I think I’ve opened a can of worms. The more I research blues music, the more I realise how strong the ideology is around the music, so this week’s post is looking more around how and what music was played.
So, music as we know it now, all nicely segmented and packaged for us to consume according to genre, etc, didn’t happen. People played music with literally whatever was to hand, from washboards to jugs filled with water (this will also be covered at some point). The most popular instrument being the fiddle until the early twentieth century, with the banjo (an African instrument), mandolin and piano not far behind. Musicians played all types of music (minstrel, ragtime, show tunes, blues, hillbilly, Tin Pan Alley, etc), and weren’t tied to a particular genre as they tend to be today. They played whatever their audience wanted to hear, I mean they were paying so keep ’em happy.
In fact, one of the most popular songs during the 1890s, across all rural cultures, was the Spanish Fandango. Sears-Roebuck created a guitar mail order service during this decade, meaning guitars were finally affordable to the masses, gradually replacing the fiddle as the most popular instrument played. The instruction book that came with the guitars had the Fandango as one of the first songs to learn. And it was popular, the Spanish Fandango had songs written about it, and blues musicians regularly called tuning their guitars tuning ‘Spanish’. But this instruction book had a massive impact on music development as people learnt how to play the guitar, shaping their enjoyment and understanding of music; I’m desperately trying to get hold of a copy or images of it to find out just what music it published! This combined with travelling salesmen and musicians selling sheet music of popular tunes hugely influenced the musical knowledge of a rural community.
Now this is where it gets complicated in relation to blues music specifically as a genre. Nearly all African American musicians played every type of music – they had to, it was how they earned their living. And they played music everywhere, from shops to bars to the street corner to their house porch to jigs and reels, wherever and whoever would have them. Barbershops had guitars and mandolins hanging on the wall in case a musician stopped by to earn a few pennies by playing tunes. Sometimes it’d take them a couple of tries to get it right, trying out hillbilly, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, gospel, blues, etc until they hit a genre people liked and then they’d play more tunes to get the cash in. Their repertoires must have been huge.
And people are enterprising, especially when it comes to pleasing a paying audience. Professional musicians picked up on the new music they heard around them, the tunes they heard sung on the streets and in the brothels, and learnt the songs, sometimes asking the singer to teach them. They took these songs back to the rural communities to show off the latest city sounds (I think I’ll save the Vaudeville artists for another post or twenty as their influence on blues music and spreading it across the country needs a deeper look at) and the audience loved it.
The complication comes because there wasn’t a traditional ‘blues’ artist, it would be one of the genres that they played. They may have recorded the blues but their live performances would be able cover most music types according to the taste of the region. And the people who sang the blues were usually professional musicians or at least earning something from singing and playing a wide variety of songs. The idea of the working (male) blues singer on the plantation is one form of the truth – it did happen, and I’ll look deeper into this – but it’s only one part of a bigger story.
Looking deeper into this segmentation that happened with blues and hillbilly, etc, I wanted to know why when African American musicians played all sorts of live music that so many of their recordings were blues during this period (1920-30ish). And it was down to the record companies. They dissuaded African American musicians from playing and recording hillbilly, gospel, etc and did the same with white musicians who played blues. It was all about the markets. They could play whatever they wanted live for their audience, but to sell records, marketing departments decided that blues was for one community and hillbilly etc for another.
It’s understandable, they wanted records to sell and to make plenty of money. A brief insight into how marketing works: you pick your customers, you give them what they want, and then they want more of it so you sell them more of it. A type of record sells more in region A and while region B buys more of another type. The record companies give them more songs that they like while reducing the amount of songs in other genres available to them. A shop only has so much space. It then becomes a challenge as the audience demands more records like the first one they listened to so record companies to had to provide for them by creating musicians and songs to fit the genre. And then tastes change and record companies have to find the music that’s in and provide it to the people. And then they want more of that. And the record companies have to give them what interests them. Etc. Marketing dictates so much of what we do and buy, it’s crazy.
As you can see in my very brief overview this is a complex topic and I’m going to be be digging away to see what I can find. Stick with me and we’ll find out more!
PS. Let me know if you know/spot something that I need to know. I’m learning as I go along so there’ll be huge gaps to start with, am sure of it