Thinking out loud
Welcome to my blog, a place where I don’t really have to overthink what I’m writing.
October 18, 2021
It only took forty-something years for me to finally get that hard work really does pay off. It just takes longer for some of us who didn’t have the head start of lighter skin color, generational wealth or blah, blah, blah. Following your dreams is hard because it takes faith. And faith is the substance of things hoped for and evidence of what’s not seen (Bible, can’t remember the verse). So, believing in something you can see sounds crazy, right? Well…
October 13, 2021
So this isn’t a “thinking out loud” entry. It’s a college paper I wrote after reading Blues Poems.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Originates from Blues Sung by Captives of Transatlantic Slave Trade, Not the Southern Parts of North America
The late rock ‘n’ roll singer, Elvis Presley, a white man is credited for being the King of Rock ‘n’ roll, the inventor of a then new provocative and outspoken music in the 1950s. To be outspoken is defying the notion of just being seen and not heard, a cultural expectation that was expected from women, children, and minorities—especially African Americans, a people who were sold, kidnapped, shipped to North America and sold again as chattel. When emancipated, they faced discriminating because of their dark skin color. Presley attributed his musical sound to Black culture in a Jet Magazine interview. He said, “A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along… Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people.” Rock ‘n’ roll is a musical merger of country music, working class folk music, blue-collar American life, and the blues, a musical sound that’s said to be birthed on Southern plantations by slaves who sang in anguish and mercy to God under the harsh law of slavery. Raymond R. Patterson noted the distinct sound of blues in his poem, “Special Pain Blues”. He wrote, “Anybody can shout and holler, / It takes a special pain to sing the blues. / …It ain’t about losing your last dollar / Or having holes in both your shoes (201).” The last two stanzas of Patterson’s poem references country music’s narrative of white, blue collar American workers. Since most of the hard labor in North America was assigned to African Americans with no pay under inhumane conditions, it could be said North American colonizers’ hardships weren’t as brutal and grueling as African Americans. So, while every man or woman sang his or her troubles, none were sung as soulful and with the depth of the African American’s blues songs.
The Upswing of Blues Evolving to Rhythm and Blues
The sound of blues with the added upbeat swing came to be called rhythm and blues (R&B). R&B started in 1940, a decade before rock ‘n’ roll began. Smithsonian Center for Forklife & Cultural Heritage Magazine defines R&B as:
a musical sound that draws from the deep tributaries of African American expressive culture…that was initially developed during a thirty-year period that bridges the era of legally sanctioned racial segregation, international conflicts, and the struggle for civil rights.
The root of African American music—including rock ‘n’ roll, is the blues. Yet, it is the blues that seems to “belong” to the Black community—like how country music “belongs” to white America. This is because music is a legacy of culture and heritage. Country music’s song styles dates back to the 1700s from the British Isles. The blues songs didn’t start in Africa, but on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean dating back to the Transatlantic Slave Trade from the early 1600s.
The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll Did Not Come from Elvis or the North American South
What is it about the sound of rock ‘n’ roll that is so captivating, a sound that Elvis himself attributed to the African American? If rock ‘n’ roll came from the proclaimed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a man with Scottish, Irish, and Cherokee roots, then why didn’t this particular sound exist in the old world of Ireland, Scotland, North America or even Africa?
Rock ‘n’ roll encapsulates a musical note that ensures one hears the distress of that singer, that musician, and of the culture who makes up that generation. Wouldn’t it then make sense to claim that rock ‘n’ roll is a sound mostly rooted in African American song that did not originate from the plantations of the North American South, but in the bowels of slave ships during the Transatlantic Slave Trade? The heart of the rock ‘n’ roll sound is an African Atlantic note that was later coined “the blues” in the North American South.
An Inheritance of Blues Songs in Place of a Home
African Americans never had the privilege of land legacy without upsetting white North American society. African Americans were forced to labor on land that wasn’t their own. They cried out this injustice through song while working in the fields and singing gospel hymns in church. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, African Americans weren’t given any reparations regarding land, jobs, housing, justice or equity during the boom of Western frontier life when land was given, taken and stolen. African Americans also cried out this injustice merging field and gospel songs which was later called the blues; but inequality, inequity, and the brutality of slavery isn’t historically or even biblically new. Yet, the blues song wasn’t recognized until the era of African American slavery.
