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Reggae got Blues

Kyle Trzaskos



No food on my table, no shoes to go on my feet

No food on my table and no shoes to go on my feet,
My children cry for mercy, Lord they ain't got no place to call their own.

The blues arose as both a social protest and a means for expression by the Afro-American slave. The institution of slavery had existed before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but never before had a race suffered such discrimination; oppression and poverty as the West Africans have endured for the last four hundred years. " The African’s sole purpose in America was, for the most part, to provide the cheapest agricultural labor possible to procure"(Baraka, 3). Previous forms of slavery (Roman and Greek) utilized the intellectual capability of slaves, where as the institution of slavery in the Americas treated slaves like that of property, a master would relate to his slave as, ". if you twist the knob on your radio you expect it to play"(Baraka, 3). This, the non-human view of slaves that existed, viewed Africans as heathens and thought them to be primitive and inferior to the Euro-American. These so-called nonliterate peoples whose traditional histories were passed down generation to generation through oral tradition, were seen as primitive to the highly industrialized Euro-Americans. The profound beliefs and concepts of one culture (African) become absurd and intangible for a complete opposite culture (Euro-American)(Baraka, 7). Not only were the West Africans aliens to the their physical surroundings but aliens to a new "philosophical system"(Baraka, 7). With this in mind the West Africans who survived the western passage across the Atlantic to the Mississippi Delta had found a similar Jamaican Babylon and, " Lord they ain’t got no place to call there own". The blues are an extension of the West African oral tradition through spirituals, worksongs, seculars, and field hollers. From the late eighteen hundreds to the mid twentieth century afro- American’s have been slaves to King Cotton in the form of bound slavery, tenant farming and sharecropping. The endless cycle of debt, has Blues music centered on movement from oppression, and poverty while the protest may not always take serious form. I will examine the music of the Delta blues looking for connections to the mento/early reggae era in religious, social and lastly lyrical context.


African religions usually have a tight fit with a particular culture, language and belief system. The slave drivers on the Ivory Coast knew this and divided the slaves from slaves of their own belief systems. The Africans believed in Myth vs. Doctrine whereas Myth was a form of philosophy for an illiterate culture and Doctrine is an institutionalized approach to define right and wrong actions and beliefs. "Because the African came from an intensely religious culture, a society where religion was a daily, minute-to-minute concern, and not something relegated to a specious once-a-week reaffirmation, he had to find other methods of worshiping gods"(Baraka 34). To endure the pain of being imprisoned, beaten and being separated from their families, they often times turned to song.

The song of the Afro-American took with it influences from the European polyphonic conventions and added its complementary and contradictory rhythms. The African music approach was more centered on rhythm than tone. In the African societies speaking and singing had a much closer link than it did in Europe, therefore the "Revival Zion"(Barrow/Dalton, 5) in the mid-nineteenth century shared both Christian and African elements such as, " involved handclapping, foot-stamping and the use of the base drum, side drum, cymbals and rattle" (Barrow/Dalton, 5). As most of the slave musicians of the Delta were untrained in European musical context, the musicians were forced to learn be ear. The availability to instruments of African origin was rather impossible, so slave musicians adapted to playing European instruments with an African consciousness, or producing home made models. Robert Palmer describes the presence of music in Africa, ". for almost every group activity- religious rituals, planting, hoeing, pounding grain, building dwellings, partying- has its own body of music"( Palmer, 28).

Spirituals and Gospel music celebrate religion, mainly because many Afro-Americans were converted to Christianity in the Methodist and Baptist Churches and as a result, were taught the church hymns. The structure of the songs, the tones in which they were sung, and the content all contributes to the "religious" sound. Today, we are familiar with Spirituals and Gospel. However, in 1819, when John F. Watson observed slaves singing spirituals, the music was something-new (Palmer 112). It might have been easy to mistake the physical aspect- the clapping and shouting, as a secular action. Physical responses to the music were not part of white Protestant worship. What Watson did not realize was that the music was deeply religious. It was a new style of worship that aroused faith in participants.

The call-and-response structure that is used in Spirituals and Gospel music creates a feeling that those who are singing are reaffirming the message of the song. This differs greatly from the way in which most white hymns are sung. From my own experience as being raised as a Catholic in my childhood, the music in white churches I grew up attending always lacked real emotion and energy. Gospel music relies on energy to make the music powerful. The physical responses in the music are not always predicted they are sometimes spontaneous outbursts from becoming overwhelmed by energy.

The mournful and somber tone in which some Spirituals are sung also deepens the "religious" sound. It brings to the music a sense of hardship and struggle, something that is almost inherent in African-American music as well as Reggae. The mesh of several voices singing in mournful tone can create a powerful sound. They often used biblical motifs and characters, and spoke of redemption and hope of eventual triumph and freedom. Spirituals continued some of the most important aspects of the African oral tradition, and folklore.

