Alan Lomax: the man who recorded the world… not always with the best practices.

CW: Race, racism and black culture representation.

All the blues was born and developed following the slavery of black communities, and it was only almost three centuries later that it became possible to hear the voice of this human mass, uprooted from their land, frustrated in the most elementary expectations of life, desperate in an inferiority maintained with weapons and defined by “black codes”.

At first it was poetry handed down orally. Then, around 1870, poetry met music.

Let’s go to New Orleans and down the Mississippi Delta. It is here that the sadness and daily pain mixed with a vague hope of the future laid the foundations for the great history that would later caracterize the blues. This geography quickly expanded, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee.

And above all the first rudimental elements that made for blues, quickly turned it into a style and a music genre.

If some of this heritage of music and poetry is known today to white audiences, it is due to the research work of Alan Lomax.

Born in Austin, Texas in 1915, Lomax began his research work in 1933, following his father, John Avery Lomax, a pioneer of folkloric documentation. Equipped with a bulky recording system mounted on a truck, father and son traveled throughout the South and Southeast of the United States for years, collecting from the field a harvest of precious musical materials.

The father John Avery Lomax was a traditional researcher: what was recorded in the field, in his aim, was meant to serve as a reference source for a series of transcriptions, both text and music for publication purposes. This work had led in 1910 to the publication of the Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads collection, a text that gave a cultural physiognomy to the so-called cowboy singing and the practice of country music in the United States, contributing in a decisive way, in the following years, to the development of the Archive of Folksong at the Library of Congress in Washington.

The son Alan Lomax, however, in addition to recording musical pieces, began to interview the musicians, not limiting his studying to the mere description of musical materials, but investigating public and private lives, the historical and social context, the traditions of other eras, sensing for certain events of American history and culture a political relevance that was often (and most likely voluntarily) lost.

I will go back to this later in this post, please keep reading till the end.

In 1934, together with his father, Lomax published American Ballads and Folksongs, followed, in 1936, by Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly, one of the first attempts in the history of white American literature to study a popular author.

In 1938, Alan Lomax, who in the meantime had continued to travel America together with his wife Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold, recorded in the wake of the work done with Leadbelly more than eight hours of conversations and performances of and with Jelly Roll Morton, that eventually gave life in 1949 to the volume entitled Mister Jelly Roll.

Between 1939 and 1940 he wrote and directed American Folk Songs, a radio broadcast produced by CBS involving artists such as Burl Ives, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Aunt Molly Jackson.

In 1946 he made a series of recordings and interviews with Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson which were collected under the title Blues in the Mississipi Night and constitute evidence of exceptional relevance on the history of American music.

Tireless traveler, this intellectual and researcher was, between 1950 and 1958, also in England, Scotland and Ireland, where his interest and his research on local folklore stimulated that folk revival that would soon spread throughout the country, extending its influence also on the commercial music of the place. Between 1954 and 1955 he even worked in Italy, where he established a collaboration with the ethnomusicologist Diego Carpitella.

The long journey made in 1959 throughout the southern United States gave birth to a very rich series of recordings, The Southern Heritage Series (reissued in 1993 under the name Sounds of the South) and Southern Journey.

In the sixties Lomax developed at Columbia University a series of techniques, Cantometrics, Choreometrics and Parlametrics, designed for a cross-analysis of the many musical traditions of folkloric origin, and in 1977 he was commissioned to choose the music included in the Voyager project, which would have brought into space evidence of human civilization. Lomax chose Blind Willie Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Andean and Navajo songs, polyphonic music of the Pygmies and songs of the Georgian Caucasus.

Awarded the National Book Award in 1993 for his memoir The Land Where the Blues Began, in the last years of his life he dedicated intense efforts to the Global Jukebox project, a software capable of collecting the highest possible number of testimonies on cultures popular of the planet, a real mapping of the human musical genome.

He died in Florida in 2002, but thanks to him the United States were able to know their most hidden history and the incredible contribution of those who were excluded, forgotten, segregated and persecuted by society.

Today, with the great help of technology, we are able to listen to his and his father recordings through the Lomax Digital Archive:

The Lomax Digital Archive provides free access to audio/visual collections compiled across seven decades.

The entirety of Alan’s photographs and open-reel tape recordings—made between 1946 and 1991—are available here, as well as transcriptions of his 1940s radio programs, and a selection of clips from his film and video-work of the 1970s and 1980s.

The LDA also contains several large audio collections the Lomaxes made, together and apart, on instantaneously recorded discs under the auspices of the Library of Congress’ Archive of Folk Song between 1933 and 1942.

The catalogs are searchable and browseable by a range of taxonomies (person, instrument, location, genre, etc.) and every recording and image is described by extensive item-level metadata.

Now… If you got excited by this story, you should know that there are plenty of places where Lomax can, and should, be justly criticized. So to bring the glory back to its truth, blues wasn’t forgotten by all Americans and Lomax’s work wasn’t really meant to honor Black Americans. It was meant for white Americans, for press, for publications, for radio shows. Definitely not for Black Americans.

They way he approached folk music was not always respectful of the music and the culture. The time when he started collecting his recording was a time when the mainstream representation of African-Americans was a radio show, heavily stereotyping black characters. And also Lomax’s emphasis on the blues created a distorted and stereotypical picture of black culture to white audiences.

