Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Blues has Indian blood

When asked about the origins of the blues, everybody says "Africa" and maybe "Europe", but what about the first settlers on the American continent, the Amerindians ?

I really think they had their part. In the South, there has always been ties between Indians and Afro-Americans. Check out this wikipedia article on Black Indians for more info. And Indian music, especially from the Southeastern tribes, bears resemblance to the blues in its hypnotic rhythm and pentatonic scales.

A good example can be found in the Hemphill family in North Misssissippi. Sid Hemphill, a multi-instrumentalist musician who was discovered by Alan Lomax in 1942, was the son of a Choctaw Indian. When he played the quill, the heritage was more than apparent.

Sid Hemphill - The Devil's Dream (buy) (1942)

His granddaughter Jessie Mae, who passed away in 1993, recorded a few albums in the '80s. She played her own hypnotic brand of blues, typical of the hills country, on the electric guitar, with a tambourine attached to her foot, or leg bells, in the Choctaw manner.

Jessie Mae Hemphill - My Daddy's Blues (buy) (1987)

First time I heard about a possible Indian influence on the blues was from French blues and country scholar Gerard Herzhaft, in his book Americana : Histoire des musiques de l'Amérique du Nord (I guess you don't need a translation), and then at a conference about the blues he gave once. For him, Indian influence shouldn't be underrated for two reasons :

- The ties between Amerindians and Afro-Americans, especially in the Mississippi valley. In some places Indians and Africans were enslaved together, in other places Indian tribes absorbed fugitive slaves (or enslaved them, but with much better life conditions). That led to cultural exchanges and intermarriage. Again, check out this wikipedia article on Black Indians for more info.
- Musical styles from Southeastern tribes, like the Cherokee, have common traits with the blues : pentatonic scale, call and response structure, hypnotic beats, and the use of "floating verses".

I find this idea kinda appealing, but I have difficulties to go further and find more "scientific " documentation about it. I don't know American Indian music very well, and all I found was numerous recordings from Southwestern Indians (Navajo, Hopi, Apache) or Great Plains tribes. No Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw traditional music. A lot of New Age stuff with synthetisers. But I did find something extremely exciting that I saved for a further post...

The Hemphill Family

I was looking for songs that reflected Indian music influence on the blues, and I thought of the Hill country style of North Mississippi. Maybe fife and drum ? And then yesterday, in my shower (that's where most of my ideas come to me, contrary to my President who gets his ideas while shaving... Sometimes I wish he could grow a beard) I thought about the Hemphill family as described in the Alan Lomax book Land Where the Blues Began. I went to my record collection and that was a hit.

Every folk and blues lover should read that Lomax book, and especially the chapter when Lomax meets Sid Hemphill in 1942. Hemphill was born in 1876, which makes him one of the oldest blues musicians ever recorded. His father was a Choctaw Indian. On one of the field recordings Lomax made with Hemphill, there is one instrumental played on a ten-note quill that is really fascinating.

Everyone (including Lomax and Scorsese in his documentary) was very quick to point out African influences when hearing fife and drum music, but the hypnotic beat and the muffled shouts sound very Indian to my hears.

In this part of Mississippi music is a family affair. There is this moment in the Lomax book when, during the second meeting between Alan and a very old Hemphill in 1959, a young girl steps out of the house playing a big drum. She's Jessie Mae, Sid's granddaughter and she recorded in the '80s a few singles and a couple of albums.

Jessie Mae plays electric guitar, bass and snare drums, and on several songs a tambourine attached to her foot, or leg bells obtained from Choctaw Indians to emphasize this part of her heritage. She electrified her ancestors' music but still plays these hypnotic beats that characterize the regional style of the Hill country (Tate and Panola counties).

Now what do you think of this ? Are there links between Indian music and the blues (or any form of popular music ) in your opinion ?


gadaya said...

Very interesting post Nicolas. I should say that american folk and popular music in general is so rich because of the multiple ethnic group that met together and influence each other...

Nicolas L said...

Yeah, that's right and that's the main subject of Herzhaft book "Americana" and of a Bruno Nettl book I've just ordrered.
So, after these posts about Africa and the blues or Indians, I plan to make a series of posts about Hispanic, French, Irish, Central European, Italian, etc... influences on American popular music

Bell Hamm said...

i first heard Jessie Mae on mr rogers neighborhood then went out and bought the lp. god help the little chilin' is a great song.