How did the blues begin? Many music historians site elements of African drumming in the blues and jazz. As Hughes in
The First Book of Jazz
writes, “for centuries, folks in West Africa have worked to rhythm, rowed boats to rhythm, pounded their corn to rhythm, built their houses to rhythm” (Hughes, 5). African slaves carried these rhythms in their bosoms across ocean to the Americas. Hence the work song emerged. Eventually the rhythm of the drums and the work songs became a part of blues. Accordingly, Langston Hughes offers this possible scenario to explain how the blues songs began:
Maybe somebody somewhere in the Deep South long ago started to make up a song that began with a kind of field holler. Perhaps the man was working in a rice field on a hot day when a song came into his head, then out of his mouth, like this:
Oh, the sun is so hot and the day is so doggone longÉ
Then when he couldn’t think of anything else right away to go with it, he repeated the same lines:
Yes, the sun is so hot and the day is so doggone longÉ.
But by that time he had a new thought:
And that is the reason I’m singing this doggone song.
Something like that must have happened the day the first blues was born, for that is the pattern of the blues: a twelve-bar musical pattern—one long line of four bars to rhyme with the first two lines that are always the same. Their melody and beat are like those of a field holler.
He continues to explain the format of the blues indicating that the melodies can also be written around five notes and that blues are almost always sad songs, songs about being out of work, broke, hungry, far away from home, wanting to get on a train but having no ticket, or being lonely when someone you love has gone . . . But behind the sadness in blues there is almost always laughter and strength.