According to Karl Hagstrom Miller, the author of Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow, when Lomax would show up in a black community, “he didn’t ask, ‘Share the songs that you enjoy singing.’ He asked for them to find songs that fit into his idea of old time folk songs.”

For Lomax, the locus of authentic black expression was best found in prisons. “The black communities were just too difficult to work in with any efficiency and so my father had the great idea that probably all of the sinful people were in jail,” Lomax once said. “And that’s where we found them — that’s where we found this incredible body of music.” The people Lomax and his father approached were often reluctant to display their culture for an outsider with a recording machine. But when the Lomaxes were able to get the cooperation of a prison warden, their subjects could be coerced. “Presently the guard came out, pushing a Negro man in stripes along at the point of his gun,” Lomax wrote about one session. “The poor fellow, evidently afraid he was to be punished, was trembling and sweating in an extremity of fear. The guard shoved him before our microphone.”

Lomax wasn’t ashamed of his methods. On the contrary, he saw prisoners as the people most sheltered from outside influences, and therefore most authentic. And much of the music he recorded this way, including many blues and work songs, are powerful expressions of overlooked cultures. But his quest for a ‘pure’ black music untouched by white influences was problematic. “By nature of the close proximity that two different cultures have by living next to each other, it is inevitable that the music and the cultural products that they are producing are intertwined and interrelated,” says Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Throughout the history of the South, she says, “People were singing each other’s music, so to speak.” According to Karl Hagstrom Miller, this cultural mixing happened even under the brutally enforced segregation of slavery and Jim Crow. “White slave owners and black slaves lived together, worked together, and worked the plantation together,” Miller says. Black musicians played the waltzes, jigs and the reels at white people’s parties. During the Great Awakening, in the 1830s, blacks and whites went together to camp revival meetings, where Christian hymns mixed with African religious and musical practices to create the songs we know as spirituals. In the 1880s and ’90s, touring vaudeville shows and Tin Pan Alley music publishing created a nationwide music industry — long before the advent of radio. So, Miller says, “there was a difference between what folklorists were searching for and what people were listening to and enjoying.”

Although Lomax celebrated his blues artists as creative geniuses, and he championed performers like Leadbelly, who had been imprisoned, Reece says that those musical choices affirmed negative and dangerous stereotypes. Lomax’s selections suggested that “African-Americans are criminals, are illiterate. They are not serious, they are not smart. That ‘authenticity’ is rooted in having that kind of vision of what an African-American can or cannot be.” This much is undeniable: right at the time the Civil Rights movement was trying to bring whites and blacks together in a common cause, Lomax drew a hard line between white music and black music that — with help from the record companies — helped keep the two apart.

Now that the picture is more complete, please listen to the recordings from the archive but be aware of the whole story and of how many negative elements are in there. The end does not always justify the means.


Great Depression, City Blues & St. Louis

The Great Depression of the 30s was devastating for America. It incorporated all the elements of a material, spiritual and moral disaster, impacting on the lives of millions of people.

In only a few month , starting from 1929, the whole country had to face the biggest social disaggregation in its history, going from a rich and expanding economy to a condition of poverty, food rationing, industrial bankruptcy and diffused crime.

Social disparities were making life harder and harder every day, the memories of the prosperous 20s were far and the conviction that “the business of America is business” was not so strong anymore.

It is in this context that, in the cities, the so called “house rent parties” started to be a response for the overly miserable living conditions that people had to face.
House rent parties, also known as “Too Tight Parties”, “Too Terrible Parties”, “Chitterlin’ Rag”, “Calico Hops”, “Kados”, “Skittles”, “House Shout”, “House Hops”, “Juggle and Struggle”, “Stomp”, “Breakdown”, “Boogie”, were organized on the day the rent was due to the landlord; the members of the household would invite neighbors and friends to participate for a 1$ ticket, this included live music and a jug of gin, and for the household, the ability to pay the rent.

Born under great misery, the rent parties were also a drain valve for the frustrations and neuroses of overcrowded ghetto life. The success of these parties led to a form of management of apartments specifically for this purpose, that took the name of “Good Times Flats” or “Buffet Flats”, flourishing of prostitution, gambling and liquor smuggling.

Slowly, but steadily, the Great Depression also changed the aspects of the Blues, known to those days.
Classic blues was somehow becoming anachronistic and the new times were in need of something different. The shortage of money, transformed the music industry: less known countryside musician were no longer given a one chance to get to recording studios to record their music and from that moment on blues became dominated by professional artists, almost stars, who were living in the cities, close to their place of work, the recording studios.

Winter view of “Welcome to St. Louis” sign at entrance to the Municipal Bridge, ca. 1917

St. Louis had a long history of blues music: blues was so much part of daily life that it was almost not considered as a special music genre. Music was connected, on one side, to the superficial world of night clubs and on the other to the working people, but its popularity became a thing in ragtime years. Among all the Mid-West cities, St. Louis was the one famous for being the place to be, where one could dance to the cakewalk at the sound of the ragtime piano.

For a whole generation the city kept its tradition of blues music for piano, being at a crossroad for migration routes, with streams of people from southern states continuously flowing to the city, contributing massively to the great variety and musical richness of St. Louis.