The religious aspect of Spirituals and Gospel that is most easily identifiable is the content. The message and the theme of the songs come directly from its words. The structure and tone accentuate what the song says. The words, sometimes not easily heard, are based on accounts from the Bible. They are songs of hope. The lyrics transcend to the lives of those singing, as many Spirituals and Gospel songs are about those who are repressed in the Bible. The music is an expression of faith as much as a way to vent frustration caused by the repression that African-Americans experienced. The spirituals took the form of AAB or AAAB rhyme scheme.

No more driver call me
No more driver call
No more driver call me
Many thousand die!

I suspect that the same types of spirituals were taking place in the Caribbean, but the syncretism with Christianity in Jamaica took to the form of Pukumina, Revival Cult and Revival Zion. Pukumina is said to be the most African, or retaining the most African rituals and beliefs. The revival cult is said to be part Christian and African. The Revival Zion is said to be most closely Christian with the least retention of African rituals and beliefs (Barret, 24). The idea of Ethiopianism had been in Jamaica long before it was in America, when George Liele founded the Ethiopian Baptist Church in 1784. Though I have no research to support it I feel that this Baptist church founded by an American slave preacher in Jamaica, must have existed in the Delta of the American continent as well, just not as clearly focused on Ethiopianism. Whether it was Rev. James Webb’s or Garvey’s prophesy the back to Africa movement was started early. In a liberty hall speech Webb said (Hill, 1):

The Nations which were Great Britain allies in the World War- Belgium, France and America- will join to crush Great Britain. The universal black king will then appear and dominate all. He will tear down all their claims…The world cannot realize this now. It will take time. When the prophetic part of the Bible is preached the world will realize that the universal black king is coming...

I feel it is important to associate the Jamaican plantations and their American cotton plantation counterparts. In both areas the message of poverty and oppression were the same, and the syncretism of Christianity with African tradition formed a music which would soon become a movement. The big band R&B of the Americas would feed from the soulful music of the Mississippi Delta. Religion and sociology would play huge role in the formation that took place in the rural south.


Worksongs were used to coordinate labor in the fields and homes in western Africa, and this tradition was continued in America, and is a true "africanism". Amiri Baraka defines africanisms as African traditions that have "survived three hundred years of slavery and four hundred years removal from there source." Amiri goes on to say that the Caribbean plantations retained a lot more africanisms than did the American plantations due to the proportion of slaves to their masters. In the Caribbean there is no such thing as the "poor white", therefore contact with Europeans in the Caribbean was less frequent. The southern plantation Mississippi Delta had small farms in which intimate contact between master and slave was unavoidable, thus losing africanisms. Plus the indenture servants who committed themselves to slavery for seven to ten years where often left free when their "dues" were paid. This group of the "poor white" filtrated into the lower class with Afro-Americans.

Field hollers began in the fields as musical exclamations that expressed the mood of the singer, and they eventually grew into longer phrases and verse. Eddie James "Son" House, Jr. once stated about the origins of the blues, "All I can say is that when I was boy we was always singing in the fields. Not real singing, you know, just hollering. But we made up our songs about things that were happening to us at the time, and I think that's where the blues started" (Barlow, 18). These hollers were limited to the field because of a number of reasons. The Bantu slaves were put to work in the fields and not in the house, " New Senegambian arrivals were given relatively light work to do around the house, while blacks from the slave coast and especially Bantu from the Congo-Angola region were sent to the fields" ( Palmer, 32) thus the sound of their voices were seldom heard in the plantation houses.

Another reason the Congo-Angola musicians suffered more distinct hardships was due to the banning of drums (Congo-Angola’s native instrument) in North America by the middle of the eighteenth century. The Senegambian slaves received special status because they where able to play the banjo in a "rhythmic-melodic" (Palmer, 136) style which the Euro-American slave owners enjoyed, along with light percussion instruments such as triangles and bone clappers that were acceptable. The vocal technique that the Bantu brought with them that did survive the institution of slavery through field hollers is whooping or octave jumping. Whooping is a type of yodeling that is specific to the Congo-Angola region in West Africa and seemingly had importance to religious or ritual associations.

Through gospel songs and working chants, the Blues were born. By using the "Call and Response" technique of field slaves and a variation of the major scale found in church hymns, the Blues sprang forth from the gospel. It is also important to note that three of the most well known Mississippi Delta Blues men, Charley Patton, Son House and Rubin Lacy, were also preachers or religious singers at one time or another. This is not a mere coincidence. In the Post-Civil war rural south, Afro-American men had very few job options. They could be field hands, sharecroppers, laborers or musicians. And the only occupation which one would not have to sweat fourteen hours a day would be that of a musician or preacher.