There is something unique about the blues songs and it doesn’t wholly account back to the African American blood specifically spilled on North American soil. Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, “Absence” alludes to this:
In the absence of women on board,
when the ship reached the point where no landmass
was visible in any direction
and the funk had begun to accrue—
human funk, spirit funk, soul funk—who
commenced the moaning? Who first hummed that deep
sound from empty bowels, roiling stomachs,
from back of the frantically thumping heart?
in the absence of women, of mothers,
who found the note that would soon be called, “blue,”
the first blue note from one bowel, one throat,
joined by dark others in gnarled harmony.
Before the head-rag, the cast-iron skillet,
new blue awaited on the other shore,
invisible, as yet unhummed. Who knew
what note to hit or how? In the middle
of the ocean, in the absence of women,
there is no deeper deep, no bluer blue.
“Funk” is another word that’s associated with African American music. It’s a sound that originated in the 1960s that mixes soul (R&B and gospel), and jazz—another African American blues sound that originated in the late 19th—early 20th century. The way the word “funk” is used in Alexander’s poem is not musical. It describes the consequences of the dire situation Africans were in when they were chained and stored at the bowels of slave ships like sardines in numbers ranging from 250-300 with no plumbing. During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, a voyage from Africa to North America would take approximately 35 days. The funk Alexander refers to is the odor of the captives’ physical condition, the stench of death where one can assume corpses weren’t immediately removed and thrown overboard for insurance purposes. It is the funk of the captives’ misery and broken spirit, a funk so potent, that the guttural anguish expressed within those 35-day voyages across the musty and salty Atlantic air came from deep down past the bowels of the hull. It was a melancholy symphony unlike any other melody calling out to fellow brothers and sisters who were raped, ridiculed, and beaten, who sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. The blues hits a note that’s deep as or even deeper than the sea. The survivors carried those notes to the shores of North America and sung it to their babies who were ripped away from them. And those babies kept that song in their heart and sang that same note when oppression syphoned their soul, and they sung it to their babies, and so forth and so on.
Safia Elhillo’s poem “self-portrait with yellow dress’ says, “& sometimes we do not die / we are born to a body dressed in black / & do not wear it to a funeral we live forever // our mouths open & a song falls out thick (29).” The legacy of song is strong in any culture, but for the African American, it speaks to the condition of humanity. Perhaps this is why that first note moaned over the Atlantic ocean is rooted so deep into the bedrock of creation that its foundation is strong enough to uphold soul music, R&B, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and future meters of music. Just like the presumed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll admitted, this music, this sound was here way before he—or any African or white person came along—(on American soil to be exact), because no one can sing the blues quite like an African Atlantic American.
Alexander, Elizabeth. Absence. American Sublime. Graywolf Press, 2005, p. 63.
BBC Worldservice.com. The Story of Africa.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/specials/1624_story_of_africa/page53.shtml#:~:text=The%20journey%20from%20Africa%20to,took%20two%20to%20three%20months.&text=Ships%20carried%20anything%20from%20250%20to%20600%20slaves. Accessed 1 April 2021.
Patterson, Raymond R. Special Pain Blues. Blues Poems. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, p 201-02.
Elhillo, Safia. Self-portrait with yellow dress. The January Children. University of Nebraska
Press, 2017, p. 29.
Little, Becky. Details of Brutal First Slave Voyages Discovered. History.
https://www.history.com/news/transatlantic-slave-first-ships-details. 18 August 2018. Accessed 1 April 2021.
Young, Trina. Elvis Presley and the Black Community: Dispelling the Myths. Elvis Biography.
https://elvisbiography.net/2020/02/12/elvis-presley-and-the-black-community-dispelling-the-myths/. 12 February 2020. Accessed 31 March 2021.
Yeah, I got nothing.
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