Dancers of all abilities come to me disturbed, and slightly guilty, and say “Cierra… I love blues dancing but I just can't connect/don’t like/am unfamiliar with the music.” I’ve always found this peculiar as I struggle to understand how one could dance to music they can’t be in (It’s a cultural difference), and what factors into this disconnect. I think on this often during my free time especially since I dj mostly black music or music with a certain soul that always goes over well. At work I was reflecting on my music choices and my fusion vs blues class when one of the major differences hit me hard in the face.
It comes down to the way the artist communicates their point of creating music. Music is an art and depending on what the artist focuses on, and your expectations as a listener some music will make less sense, be less enjoyable although equally valuable. The influences of the development of the music can be seen in the history, the question of art vs life, and in oral vs written traditions. This post is simply and overall look at how different music’s cultures affect what values they are created with and make more sense when acknowledged when listened.
Black Music, all of it comes from one general idea, it is a ritual to express something within and put it into the world through storytelling. The music itself is typically simple or layered in a way that adds to a general feeling. Over top a voice explores a feeling,thought,dream, desire or wish through story. The rhythms of the music (including vocals) weave into a story, a setting, a relatable feeling bigger than the artist. Theirs is just one drop in the pail of life. On the other hand other cultures have other reasons for creating music.
In this comparison I will use american White culture as that makes up majority of the contemporary blues community. The music is focused less on vocals, story and an overall mood in a way. Instead of the music being tightly woven together, it’s purposefully disjointed and layered. The focus is to get the listener to take an external trip through the sounds choices made, not, necessarily a relatable human quality. Music as a art within white culture is more often about showing technical prowess and shaping an experience through intentional choices.*
I’m going to just give a quick overview of some black history. Most Black Americans came from west Africa through slavery, this is important to note because the music was often more than just music. Music traditionally was an experience, a ritual and a part of life. It was the heartbeat of the community and culture and that remains within the current black american culture. There are other values that come from African culture such as creating multiple rhythms that weave together, percussive sounds, music that drives physical movement, and storytelling. When the Africans were brought over as slaves, music was the only communication that was universal, since the families were destroyed and often times the slaves spoke different languages. Music was used as not only a way to communicate in the work fields and hold onto roots but a way of subversive communication.
Instruments were created, tools turned into instruments, bodies used to create sounds and generally layered by ear to create music. At the same time there was also a Introduction of Christianity to the community, and through that Spirituals were created. Song expressing adoration of religious aspects and hardship were common among the slaves as Christianity had certain pulls and draws to it. These songs held the community together through story and expression that in time turned into Blues, Jazz and many other styles of Black music one can find today.
On the other hand the White american Culture came from a very different background of values and ideas. Classical music the precursor to the current White american music is all centered around the idea of creating an art. There is a notation system and the focus is more on how complex the music can be in sounds using the notation system to assist with this. This makes Classical music much more complex and focused on creating interacting complicated sounds. Since then american music, besides folk which turned into classic country, tends to focus on this concept. Even when taking on black styles of music, White renditions often sounds different because of the lack of focus on the vocals and story and more on the overall music and mood. The technical are often correct and yet, “something” is often missing.
Art vs life
On a whole white audiences and musical artists tend to value music as an art form. An Idea that transcends the community. Music is meant to be intentionally take you away, or to set a specific mood. This style of music is an art that isn’t a part of life but should be admired from a distance, respectfully. Art can be whatever you make it and it’s the job of artist to push at cultural understandings and previously conceived “rules”. This view leaves a lot of room to expand new horizons but often doesn’t reflect real life. If it does, as in pop music it’s exaggerated and boiled down to a simple and easily ignorable point, in exchange for listening to the song as a whole.
On the other hand Black Americans have held on to the value of Art representing life and life being an art. One doesn’t just do something, they do it with style. And reverse one doesn’t make meaningless music, the music is connected to life. Black music typically speaks of hardships, real life, hope, relationships, and tons of other subjects.To “speak” on it, with style, is the art. Removing the real life aspect from Black would end the art. Music without soul, or emotions is empty and dull within the Values set of Black Americans. Music is a celebration of the highs and lows of life, the little moments and the huge life changes, the silliness to keep you from crying, and the exploration of self. To lose, or ignore the aspect of life would render the music to simple beat patterns. This can be easily seen at Black Churches where the singing has a life and story that is sung by the whole congregation. Hymns sung are meant to bring you into each other and God in celebration of life. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lD5uPZzBr5c
Oral tradition vs written tradition
These two approaches of music developed in part by how music has been passed down through the ages. Europeans had written language specifically for music and much of their knowledge and ideas about music were passed down throughout the ages through written material. The musical thought was built upon and written about for ages, theories created and rules pushed. On the other hand African and through that Black Americans still hold onto the oral tradition. In part because they weren’t allowed to read and part because children are taught from a young age about music and dance. Music in black culture is passed from relative to relative, community to individual through an oral and experiential tradition. The church also still plays a major role in this. This allows for Black music to be simpler and yet to have great depth. Then as a cultural value is to build upon values but to not break them the original music built and changed and yet often has a similar quality to it.
What does this have to do with blues?
You may be reading and asking at this point, what does this have to do with blues? What I’m getting at is that part of why many in the contemporary community may struggle with connecting to Blues music is because they are listening to it with expectations that won’t be met. These expectations, although valuable, aren’t valued in Blues music. The only way to understand and appreciate it is to change what you are listening for and how. Blues music doesn’t value just creating sounds that sounds good together. It’s a story, it’s a setting, mood, and generally an deep expression of the writer and the artist playing it. It’s a deep heritage that bonds us, one you must feel to get.
So, I can almost hear you asking me, what now? If you want to relate to blues it’s important to gain a grasp on why the music is written that way. It’s also imperative that one knows values behind blues and when listening focus on that. To approach it through another cultural lenses, will give a vastly different experience. Listen to the lyrics and connect with it. You may not relate in a direct way but you can understand the feeling of hardship, the agony of heartbreak, the simple pleasures, having things out of your hands and trying any way and perseverance. Find yourself in the story.. Get lost in the fabric of the rhythms and allow the artist to take you away to the setting of their creation. Play with the dichotomy of what it really means to be happy and sad and explore everything in between. Be vulnerable when listening and dancing, and be open to feeling a range of feelings. Some songs may hurt and some may make you laugh but what’s important is to hear the story and feel the message the artist is sending to you. Dancing the blues only really comes when you allow yourself to be moved by the music, literally and physically.
*One genre of music that this isn’t as apparent is traditional/classic country. This is because of the culture being farther removed from general american culture. Things are self taught and passed on through familiar relations. Comparing blues and country will be a later post I’m particularly excited for.
P.s. Yes, I generalized a lot in this post. This was intentional. It was a statement of a general trend not and to say ALL of music is like this from every artist. This is a statement of general values observed. Yes, I also know people struggle less with swing, But I argue the reason much of the community doesn’t listen to it outside of dances is partly for the same reason as for blues. The difference is since swing, tends, to be upbeat, it’s easier to digest unlike it’s rawer predecessor and counterpart. Also many communities listen to swing that is written for or by white audiences so it sounds different, to me.