All of a sudden one could find barrelhouse and boogie pianists playing with ragtime guitarists and gut bucket trombonists for the “low-life blues” in Deep Morgan, you could find influences from the sounds of New Orleans, big stars like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith and Ethel Water playing in town theaters or Jelly Roll Morton on the boats on the river. If you wanted to have a “big chance” in music, you wanted to be in St. Louis at some point.

St. Louis boogie style of blues continued to be popular all throughout the 30s, intersecting with the swinging blues jazz styles that were emerging in the Midwest. At the same time, a rougher and more rural style of blues, incorporating harmonicas and slide guitar, was beginning to be heard in the city as well, giving life to trios and small groups.

At the end of the 30s, the artists that made St. Louis popular started to travel more frequently to Chicago, to recording studios and, quite soon after that, most of them had left to move to Chicago, where the action seemed to be. It was only in the 50s, with the spreading of boogie piano for rock n roll that the St. Louis style had a revival, but certainly the focus had shifted to different areas.

While researching  on this topic however something came clear to my mind: other big cities became more popular, but for sure St. Louis didn’t contribute less to the music. Little I knew of several of the artists I came across in my research and this is just a first step to get to know the history and music better!


  • Giles Oakley, “The Devil’s Music: A History Of The Blues”
  • Harriet Ottenheimer, “The Blues Tradition in St. Louis.” 


In April 2018 I went to Chicago for the first time. I went there with my bag full of dreams and ready to experience the blues in one of the places where it had lived, developed… I wanted to breathe the blues.

So in this post today I want to share a tiny bit of Chicago blues history and some of the pictures from my trip.

Chicago blues is probably to most popularly recognized among blues genres. It began in the early 1940s, following the Great Migration of African Americans, which was both forced and voluntary at times, fleeing from poverty and oppression in the South to the industrial cities of the North, including Chicago. This new population inlcuded several musicians, who shaped the evolution of the music by playing as street musicians, at rent parties, and other events in African American communities.

Contributing to the realization of Chicago blues there was also the tecnological development in music instruments: Chicago blues is based on the sound of the electric guitar and the amplified – almost to distortion – harmonica. It also features a rhythm section of drums and bass (double bass at first, then bass guitar) with piano.

Chicago quickly became an incubator for blues music to develop. One of the most significant ones was the large open-air market on Maxwell Street, a natural location for blues musicians to perform, earn tips, and jam with other musicians.

Then there were the blues clubs, true heart of blues music. The first ones were located in the black neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago, with a few in the smaller black neighborhoods on the West Side.

And finally there were Records companies. One of these was Chess Records, located in the south side of Chicago, in 2120 S. Michigan Avenue.

Chess Records was founded in 1950 by Leonard and Phil Chess, two Jewish immigrant brothers from  Poland.

At the beginning, Leonard and Phil focused their recording and publishing ventures primarily in the area of popular jazz, but soon expanded into blues. Chess Records was a fixture in the world of music and its recordings and the songs remain the most impressive collection of blues music in the world. From their experiences in the nightclub business on the South side of Chicago, the Chess brothers understood the popular preferences of their predominantly African-American audiences, but also saw the marketability of blues music to a broader audience. In the beginning Chess Records was ran as a two man business, with Phil overseeing the nightclub and the offices of Chess, while Leonard alternately scouted talent, produced the sessions, and hand delivered fresh recordings to radio stations in the Chicago area.

They produced and released many important singles and albums, which are now regarded as central to the blues and rock music genre. At one time, Chess Records was considered “America’s greatest blues label” with notable acts including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Etta James, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.  Willie Dixon was one of the main producers, songwriters and arrangers of the signature “Chess Records Sound”.

In 1993, Willie Dixon’s widow, Marie, purchased the Chess building which was then renovated and re-opened in September 1997 with a dedication ceremony. It is now home to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation.



Despite its humble origins and its often formulaic and repetitive nature, the blues has represented one of the most flourishing resources and one of the most important deposits for African American culture. Poets and writers have turned to it in search of powerful tools and symbols, shapes and figures suitable to describe a peculiar and particular vision of the world: above all a deep and ancient knowledge, an inalienable code through which to filter experiences and expressions, a interpretative prism suitable for reading and rereading the present.

The simultaneity of two very important phenomena was instrumental and functional: on the one hand, the phonographic explosion of the blues, from 1920 onwards; on the other, the beginning of a decisive movement of reformulation and rearrangement of the cultural and social coordinates of the African American people initiated by a group of brave intellectuals – poets, writers and musicians – remembered under the generic definition of Harlem Renaissance.

In that neighborhood of New York, the first great reflection on the black identity of the post-slavery era was launched, accompanied by an extraordinary flowering of artistic experiments tending to mix and weld the primitive strength of Afro-American expressiveness with the most modern forms of contemporary arts.

Over the course of a very bright twenty years, Harlem became the cultural ground for African American artists and intellectuals to explore, deepen and express the historical experience of African Americans: challenging the paternalistic and racist attitudes of whites, they exalted black dignity and creativity, while also claiming their freedom to express themselves in their own way. They examined their identity as black Americans, celebrating the black culture that had emerged from slavery and their cultural ties to Africa.

