Although it has captivated audiences since the turn of the 20th century, the style of music known as the blues was never intended to be about entertainment, presenter Randall Snyder told visitors to his program, “They call it Stormy Monday: Evolution of the Blues,” Wednesday afternoon. at Hastings Public Library.
The first in a series of 13 educational programs to be offered this season at HPL, the hour-long presentation featured recordings of popular blues songs, including T. Bone Walker’s “They Call it Stormy Monday,” as well as presentations scores, photos and graphics displayed in a PowerPoint presentation. Samples of songs performed by longtime Lincoln musician Snyder on his Yamaha keyboard were also included.
“The art of singing the blues is to really mean it,” Snyder said. “Unlike commercial music which uses formulas, with the blues you don’t invent anything.
“Music has a purpose. It wasn’t meant to entertain, but to let the dragon out.
Pressed for time, Snyder worked in vain to hit all the keys necessary to describe the impact of the blues on black culture and most musical genres. He was nonetheless able to pass on much of the music’s history, including its roots in slavery, the post-Civil War uprising, and the artists who boosted its popularity between the 1900s and 1970s. .
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the blues is like the Big Bang of popular music,” he said. “Nearly every form of music that has appeared since has had some inspiration or been influenced by the blues.”
Unlike the early folk music created alongside it, the blues rarely, if ever, concerned itself with the politics of its day, Snyder said. Poor and largely disenfranchised, the black community at the time focused its messages on “very personal” topics, such as romance or death.
Using a repetitive poetic stanza, many early blues songs were improvised, with built-in repetition giving the singer time to compose lyrics on the fly, Snyder said.
Most early blues songs used a call-and-response technique that mirrored a congregation’s response to their preacher during a Sunday morning sermon.
“Blues music had a purpose,” Snyder said. “I boil it down to three basic categories: emotion, poetry and music. What makes blues the blues is a certain type of musical structure that is associated with this type of music.
“A typical blues form uses 12 bars. Typically, the third, fifth, and seventh notes are flatter, giving it a kind of “soulful” quality.
Most blues lyrics express some form of sadness, he said, making the lowest notes used the perfect choice to reflect such feelings.
The songs were written to build tension, suspense and ultimately resolution, Snyder said. Metaphors and codes were often used to convey life experiences, he said.
Styles of blues music that evolved over the years included country, classical and urban, he said. Among the pioneers who made early blues recordings in the 1920s was Delta blues artist Charlie Patton, a Native American black man, whose hit song, “Mississippi Boll Weevil,” was released in 1929.
Patton’s material influenced a myriad of followers, including Bo Diddley. Country blues legends of this era included Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ledbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie.
Other black artists known to have influenced their white counterparts include Muddy Waters, whose musical style was adopted by the Rolling Stones, and Memphis Minnie, whose song “When the Levee Breaks” became a hit for Led Zeppelin.
A cover of the song, “That’s All Right” written by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, is credited with launching rock legend Elvis Presley’s career.
Although primarily a jazz musician himself, Snyder said his motivation for offering a course in the blues was to recognize its widespread influence on virtually all forms of modern music today. The timing of its presentation, coinciding with Black History Month, was intentional.
“I think now is the time to present on this positive legacy of people of color,” he said. “We hear too often on the news about the negative aspects of it. I always appreciate the opportunity to talk about the good part of it.
Alice Throckmorton, 87, from Hastings is a classically trained keyboardist and musician who has played the pipe organ at church services in the area for years. She said Snyder’s presentation was both refreshing and informative. His only complaint was that it wasn’t better publicized to reach a wider audience.
“It would have been very pleasing to a lot of young people,” she said. “It was a nice thing to have them offered to the city.
“There’s just an appeal to this kind of music. It will last forever.