The "Juke-Joint" had arrived and wherever corn distilled whiskey could be made, music was needed to help pass the time. The juke joint was a rowdy all night country-dance in which the performer better be full of energy and play as long as the participants want to dance. This scene is very close to the dance hall scene in Jamaica, complete with gambling and sexual promiscuity. The successful blues man required a repertoire that included improvising verse and instrumental figure. It is hard to say when Blues became just what it is, but it is a, "musical idiom that has drawn on numerous sources, including jump-ups, field-hollers, songster ballads, church music and African-derived percussive music"( Palmer, 43).

An ever-present theme in the early delta blues music is the theme of moving north for better pay and living conditions. Chicago was seen as a Zion (in Rasta terms), a land where the Black man could call home. But many sharecroppers and laborers had to start their journey north one plantation at a time. The system was so vaulted against them that taking a daily wage was often better than owning your own land, " But to many Mississippi blacks, even the lowest daily wage was better than trying to eke out a living farming rocky ground or working on a small white owned farm for room and board" (Palmer, 50). Due to the seeming endless cycle of debt many sharecroppers and tenant farmers turned to alcohol, usually illegally distilled corn whiskey, as a vice. Some saw getting drunk as an easier way out than meaningful protest.


These horrible working conditions and awful wages were the main appeal to play music. Charley Patton who was the son of a preacher fought all odds to learn and play the guitar, for his dad believed that picking the guitar was sinful, and often gave Charley a beaten when he heard him play. Charlie’s love for music was too strong for his Dad to hold back and Patton became the father of the blues. Robert Johnson was a student of Patton and his fame would outshine his master. Along with Patton, Son House had an influence on Johnson, taking the bottleneck fret style and dramatic singing from Son House. Copyright laws did not exist and in order the play the blues in the early twentieth century lyrics had to be borrowed. But what Robert Johnson did to blues music was totally revolutionary. The man went to the crossroads and apparently sold his soul to the devil for his playing abilities. The retentions of African voodoo lore are apparent in the story of Robert Johnson. He went to the crossroads and gave his guitar to Legba, a Yoruba trickster God who "opens the path"(Palmer, 60) for supernatural powers. After Johnson gave his guitar to Legba he then tuned it and played a song. Just to full the Myth even more, to play conventional Delta blues every chord would need to be tuned down by a half. The Legba devil was one which took pleasure in chaos and confusion, somewhat opposite of the Christian devil. Johnston played like a trickster would, " He’d kick the guitar, flip it, turn it back of his head and be playin’ it"(Palmer, 60).

The similarities of delta blues and mento are also felt when analyzing the record industry’s approach to recording, and "sphere of influence" of local music by natives of both the delta and Jamaica. The first recording studio in Jamaica, Stanley Motta’s opened in 1956, frequently issuing American R&B. In the Delta it was Lockwood who, " was the first electric guitarist heard over the radio in the Delta, and the first many young guitarist in the area heard anywhere. He was the first Delta guitarist to popularize jazz influenced, single string lead guitar style. His pupils included…a somewhat reluctant Muddy Waters, and the most popular and influential blues guitarist of the last three decades, Riley "B.B." King" ( Palmer, 178). The electric sound was as revolutionary as the sound systems that hit Jamaica in 1957. The young guns of the Delta now had a broader influence than learning from an aged blues man. In Jamaica it was the American R&B that became ska through the hit, "Milk Lane Hop by Clue J & His Blues Blasters, a pick- up group that included Don Drummond and Ernest Ranglin"(Fredriksson,6) but only through local recorded instrumentals did Ska take its name.

The Delta blues were slowly gathering momentum and by the late nineteen twenty’s, there was a market for recording rural blues. This however would be short lived in the advent of R&B, Jazz and the Great Depression. Blues music was first recorded in Mississippi in the nineteen twenty’s, but recording simply stopped when the Depression of the late nineteen twenty’s and thirty’s hit, and through the nineteen forty’s and fifty’s Delta blues vanished from public consciousness. It took the nineteen sixty’s folk revival to spark new interest in the blues. When the sixty’s came, it opened the way for forty’s and fifty’s blues songsters, and they found a huge market for their music among America's white middle classes. Unfortunately, mento’s, " earliest recorded examples currently known date from the late 1940’s, a time when the new generation in Jamaica was rejecting the genre as old fashioned and looking for something fresh"( Fredriksson, 3). The Jamaican youth took the mento into the poverty stricken ghetto to form reggae.




