the blues: how it began.”
He was likely thinking about Bruce Cook’s admirably contrarian 1995 book, Listen to the Blues, written as a particular rebuttal to the theory, held by Oliver, that the blues held specific elements (retentions is the word used) of the music of Mali and the Senegambia. “And while there is no disputing that the blues is essentially Negro music,” Cook writes, “we can certainly question the implication that it was cut from whole cloth (or at least that the cloth was quite so black in color).” Cook had put to rest any myth of absolute and unilateral African transmission, quoting musicologist Richard A. Waterman:
There are no African retentions, as such, in the blues. But undoubtedly influence was great in determining the form the blues was to take. Just how we can go on specifying the extent of this influence is a question still open to debate.
Cook also includes the expert testimony of Buddy Guy, who, after a trip to Africa, said he didn’t hear any relation between African music and the blues.
[D]on’t start me to lyin’, because I don’t. Not of what I’ve heard yet. No, I mean, I met some people there and they told me that this is where it all came from, you know, and I haven’t found anything yet . . . The blues is a different thing, man. I mean, ain’t no sense of me lyin’, ’cause you know better. The blues is, you know, a feelin’. You got to feel it to play it.
In his 1981 travel memoir, The Roots of the Blues, the musician Samuel Charters, who studied the early form of the music in his 1959 book The Country Blues (indeed, the title soon defined a genre), describes a trip along the Gambia River to Banjul, Mali, searching for that link. Charters went to Senegal to study the griots, singers of tribal biography and history. Itinerant musicians who accompany themselves on the kora, a harp-like, 21-string instrument, griots were felt to be early exemplars of bluesmen like Charlie Patton, Henry Thomas, and Robert Johnson. The problem with that theory, for blues history anyway, was that Charters found nothing in the griot repertory, or their role in society, with any American parallels.
Griot songs were mainly long litanies in praise of, and commissioned by, local chiefs, offering extensive ancestral detail. The private world of personal sorrow and resolve at the center of the blues—told in simple, repetitive verses, regular rhythm, and a standard three chords—was unknown in the west African tradition.
By the end of his trip, Charters understood, finally, that in the blues I hadn’t found a music that was part of the old African life and culture . . . The blues represented something else. It was essentially a new kind of song begun with the new life in the American South.
Earlier, Charters had seen something at a festival that looked familiar.
In one of the groups I could see more than seventy boys dancing around [a] spirit figure . . . [which] stumbled along in confusion, his spindly body hung with a felted, festooned costume so heavy it weighed him down.
This recalled, he says, a Mardi Gras morning in New Orleans twenty-five years earlier, where he’d seen “an older boy in a wildly colorful costume . . . white dyed feathers hanging from the arms and legs, and crowning all of it, a magnificent Indian headdress, its beaded headband slipping down over his painted face.”
For Charters, the Mardi Gras Indian’s costume was “an exuberant exaggeration of something that may have been worn for one of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows.” But Choctaws once participated in the Catholic carnival as enthusiastically as that remote city’s Latin and African inhabitants, long before Andrew Jackson got to town, much less Bill Cody.
Slave-owning allies of the French who lived along the Mississippi far north of the city, Choctaws were more welcome in the revelry than blacks: “In the early years of Mardi Gras, blacks were banned from the main parades and ‘masking Indian,’ as it’s called, was a ruse for inclusion.” Apparently, racial boundaries in that colonial city were as ambiguous as upriver property lines.
The New Orleans Indians whom Charters witnessed that Mardi Gras morning sang songs, he recalled, with “incomprehensible words or phrases,” such as,
Here we’re runnin’ in the Indian land
Hey, hey To Weh Bakaweh.
Perhaps because his African voyage had borne such scant fruit, Charters was drawn to a conclusion that appears to be based more on wishing than observation: “I understood for the first time that the phrases I thought were incomprehensible like ‘To Weh Bakaweh . . .’ must be African.”
That the words may well have been picked up while “runnin’ in the Indian land” and that Weh Bakaweh sounds more like patois for the archaic Way back a-ways possibly never dawned on him. Instead, Charters decides that Bakaweh must be “from one of the languages along this coast. [But] I was never able to locate it.”
It is not my intention to pick on Sam Charters, a fine and knowledgeable writer who has done more for the recognition and appreciation of idiomatic American music than most anyone. However, to overlook the possible Indigenous American origins of what was so vividly presented before his eyes and ears that Mardi Gras morning indicates something like a fundamental dislocation, a culture-wide bias which no old 78s, by themselves, could possibly triangulate away.
Inside that Mardi Gras chant is an exclamation used with such ubiquity in American popular song that it’s almost invisible, two words that appear over and again, from Jimmie Rodgers’s “Blue Yodel #10” to Henry Thomas’s “Cottonfield Blues.” Betty Lou DeMorrow uses them to great effect in a smutty little ditty from 1933 called “Feels So Good”; Bobby Darin gave them a hip, Vegas snap in “Mack the Knife”; they’re the refrain of Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie’s “New York Town,” and they kick-off the second verse of the first original song Bob Dylan ever released: “Hey-hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song.”
In his Thunder Being vision, which he described to John Neihardt, the Sioux medicine man Black Elk saw a “black hail cloud, still standing yonder watching, filled with voices crying ‘Hey-hey! Hey-hey!’ They were cheering and rejoicing that my work was being done. And all the people now were happy and rejoicing, sending voices back, ‘hey-hey, hey-hey.’”
It was a common exclamation of the Plains peoples, intended to call the attention of the spirits, either in joy or regret. Black Elk also told Neihardt that they were the last words of Crazy Horse after he was bayonetted by an Army private at Fort Robertson, Nebraska, in 1877.
Reprinted with permission from The Guitar and the New World: A Fugitive History by Joe Gioia and published by Excelsior Editions, 2013.
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