Native American Influence in the History of the Blues

Raising the idea of a Native American influence on the history of the blues.

| June 2013

  • Guitar-New-World
    Uncover a hidden chapter in the history of the blues in “The Guitar and the New World.”
    Cover Courtesy Excelsior Editions
  • Native-American
    Music’s 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.
    Photo By Fotolia/Pascal Huot

  • Guitar-New-World
  • Native-American

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.”

6/14/2016 11:50:06 AM

What I find my re intriguing about the article is what is not actually stated flat out is that these singers (now commonly called African Americans) were the indigenous population reclassified due to Anerican legal fictions of race. Search Walter Plecker, the originator of the one drop rule even though the roots go deeper than his work. Even in some early literature about African-American gospel music, there are comparisons made to worship style of these people and Indian dance (see Eileen Southern, Black Music in America). Images of the indigenous population or so skewed by Hollywood that we can barely imagine the Native American population being brown with wooly hair. And that's not to say that only brown people have Lily here either.

1/7/2014 8:50:53 AM

This article is fascinating and compelling, Allen Lowe, and your seizing on a couple of niggling details, just because they are not to your taste, doesn't change that. There is enough insight here to bring the accepted history of blues music into question, and certainly too much documentary evidence from various sources just to dismiss the entire notion out of hand. I'm not saying that "Right, I'm now certain that blues music is Native American not African", but as a passionate lover of blues music and a keen aficionado (though certainly not some top expert as you with your pseudo-academic posturing seem to pretending to be)I profess to having heard a certain element in the music, often the part that is most emotive and most beautiful, that does not correspond to the African folk music that I've heard, nor to older European music. Now, though again not an expert, I'm a big fan of various forms of regional African folk music and as a jobbing musician I play a wide range of Celtic, Nordic and Balkan music. Have I heard every example of every type of African music there is so that I can say for certain that this 'element' didn't come from there? No. Have I heard all European music so as to be able to write off that influence as the ultimate origin? Nope. Of course, it is also the case that the black experience in America has often been one of extreme cruelty and suffering, met with staggering levels of strength and defiance, and this obviously brings great emotion to the music of that culture. However, in my opinion, that does not explain everything. With matters of art, especially music, and folk music in particular, it is impossible to be certain one way or the other about historical roots; the process is too mythologised, too mysterious, often too personal to be studied objectively, but one can find subtle clues. Most of the things you've decided to pick apart (not very convincingly, as it happens) are incidental pieces of background information that neither prove nor disprove the writer's central premise. What is interesting is that in the list of musical influences that you chide the writer because he "leaves (them) out" (this article is only part of a larger work; perhaps some discretion was in order, before passing judgement) you mention "hillbilly and mountain music". Yes, these forms influenced the blues and the blues influenced them, but what do you think is the major influence that separates white American mountain music from its European predecessors? It is often cited to have been the Native American influence, which was obviously more pronounced among isolated communities. In particular the chanting rhythms and keening vocal harmonies have a pleasing resonance with those of Native cultures, and in turn with that of the blues. Again, I can't be certain about whether the writer's hypothesis is accurate or not, but neither can you. You don't know what Peabody heard. You weren't there.

Allen Lowe
7/22/2013 1:52:37 PM

there is so much wrong with this article, that it is almost irresponsible for Utne to print it ; ok: "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." 1) blues recordings were done as early as 1912; and his characterization of the change in vocal styles is insanely inaccurate; see Silas Leachman, Al Bernard, Arthur Collins. 2) the blues captured, NOT Fitzgerald's misplaced youth, but the music that blacks were listening to on a local level - race music, as it came to be called. No one serious about the music would cite Fitzgerald. as for the sound that Peabody was hearing it is, in it's two-lined and multi voiced accompanied, EXTREMELY African and NOT Asian - no question about it; ask people like John Szwed and Royal Hartigan who understand the subtle but radical way in which African Americans transformed American music through their own cultural heritage - anyone who talks about Africa and the blues seriously comes from a completely different direction than the one he takes - it is related to performance practices, vocalisms, musical interactions, cross/rhythms, and multi-voiced accompaniments - he needs to read Lawrence Levy - and Zora Neale Hurston.

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