Within this cultural fervor, poets and writers began to measure themselves with the blues; not only with its formulas and rigid schemes, often reused as such, although intended for the written page and not for singing, but with the widest range of motifs, themes, representations.

From the cotton fields of the Delta, from the brothels of New Orleans to Harlem, the blues is transformed into another peculiar and inimitable art form. In poetry.

It is in this fervent context that we meet the capable pen of Sterling A. Brown.

A well-rounded intellectual, poet and theorist, Sterling A. Brown devoted much of his energy to the blues. He wrote about it on several occasions, trying to grasp its perimeter, to identify its profound nature against the generalizations that many parts of white public opinion tended to trivialize with regard to the historical and social experiences underlying the twelve bars.

As a historian, Brown had very clear ideas: for him the blues was the result of the creative spirit of the African American people, not a simple record that the industry passed off as such. Blues as shared knowledge and code, irrefutable reference framework. 

Brown’s poetry is known for its frank, unsentimental portraits of black people and their experiences, and the incorporation of African American folklore and contemporary idiom into his verse. 

“I wanted to understand my people. I wanted to understand what it meant to be a [Black]. What the qualities of life were. With their imagination, they combine two great loves: the love of words and the love of life. Poetry results.”

Southern Road

Swing dat hammer—hunh—
Steady, bo’;
Swing dat hammer—hunh—
Steady, bo’;
Ain’t no rush, bebby,
Long ways to go.

Burner tore his—hunh—
Black heart away;
Burner tore his—hunh—
Black heart away;
Got me life, bebby,
An’ a day.

Gal’s on Fifth Street—hunh—
Son done gone;
Gal’s on Fifth Street—hunh—
Son done gone;
Wife’s in de ward, bebby,
Babe’s not bo’n.

My ole man died—hunh—
Cussin’ me;
My ole man died—hunh—
Cussin’ me;
Ole lady rocks, bebby,
Huh misery.

Guard behin’;
Guard behin’;
Ball an’ chain, bebby,
On my min’.

White man tells me—hunh—
Damn yo’ soul;
White man tells me—hunh—
Damn yo’ soul;
Got no need, bebby,
To be tole.

Chain gang nevah—hunh—
Let me go;
Chain gang nevah—hunh—
Let me go;
Po’ los’ boy, bebby,
Evahmo’ . . .

Riverbank Blues

A man git his feet set in a sticky mudbank,
A man git dis yellow water in his blood,
No need for hopin’, no need for doin’,
Muddy streams keep him fixed for good.

Little Muddy, Big Muddy, Moreau and Osage,
Little Mary’s, Big Mary’s, Cedar Creek,
Flood deir muddy water roundabout a man’s roots,
Keep him soaked and stranded and git him weak.

Lazy sun shinin’ on a little cabin,
Lazy moon glistenin’ over river trees;
Ole river whisperin’, lappin’ ‘gainst de long roots:
“Plenty of rest and peace in these…”

Big mules, black loam, apple and peach trees,
But seems lak de river washes us down
Past de rich farms, away from de fat lands,
Dumps us in some ornery riverbank town.

Went down to the river, sot me down an’ listened,
Heard de water talkin’ quiet, quiet lak an’ slow:
“Ain’ no need fo’ hurry, take yo’ time, take yo’
time…” Heard it sayin’—”Baby, hyeahs de way life go…”

Dat is what it tole me as I watched it slowly rollin’,
But somp’n way inside me rared up an’ say,
“Better be movin’… better be travelin’… Riverbank’ll
git you ef you stay…”

Towns are sinkin’ deeper, deeper in de riverbank,
Takin’ on de ways of deir sulky Ole Man—
Takin’ on his creepy ways, takin’ on his evil ways,
“Bes’ git way, a long way . . . whiles you can.”Man got his
sea too lak de Mississippi Ain’t got so long for a whole lot longer way,
Man better move some, better not git rooted Muddy water fool you, ef you stay…”


Brown, S. Southern Road
Martorella, V. Il blues


For my new blog post I have decided to talk a bit about one of my personally favorite blues legends… a woman who has shaped blues history in many different ways, bringing a unique touch and a clear view of artistry through her music.

Let me introduce you to Memphis Minnie!

She is defined as “the queen of country blues”, but honestly I always felt the definition pretty reductive to describe how great she was… Many also said that she would play guitar “like a man”… well, being also an icon for feminism… I bet there were and still are quite a lot of men who wished to play guitar like her!

So… Who was Memphis Minnie?

She was born in Louisiana in the latest years of the XIX century and raised in the south of Memphis. Very early, at the age of 10 she proved to be a talent in playing both banjo and guitar and when she turned 13, her home became Memphis’ Beale Street. She quickly made a name for herself with the jug bands and string groups that played on the street and at Memphis’ Church Park. Music was running in her veins and she had to play it! At that time she was known as Kid Douglas, it was only a few years later, around the 1910s, that she changed her name into Memphis Minnie and started touring in the southern states.

Minnie was a unique talent: she did what the boys could do, and she did so while wearing a fancy dress, with full hair and lipstick on. She had everything: outstanding guitar skills, a strong voice, a wide repertoire with many original compositions, signature tracks and a glamorous, bawdy and tough stage presence at the same time.