The lyrics of the Delta blues can most closely be related to that of early Jamaican mento folk music. " Most mento songs were wryly humorous accounts of everyday life among the Jamaican poor, with plenty of references to the perennial topic of sex" ( Barrow/Dalton, 7). The explanation for "wryly humorous" topics of both mento and blues music is based on the institution of slavery and relationship between master and slave. If a slave was aggressive and openly opposing the slave masters’ orders, the results were often swift and severe (often resulting in death) to make a point. If the slave took a lazy, indolent approach to work then he/she could often reduce their workload without a stern reaction from their master. Some slaves even took a childish approach to relating with their master, luckily the ignorance of the masters kept them from realizing the situation at hand.


Since women were the one thing that slaves could truly call their own it is a reappearing theme in both mento and Delta blues. Lord Lebby coined Louis Jordan’s "Caldonia" in an energetic reading that, "allowed a style to evolve that was becoming essentially Jamaican rather than just a copy of the American sound"( Fredriksson, 6). Louis Jordan originally cut this song January 19, 1945 but it was not released until 1975(The Blue Flame Café).

Hey, I'm walking with my woman, she got great big feet
Long, lean and angry, she ain't had nothing to eat
But she's my woman, and I love her just the same

She's a fine looking woman, and Caldonia is her name

Now here we go!

Caldonia, Caldonia, what makes your big head so hard
I love her, yeah, I love her just the same

Give me that now
I'm crazy about the woman, 'cause Caldonia is her name
Can we do it once more?

Caldonia, Caldonia, what makes your big head so hard, oh
Caldonia, Caldonia, Caldonia

I chose this song because it dates back to the time of the Delta blues or shortly thereafter. Lord Libby, a mento artist in Jamaica who was astounded for his "thematic content"(Barrow/Dalton, 7), read these lyrics to Jamaican people, though these lyrics were not the ones he is remembered for. This song draws on the oppression of the black male and his need for a female friend. The song points out the aesthetic view of Africans when describing Caldonia’s feet, "she got great big feet". And the issue of poverty is addressed when Caldonia’s, "she ain’t had nothing to eat". Though these lyrics are ones of humor and not protest, they served their purpose in so far as to raise awareness. Hubert Frier and George Moxey’s "Fair Weather House" serves as another example (Barrow/Dalton, 7).

Some of them rooms is so small

You can’t turn around in them at all

When you want to turn around, you’ve got to go outside

Then you turn your back and go back inside

When the rainy weather was raising Cain

The house began to leak

And the whole foundation started to squeak

Some of the rooms the landlord rent

They’re just like a scorpion tent.

Hubert and George’s mento approach to discrimination may seem light and funny but the oppression and poverty is real. Big Bill Broonzy takes a different approach in the first verse of his version of Black, Brown and White.

This little song that I'm singin' about,
people, you know that it's true
If you're black and gotta work for livin',
now, this is what they will say to you,
they says, "If you was white, you'd be alright,
if you was brown, stick around,
but as you's black, oh, brother, get back, get back, get back.


The link between mento and Mississippi Delta Blues is quite apparent. For the environment that both genera’s of music were festered share similar religious, and social settings. The involvement of missionaries in the Caribbean and the "Bible belt" of the rural south offered more than enough western religious thought to the African slaves who were sold into slavery, and resulted in some of the most beautiful seculars and spirituals. The true africanisms that were retained in both the West Indies and the "cotton patch" meshed with Euro-American influence into similar styles of music in mento and the Blues. American music today is only what it is because of the africanisms that survived the trek across the Atlantic and the same goes for Jamaican. Ernest Anserment said in 1918, "The blues occurs when the Negro is sad, when he is far from his home, his mother, or his sweetheart. Then he thinks of a motif or a preferred rhythm and takes his trombone, or his violin, or his banjo, or his clarinet, or his drum, or else he sings, or simply dances. And on the chosen motif, he plumbs the depths of his imagination. This makes his sadness pass away- it is the Blues"( Baraka, 175) and any music that helps to bring happiness is linked to the blues. Reggae got Blues.

Works Cited, Kyle Trzaskos

Baraka, Amiri. Blues People Negro Music in White America. New York: Quill, 1963.

Barlow, William. Looking Up at Down: the Emergence of Blue Culture.Philadelphia: Temple University Press (1989).

Barret, Leonard E. Sr. The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.

Barrow,Peter:Dalton,Peter. Reggae The Rough Guide: London: Rough Guides Ltd., 1997.

Fredriksson, Lars. Island-O-Phone. April,17 1997, 4/5/00.

Hill, Dr. Robert A. Reggae & African Beat. August 1884.

Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues.England: Harmondsworth,Penguin Books Ltd.1981.

The Blue Flame Café., 4/5/00.