An Oral Tradition Blues MUS 126 / ETHN 178

An Oral Tradition
MUS 126 / ETHN 178
Professor David Borgo, Ph.D.
Studying the Blues
Why should we study the blues?
The blues as…
• the root of American music
• a barometer of U.S. (and
global) social and political
• a spotlight on issues of race
and racism (both personal
and structural/systemic)
• a springboard for
understanding issues of
diversity, equity, and inclusion
• …and the complexities of
being human
– freedom < > responsibility
– individualism < > interconnectedness
– assertion < > openness
– creativity < > tradition
How should we study the blues?
The Blues ABCs
Critical Debates
What are the pros and cons of each?
Challenges in Studying Early Blues
Limited Documentation
• Oral history
– scholars didn’t start taking blues and
African American culture seriously until
well into the first half of the 20th century
– the utility of published sheet music is
• Audio recordings, BUT….
– music likely appeared in the 1880s/90s
and recordings appear in the 1920s
– earliest recordings were of urban/
commercial blues varieties and only
later did record labels search out rural
Challenges in Studying Early Blues
• Recording “talent scouts” and scholars
were predominantly white with biased
views of who/what they wanted to
record and why
• Later revivalists/scholars (1940s & 60s)
often sought “authentic” blues and
blues artists, shaping the
documentation and discourse.
[the legacy of African Americans has often been
shaped by others, and blues ‘mythology’ often bears
little resemblance to reality]
• Early blues artists were exposed and
played many different kinds of music.
– genre categories were more about the
presumed demographics of listeners than
the sounds of the music

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