She was above gender as well as genre and with her talent she spanned through decades, for years of undisputed career, which led her to move from country blues to electric blues in Chicago, becoming the first female guitarist to play electric urban blues.

Her style was raw, personal and edgy. Minnie was not following the mainstream, she was creating her own, to the point that she became one of the rare women of her era to gain prominence as an artist and as a guitarist.

In Chicago she performed in clubs, organized “Blue Monday” shows and formed a vaudeville troupe to tour theaters. She formally studied music and added some of the jazz and pop standards of the day to her repertoire. She joined the musicians union and bought a National electric archtop guitar, becoming part of that transitional generation between acoustic Delta blues and the electrified Chicago sound. But she was at heart a country blues singer/guitarist, and even though she was one of the greatest of all time, the changing tastes of the African-American audience found little room for what they considered a reminder of the grim life left behind in Mississippi.

In the latest years of her career she decided to move to small labels for her records, but for the artist that she was, she worked with some radio stations, to help, support, educate and promote eager and talented young blues artists.

Minnie overcame considerable odds to achieve success, battling both racism and sexism. She has been heralded as a champion of feminist independence and empowerment. 

Her unique storytelling style of songwriting inspired as many men as women and her influence was particularly strong on female musicians, her disciples include her niece Lavern Baker as well as Saffire and virtually every other guitar-slinging woman since.

Her songs have been recorded by women such as Big Mama Thornton, Lucinda Williams, and Maria Muldaur, as well as by men, including Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Milton Brown and she was elected in the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.

She has been music, she has been a fighter, she has been energy, boldness, power, fierceness and courage for all her life.

And to me, you never truly love blues until you get to meet her.


Garon, Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie Blues

Newark, Feminist Blues: Choice and Independence in the Songs of Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Billie Holiday

Memphis Music Hall of Fame,

Blues Hall of Fame,

Cos’è il BLUES?

Oggi voglio affrontare una domanda la cui risposta potrebbe sembrare scontata, ma, a mio avviso, non lo è… Che cos’è il BLUES?

Dalla mia esperienza, ogni volta che dicevo di ballare blues, le risposte che ricevevo erano quasi sempre un mucchio di commenti stereotipati che potrei semplicemente riassumere in “oh, roba lenta, triste e sexy, ho capito”. Beh … onestamente, questa non è decisamente la definizione che mi viene in mente, quindi lasciate che ve ne parli un po’ qui.

Prima di andare avanti però, c’è una cosa che devo riconoscere…  Sono una donna bianca italiana, sono nata e cresciuta in un Paese prevalentemente bianco, la cui storia, cultura e tradizioni sono lontane dall’esperienza Afro-Americana. È fondamentale per me dire onestamente che tutto ciò che leggerete in questo breve articolo proviene da ciò che ho studiato, discusso e visto con l’aiuto della comunità blues internazionale e da ciò che i rappresentanti Afro-Americani nella comunità hanno condiviso riguardo alle loro esperienze personali. Senza l’aiuto e le conversazioni molto personali e profonde che ho avuto con questi meravigliosi esseri umani, non sarei in grado di avere la stessa comprensione del blues che ho oggi. Quindi, ogni volta che vi avvicinate a una forma d’arte, cultura, storia che non è la vostra, vi incoraggio profondamente ad andare dalle persone che la rappresentano e con rispetto imparare da loro il più  possibile.

Ora sono pronta per entrare nella nostra domanda… COS’È IL BLUES?

Il blues è una forma di musica che nasce dall’esperienza Afro-Americana, con un’identità e una storia specifiche e incorpora una vasta gamma di stili ed emozioni.

La storia del blues risale al XIX secolo. È cresciuto nel Delta del Mississippi, dalla Diaspora Afro-Americana, dall’esperienza di schiavi, ex schiavi e dei loro discendenti che cantavano mentre lavoravano nei campi. Tra la metà e la fine del 1800, il Deep South ospitava davvero centinaia di bluesmen che hanno contribuito a plasmare la musica.

Sfortunatamente, gran parte della musica originale ha seguito questi mezzadri fino alle loro tombe, ma l’eredità di questi primi pionieri del blues può ancora essere ascoltata nelle prime registrazioni degli anni ’20 e ’30 e comprende gli spirituali africani, i canti africani, le canzoni di lavoro, gli hollers campestri, la musica rurale suonata con flauti e batterie, inni revivalisti e musica da ballo country.

Durante gli anni delle Grandi Migrazioni, il blues Delta si fece strada lungo il Mississippi verso le aree urbane, influenzando infine l’evoluzione della musica stessa. Pensate al blues elettrico di Chicago, ai diversi sottogeneri blues regionali (ne parlerò di più nei prossimi articoli del blog) e ai vari ibridi jazz-blues. Ha anche dato vita al rhythm ‘n blues e al rock ‘n roll, quindi ecco: la musica blues è già un sacco di cose! Il suo tempo varia in così tanti modi che non possiamo assolutamente chiamarlo solo “roba lenta”!

