Environment and Genre - Genre Week


Photo by hart_curt.

The number of objects and devices that can be loosely brought under the umbrella of  “musical equipments” is an ever-expanding list. There’s a Brooklyn band called Toys and Tiny Instruments that plays – you guessed it, toys and tiny instruments. Last week I saw the Panda Bear show at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn, and the only traditional instrument on stage was a guitar.  I can’t help but think that if I brought my grandparents to that show, they’d ask what the hell was making all that goddamn noise.

As the list of musical equipment has grown from things like the French Horn to things like a Game Boy hooked up to a Fisher Price record player, so too have musical genres become a sometimes comical taxonomy of adjectives, “posts”, and interconnected musical styles. Digital recording and distribution techniques allow styles and innovation to spread across the globe in a matter of weeks, not decades. Musical styles are still constrained by their time, place, and the possible instruments, but much less so than they were even a few decades ago. As a way to highlight how genres are dictated by environment and history, I’m going to focus on that great type of American music: the blues.

The difficulty of defining the origin of the blues is obvious. Any beginning point is somewhat arbitrary, but many music historians start with one name – W.C. Handy. Handy was born in Florence, Alabama on November 16th, 1873, and was introduced to music in the Great St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, where both his father and grandfather were pastors.  In his autobiography, Handy describes saving up for his first guitar:

“Work meant nothing now. It was a means to an end. But saving was slow and painful… Setting my mind on a musical instrument was like falling in love. All the world seemed bright and changed… With a guitar I would be able to express the things I felt in sounds, I grew impatient as my small savings grew. I selected the instrument I wanted and went often to gaze at it loving through the shop window. The days dragged… The name of my ailment was longing, and it was not cured till I finally went to the department store and counted out the money in small coins before the dismayed clerk.”

The evolution of the guitar – including the invention of steel strings and archtop bodies that were much louder – was integral in the evolution of the blues. The guitar’s relative cheapness compared to a piano meant wider accessibility to the instrument. African American work songs, which were still being sung up to the 1960s, began to merge into what eventually would be know as the blues.

One popular story about the origin of the blues feels like it could be right out of a blues song itself. One night in 1903, WC Handy was stuck waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi.  He fell asleep on a bench, and awoke to a black man singing about “goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog.”  Handy asked the man what it meant.

“It turned out that the tracks of the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, which locals called the Yellow Dog, crossed the tracks of the Southern Railroad in the town of Moorehead, where the musician was headed, and he’d put it into a song. It was, Handy later said, “the weirdest music I had ever heard.””

That weird music was the blues, and though it began in the South, it traveled north with the black Americans who went to cities like Chicago and Detroit attempting to escape Jim Crow laws. Many musicians saw traditional blues music as a relic of unhappier days and sought to create music more reminiscent of their urban surroundings. Acoustic guitars were replaced with electric ones, and the foundations of rock and roll were formed.

The blues is just one example of the ways that environment and available instruments shape music.  It’s also an example of weird music taking the world by storm – remember that the next time you see some kid in Bushwick playing a Game Boy hooked up to a toy record player.

Written by: John Knefel