Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

Sign up for Emails

Sign up now to receive an email alert for the Focus On feature!

GO

Privacy Policy

Previous Features

PHOTO ESSAY

The Blues

Back Arrow Previous

Photo 2 of 9

Next Next Arrow
Prison camp song

"Lightnin'" Washington, an African American prisoner, singing with his group in the woodyard at Darrington State Farm, Texas (1934). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Just as difficult as defining the blues is determining where, exactly, it came from. While scholars acknowledge that the genre has drawn on numerous and disparate sources, there remains to this day no agreed-upon consensus on the importance of each. Breezy attributions to "Africa," while not incorrect, have often been overly simplistic; while it was within the communities of the descendants of African slaves that blues was created, it was not until multiple generations after the abolishment of the slave trade that the blues even emerged. Certain traits of the blues, however, can be directly traced to West Africa, including the banjo—a North American adaptation of African stringed instruments such as the khalam—and the field holler, a term for work songs used by slaves to communicate with one another. A version of "ring shouts"—a collective song and dance ritual from Africa—field hollers incorporated a rhythmically disciplined call-and-response to "keep laborers moving in unison" and maintain contact with other slaves (Wald), a vestige that would come to be one of the defining features of the blues.

Wald, Elijah. The Blues: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Back Arrow Previous

Photo 2 of 9

Next Next Arrow