E le emozioni? Beh, per me che non esiste una forma di musica che possa comunicare emozioni più sincere, e mi piace particolarmente la definizione di blues data da Blind Mississippi Morris che ha detto “Il blues è un sentimento con cui la maggior parte delle persone può relazionarsi. Una sensazione che fa così male, o che a volte ti fa sentire così bene che non riesci a trovare le parole, quindi ci metti la musica. […] la senti, la ascolti ed è così che lo sai! “

Il blues insegna ad abbracciare le emozioni, accettare i propri difetti, vivere gli alti e bassi e, in modo catartico, trasformare tutto in un linguaggio che non è fatto solo di parole, è fatto di musica, movimento, sentimento e in definitiva compassione.

Con un profondo senso di rispetto e umiltà, nel mio rapporto con il blues ogni volta che ho bussato alla sua porta, mi ha dato molto più della semplice musica, del solo sentimento e della solo danza. Mi commuovo molto quando parlo del blues, ma per me… il blues è guaritore.

Ora… cos’è il Ballo Blues?

Mi piace molto la spiegazione che Gray Armstrong ha scritto per Obsidian Tea.

“Il ballo blues è un termine generico usato per descrivere il ballo sulla musica blues con certe aspettative fondamentali. Alcuni sono basati sul movimento, molti no. Da questi valori fondamentali, ci sono molti idiomi, o stili, che ne sono derivati, che sono tutti considerati danze blues. Questi balli provengono da diversi momenti e zone del paese ma sono profondamente legati alla musica per cui sono stati creati. […] Dato che il ballo blues è una formulazione più generica, è facile dividere i balli blues in due tipi generali: il tipo che faresti in un juke joint e il tipo che faresti in una sala da ballo nera. “

Quindi possiamo parlare dei balli Juke Joint Blues e dei balli Ballroom Blues e in particolare di questo, Damon Stone ha scritto questa spiegazione molto chiara per definirli:

“Il Juke Joint Blues include tutte le varianti di ballo che sono nate dai tipi di musica blues suonata in juke joint, roadhouse, honky tonks, rent party, feste nei seminterrati e altri luoghi che erano generalmente affollati, avevano una superficie limitata, di natura tendenzialmente casuale/privata, e includeva piccole combo che suonavano musica ritmicamente dominante e cantanti che cantavano in modo percussivo o ringhiando. Questi balli sono spesso caratterizzati da movimento staccato, danza sul posto o se ci sono frequenti cambi di direzione, angoli acuti, movimento estremamente radicato, una postura a terra, movimento deliberato dell’anca/pelvico e una maggiore indipendenza di movimento e ritmi tra i partner.

Il Ballroom Blues include tutte le varianti di ballo che sono nate dai tipi di musica blues suonata nelle sale da ballo, con pavimenti spaziosi, di natura più formale/pubblica, e prevedevano big band che suonano linee melodiche intrecciate in cima a prevedibili shuffle o triple rhythms con gli strumenti principali che sono spesso un pianoforte, ottoni o strumenti ad ancia. Queste danze tendono a viaggiare più ampiamente sul pavimento, generando e manipolando lo slancio e sono caratterizzate da una postura un po’ più “eretta” (sebbene altrettanto radicata come le danze del juke joint), movimenti sottili dell’anca/pelvico e del busto, con footworks schematizzati alla base delle forme espressive. “

C’è anche il Solo Blues, che crea un genere a sè e nelle parole di Damon Stone, “include tutti i passi di danza eseguiti senza un’influenza fisica diretta su un altro ballerino – questo include non solo un singolo individuo che balla in social o durante una performance o una competizione, indipendentemente dal fatto che sia improvvisata o coreografata, ma anche riffing e cutting dove gli spunti visivi, stilistici e ritmici possono essere presi o condivisi tra due o più ballerini, così come quando una coppia di partner si rilassa o interrompe la connessione, quindi non c’è trasferimento diretto di energia che influenza i passi di danza che vengono eseguiti.”

Ciò che lega questi diversi gruppi sono alcuni principi estetici fondanti, che creano un terreno comune alle diverse danze, idiomi e stili. Questi sono:

  • Efebismo,
  • Groundedness,
  • Pulse,
  • Lag,
  • Musicalità,
  • Asimmetria,
  • Movimento integrato, poliritmico e policentrico,
  • Danza improvvisata e colloquiale,
  • Equità tra partners,
  • Coolness

Quindi se sei arrivato a questo punto nella lettura … sei d’accordo con me sul fatto che il blues è molto di più della stereotipata “roba lenta, triste e sexy” ???

“Sì, Bibi, mi hai convinto, ma … Perché non possiamo trovare tutte queste cose facilmente spiegabili e registrate online?”

 Se ti sei posto questa domanda, dovresti essere consapevole che questo è l’approccio utilizzato nelle culture bianche americane ed europee. Non è quello su cui si fonda la comunità Afro-Americana. Storicamente, per legge, agli schiavi Afro-Americani veniva negata l’istruzione poiché i proprietari di schiavi temevano che ciò avrebbe ispirato o reso possibile ambizioni di emancipazione. Quindi, mantenendo le sue radici africane, la cultura Afro-Americana era ed è profondamente fondata sulla tradizione orale, l’esperienza diretta, l’esplorazione e il fare. Le tradizioni specificamente orali divennero il mezzo principale per preservare la storia, i costumi e altre informazioni culturali tra le persone. La comunità ha aperto la strada all’insegnamento orale e ha creato il terreno per la conoscenza diretta.

