Though it has enthralled audiences since the early 20th century, the style of music known as blues was never intended to be about entertainment, presenter Randall Snyder told visitors at his program, “They call It Stormy Monday: Evolution of the Blues,” Wednesday afternoon at the Hastings Public Library.
The first in a series of 13 educational programs to be offered this season at HPL, the one-hour presentation featured recordings of popular blues songs, including “They Call it Stormy Monday” by T. Bone Walker, along with displays of sheet music, photos and charts displayed in a PowerPoint presentation. Also included were song snippets performed by Snyder, a longtime Lincoln musician, on his Yamaha keyboard.
“The art of singing the blues is that you really have to mean it,” Snyder said. “Unlike commercial music that uses formulas, with the blues, you’re not making anything up.
“The music has a purpose. It was not meant to entertain, but to let the dragon out.”
Pressed for time, Snyder labored in vain to touch all the necessary keys needed to describe the impact of blues on black culture and most music genres. He nevertheless was able to convey much of the music’s history, including its roots in slavery, post-Civil War uprising, and the artists who elevated its popularity between the 1900s through the 1970s.
“I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say the blues is like the Big Bang of popular music,” he said. “Almost all forms of the music that came along afterwards had some inspiration or were influenced by the blues.”
Unlike early folk music made alongside it, the blues rarely if ever concerned itself with the politics of its day, Snyder said. Poor and largely disenfranchised, the Black community of the time focused its messages on topics that were “very personal,” such as romance or death.
Using a repetitive poetic stanza, many early blues songs were improvised, with built-in repetition buying the singer time to compose lyrics on the fly, Snyder said.
Most early blues songs used a call-and-response technique that mirrored the response of a congregation to its 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 the blues the blues is a certain kind of musical structure that is associated with this type of music.
“A typical form of blues uses 12 measures. Typically the third, fifth and seventh notes are flatter, giving it a kind of ‘soul’ quality to it.”
Most blues lyrics express some form of sadness, he said, making the lower pitched notes used the perfect choice to reflect such feelings.
Songs were written to create tension, suspense and ultimately resolution, Snyder said. Metaphors and codes often were used to convey life experiences, he said.
Styles of blues music that evolved through the years included country, classic and urban, he said. Among the pioneers who made the first 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 that time included Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ledbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie.
Other Black artists known to have influenced their white counterparts included 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 version of the song, “That’s All Right” written by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, is credited with launching the career of rock legend Elvis Presley.
Though primarily a jazz musician himself, Snyder said his motivation for offering a course on the blues was to acknowledge its widespread influence on virtually all forms of modern music today. The timing of his presentation, coinciding with Black History Month, was intentional.
“I think this is an appropriate time to give a presentation about this positive legacy of people of color,” he said. “We hear too often on the news about the negative aspects of it. I always enjoy the opportunity to talk about the good part of it.”
Alice Throckmorton, 87, of Hastings is a classically trained keyboardist and musician who played pipe organ at area church services for years. She said Snyder’s presentation was both refreshing and informative. Her only complaint was that it wasn’t better publicized to reach a broader audience.
“This would have had a big appeal to a lot of young people,” she said. “It was a lovely thing to have them offer to the town.
“There’s just an appeal to this kind of music. It’s going to go on forever.”