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The Emergence of the Blues


When over one million Africans and African Americans, victims of the domestic slave trade (1790s-1865) were transported from the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland to the Deep South following the expansion of cotton cultivation, they carried their musical culture to the new territories of Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. There, the individual style of singing typical of the Sahel imposed itself in a new environment where slave gatherings of any sort were being severely suppressed. In such an environment, the Central Africans' collective expressions of culture could hardly survive.

It is in the bleak Deep South that the blues evolved. One of its early ancestors was the field holler. Contrary to the work song, the field holler was sung solo. In 1853, traveler and author Frederick Law Olmsted heard a man in South Carolina raising a "long, loud, musical shout, rising and falling and breaking into falsetto his voice ringing through the woods in the clear, frosty night air, like a bugle call." As noted by historian Sylviane A. Diouf, this type of call brings to mind another call: the Muslim call to prayer, the adhan. Like the adhan, she has shown, the song "Levee Camp Holler," recorded by musicologist Alan Lomax in a Mississippi penitentiary in the 1930s, could have floated from a minaret. Field hollers have the same ornamented notes, tortuously elongated sounds, pauses, humming, melisma, and simple melody as the call to prayer. Traditional blues singer Horace Sprott, born on a plantation in Alabama, recalled hearing the elders sing in that manner in the nineteenth century, and he kept the style alive well into the twentieth century. There is little doubt that African Muslims who continued to pray on the plantations also issued the adhan -- the call to prayer. To non-Muslim whites and blacks, the adhan would have sounded like just another song.

Plantation Scene with Musicians

The similarities between the blues and the chanting of the Qur'an are equally strong. Melisma, wavy intonations, and declamation are elements of the traditional style of blues singers. The techniques used by blues guitarists are also similar to those developed in the Sahel, as noted by musicologist John Storm Roberts. The kora, he wrote, is "played in a rhythmic-melodic style that uses constantly changing rhythms, often providing a ground bass overlaid with complex treble patterns, while vocal supplies a third rhythmic layer." Roberts concludes that "similar techniques can be found in hundreds of blues records." Yet, African Muslims were not the only contributors to the blues. For example, sliding the cords of a guitar with a bottleneck and the mouth instrument called the diddley bow all found their origin in Central Africa.

Still, as blues expert Gerhard Kubik emphasizes, "most of the blues tradition in the rural areas of Mississippi has prevailed as a recognizable extension in the New World" of the musical style of the Sahelians. It is one of the most familiar, but also the most hidden and forgotten, contributions of West African Muslims to American culture.