Per questo vi incoraggio a distaccarvi dalla vostra mentalità e seguire il modo in cui la cultura si è costruita nella comunità Afro-Americana. Possiamo imparare molto da questa esperienza sulla cultura, la danza, la musica e soprattutto nell’apprezzare veramente ciò che facciamo quando ci definiamo ballerini blues.

Okkkey! Questo è tutto per oggi, questo articolo è un po’ lungo e ancora non è esaustivo né completo, ma spero abbia creato un po’ di curiosità per approfondire di più questi argomenti.

Ci vediamo molto presto per altre Blues Stories!


What is BLUES?

Today I want to address a question whose answer might seem obvious, but, in my opinion, it is not… What is BLUES?

From my experience, whenever I said I am a blues dancer, the replies that I got were almost always a bunch of stereotyped comments that we could simply sum up in to “oh, slow, sad and sexy stuff, I see”. Well… honestly, that is not the definition that would come to my mind straight away, so let me tell you a bit about it here.

Before moving on however, there is something that I need to acknowledge… I am a white Italian woman, I was born and raised in a predominantly white country, whose history, culture and traditions are far from the African American experience.  It is paramount for me to honestly say that everything that you will read in this brief article comes from what I’ve studied, discussed and saw with the help of the international blues community and from what African American representatives in the community have shared about their personal experiences. Without the help and the very personal and profound conversations that I had with these wonderful humans, I would not be able to have the same understanding of blues that I have today. So whenever you approach a form of art, culture, history that is not your own, I deeply encourage you to go to the people representing it with respect and learn from them the more that you can.

Now I am ready to go into… WHAT IS BLUES?

Blues is a form of music that originates from the African American experience, with a specific identity and history and it incorporates a wide range of styles and emotions.

Blues history roots back in the 19th Century. It grew up in the Mississippi Delta, from the African American Diaspora, from the experience of slaves, ex-slaves and their descendants who sang as they toiled in the fields. During the middle to late 1800s, the Deep South was indeed home to hundreds of bluesmen who helped to shape the music.
Unfortunately, much of the original music followed these sharecroppers to their graves, but the legacy of these earliest blues pioneers can still be heard in 1920s and ’30s early recordings and it encompasses the African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music.

During the years of the Great Migrations, the Delta blues made their way up the Mississippi to urban areas, ultimately influencing how the music evolved. You can think of the electrified Chicago blues, the different regional blues subgenres (I will talk more about these in future blog posts), and various jazz-blues hybrids. It also gave birth to rhythm ‘n blues and rock ‘n roll, so you see: blues music is already a lot of things! Its tempo varies in so many way, we cannot call it “slow stuff” only!

How about emotions? Well, I feel there is no form of music that can communicate more genuinely emotions, and I particularly like the definition of blues given by Blind Mississippi Morris who said “The blues is a feeling that most people can relate to. A feeling that hurts so bad, or  sometimes feels so good that you can’t find words to it, so you put music to it.[…] you feel it, you hear it and that’s how you know!”

Blues teaches to embrace emotions, accept one’s flaws, live the ups and the downs and, in a cathartic way, transform everything into a language that is not only made of words, it is made of music, movement, feeling and ultimately compassion.

With a deep sense of respect and humbleness, in my relationship with blues whenever I came to it, it has given me much more than just music, just feelings and just dance. I get very emotional when I talk about the blues, but to me… Blues is the healer.

Now… what is Blues Dancing?

I really like the explanation that Grey Armstrong wrote for Obsidian Tea.

“Blues dancing is a catch-all term used to describe dancing to blues music with certain foundational expectations. Some are movement-based, many are not. From these foundational values, there are many idioms, or styles, that have come out of that, that are all considered blues dances. These dances have come out of different points in time and areas of the country but are deeply tied to the music they were created for. […]As blues dancing is a more recent catch-all wording, it’s easy to divide blues dances into two general types: the type you’d do at a juke joint, and the type you’d do at a Black ballroom.”

So we can talk about Juke Joint Blues dances and Ballroom Blues dances and specifically about this, Damon Stone wrote this very clear explanation to clarify them out:

Juke Joint Blues includes all dance variants that grew out of the types of blues music played in juke joints, roadhouses, honky tonks, rent parties, basement parties, and other venues that were generally crowded, had limited floor space, of a more casual/private nature, and tended towards small combos playing rhythmically dominant music and vocalists who sang in a percussive or growling manner. These dances are frequently characterized by staccato movement, dancing on the spot or if there is traveling frequent changes of direction, sharp angles, extremely grounded movement, a low-to-the-ground posture, deliberate hip/pelvic movement, and greater independence of movement and rhythms between partners.

Ballroom Blues includes all dance variants that grew out of the types of blues music played in ballrooms and dance halls, that spacious floors, of a more formal/public nature, and tended towards big bands playing interwoven melodic lines on top of predictable shuffle or triple rhythms with the lead instruments frequently being a piano, brass, or reed instrument. These dances tend to travel more broadly around the floor, generating and manipulating momentum and are characterized by a somewhat more “upright” posture (though just as grounded as the juke joint dances), subtle hip/pelvic and counter torso movements, with footwork patterns making the baseline forms of expression.”

