Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

The Influences of Hispanic Music Cultures on African-American Blues Musicians

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

The Influences of Hispanic Music Cultures on African-American Blues Musicians

Article excerpt

Egalitarian quests for multiculturalism can be offset by the lingering legacy of "melting pot" ideology. Cultural examinations of ethnicity exemplify this, for they frequently focus on minority-dominant relations, that is, the "contributions" of an ethnic group to the "majority" culture. Unless the linear, vertical focus of such scholarship is balanced by greater breadth, our perceptions will remain oversimplified and skewed. Recent work by Portia Maultsby has examined the role that ethnicity plays "in the interactions between African-Americans and mainstream society" and how such "interactions affect musical creativity and musical identity" (Maultsby 1993). These broad questions should continue to be addressed, but they also need to be supplemented with queries concerning intersubcultural developments among African-Americans and other ethnic groups apart from the mainstream (see Slobin 1993).

This is my perspective in examining the influences of Hispanic music cultures on African-American blues musicians. I will argue that social history, blues lyrics, musical evidence, and the life histories of black entertainers reveal that musical interaction between African-American blues musicians and Hispanic musicians has taken place in at least two primary areas: the Texas-Mexico border region, where downhome blues guitarists were influenced by the lifestyle of Mexican street singers and their chordophonic musical traditions; and New Orleans, where Cuban rhythms particularly affected a school of blues pianists who developed the New Orleans "sound" of rhythm and blues. To a great extent, however, these Hispanic influences on African-American musicians have been masked by marketing constraints and the zealous efforts of music critics and blues revivalists to maintain generic purity and the image of the "bluesman."

The "Blues Musician" and Localities

In a recent article, Samuel A. Floyd Jr. has called for a "culture-derived approach" to the study of black music, drawn on, among other things, "a system of referencing ... from Afro-American folk music" (Floyd 1993, 1). With regard to various forms of popular and vernacular music, this admirable goal can be difficult to achieve because "emic" folk categories, "etic" analytic categories, and the marketing categories of the music industry often blur. Students and critics of popular music have most often pursued standout commercial successes within mass cultural contexts, an approach that has been largely determined by the music industry. They have accepted commercial mediation and have neglected the realities of living music in small places. The result is that accurate portrayals of local music cultures, that is, the music that performers and audiences have actually shared in small group contexts, are few and far between.

Contemporary views of the blues musician illustrate this problem. African-American blues originated in localities, but the directions of its developments and the larger public perception of its identity have been shaped by the commercial forces of popular culture. We often erroneously equate, for instance, a performer's repertoire with her or his list of commercially released audio recordings, which in many instances are not representative of an artist's actual inventory of performed song. Thus, as folklorist-ethnomusicologist David Evans (1985, 109) has observed, Mississippi singer Johnny Temple "recorded sixty-two issued blues between 1935 and 1949, yet in his live performances in Chicago he could usually be heard playing polkas and Italian music for underworld kingpins." Temple's polkas are not on wax, and his case is hardly unique. For marketing and promotional purposes, the music industry has conventionally delimited musical styles. Jeff Titon (1977, 55) reports that from the 1920s into the 1940s black musicians who sang blues and hillbilly music were rarely recorded performing the latter genre because "record companies wanted blues, for blues sold; if they needed hillbilly music, they might as well turn to hillbillies. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.