There is also Solo Blues Dancing, which creates a genre for itself and in the words of Damon Stone, “it includes any dance steps done without direct physical influence to another dancer — this includes not just a single individual dancing either socially, or in performance or competition regardless if it is improvised or choreographed, but also riffing and cutting where visual, stylistic, and rhythmic cues may be taken or shared between two or more dancers, as well as when a partnered couple relaxes or breaks the connection so there is no direct transfer of energy influencing the dance steps being done.”

What ties these different groups are some founding aesthetic principles, that create a common ground to the different dances, idioms and styles. These are:

  • Ephebism,
  • Groundedness,
  • Pulse,
  • Lag,
  • Musicality,
  • Asymmetry,
  • Integrated, polyrhythmic and polycentric movement,
  • Improvisational and conversational dancing,
  • Equal partnership,
  • Coolness

So if you have come to this point in reading… do you agree with me that blues is so much more than the stereotyped “slow, sad and sexy stuff”???

“Yes Bibi you kind of convinced me, but… Why can’t we find all these things easily explained and recorded online?”

 If you asked yourself this question, you should be aware that this is the approach used in White American and European cultures. It is not the one the African American community relies on. Historically, by law, African American slaves were denied education as slaveholders feared that this would have inspired or enabled emancipatory ambitions. So, maintaining its African roots, African American culture was and is deeply founded on oral tradition, direct experience, exploration and doing. Specifically oral traditions became the primary means of preserving history, mores, and other cultural information among the people. The community lead the way in the oral teaching and created the ground for direct knowledge.

I encourage you to leave your mindset and follow the way the African American community did it. We can learn a lot from this on the culture, the dance, the music and mostly in truly appreciating what we do when we call ourselves blues dancers.

Okkkey! This is it from me today, this blog post is a bit long and still it is not exhaustive nor complete, but I hope it has created a bit of curiosity for delving more into these topics.

I’ll see you very soon for more Blues Stories!


BLUES STORIES: Barrelhouse Blues, pianos and women in the 20s and 30s.

For this first blog post I felt like starting with something that I am curious about and that is currently in my “I wanna know more” list, so please be aware that this is just a starting point and not at all a complete and exhaustive read. Still, I hope it will give you some ideas on Barrelhouse blues, pianos and women in the 20s and 30s, and maybe it will encourage you to research further into this.

So let’s start with… What is Barrelhouse blues?

Let’s start with defining the Barrelhouse first… as the name itself anticipates, it is called Barrelhouse a bar where whiskey is served straight from the barrel.

The barrelhouses of the rural South were rough wooden shacks where African American laborers gathered to drink and dance at the edge of small towns and levee camps. The up-tempo piano blues that developed in these establishments came to be called barrelhouse, as well, as in “I want to hear some barrelhouse tonight” and in an overly simplified way, it was a sped up form of rural blues, meant specifically for dancing. 

So I kind of revealed it already: what was specific to Barrelhouse blues was the way of playing the piano! It was adapted to the polyrhythmic traditions (percussive use in imitation of African “hun” drums) and to the goliardic mood of the workers (who wanted to dance after a hard day’s work), as well as to the noise of the barrelhouse, that forced the musicians to beat hard on the piano keys. This also allowed to disguise the not-very-finely tuned pianos, as in fact the musicians had to make up for the shortcomings of the instrument with the mobility of their fingers.

The barrelhouse spread in Southern states, and later also to northern cities, following the routes of migration. The departure from the rural Southern blues came mainly in Kansas City, where a rough, rhythmic and percussive style was formed, and in Chicago, where a generation of highly skilled specialists was formed. This raw, high-spirited piano playing eventually morphed into boogie-woogie–a strident, uninhibited, and forcefully rhythmic new American music.

As Memphis Minnie proves, Barrelhouse could be played on guitar too…

Why did I mention women before? The answer is actually pretty simple: many barrelhouses and juke joints were run by women, who eventually also became the entertainment of the nights.

Women club owners have been a vital part of the whole jazz and blues history and continue to maintain the spaces and places of this music.

Lil Johnson – My stove is in good conditions

Juke joints and Barrelhouses were the kind of business women turned to as a means to provide for themselves and their families and often they would run these businesses without the help of any men.

The blues singer Sandra Hall was the daughter of a female owner, who herself continued the tradition of her mother. In an interview by Pearson from 2003, she said that her grandmother would cook up a batch of fish (“Fish Fries Fridays”) and sell Black Label beer. Then the grandmother would play the piano, and the Hall sisters would sing.

This is how ART is born.

I’ll be forever grateful to all these talented souls for gifting us with the preciousness of this music.

Lucille Bogan – Coffee Grindin’ Blues

Well, this is all from me for today, here below you find the source list I have been using to investigate on this topic… if you wish to go deeper on the few things I’ve been writing about, there you find a lot more that is absolutely worth reading!

Also… What is in your “I wanna know more” list? Send me a message and let me know!
I’d be happy to help you in your research process!

Source list:
  • Devi, The Language of the Blues from Alcorub to Zuzu
  • Hazzard Gordon, Jookin’
  • Martorella, Blues (available only in Italian)
  • Attrep, From Juke Joints to Jazz Jams: The Political Economy of Female Club Owners
  • Pearson, Jook Women
  • Nardone, Roomful of Blues: Jukejoints and the Cultural Landscape of the Mississippi Delta.

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