When LeRoi Jones (also known as Amiri Baraka) says he’s going to start at the very beginning of the history of “Negro Music”, he means at the very beginning. In fact, Jones takes the “American” out of “African-American” to start the book; he starts by thoroughly explaining the motives of African Work Songs from both a historical standpoint and a musical one. Surprisingly, he can explain some of the rhythms and even lines of native languages being translated into English.
It’s difficult to fully understand this book without a basic understanding of music theory, at times. Different time signatures are mentioned all over the book, comparing 4/4 music to 2/4. Readers are also assumed to know vaguely what ‘tones’ and ‘timbres’ are, as well as how they apply to instruments like harmonica, guitar, trumpet and the voice.
Additionally, one must compile all of their knowledge of the Atlantic Slave Trade and U.S. Slavery in the mid-1800’s, and who was on who’s side of the Civil War. This information turns out to be critical in learning about the dawn of the blues, because of the obvious negative effects both periods had on Africans, originally, and then African-Americans.
Jones also makes it clear that only the first generation of African slaves can really be considered African; the generations that followed were merely Americans that had no knowledge of being native African and the concept of unforced labor. Curiously, however, Jones refers to black Americans as “Negros.” This is a common racial slur, and it’s certainly confusing as to why Jones would refer to his own race using a word with such a connotation.
Religion’s influence on this music is also clearly demonstrated, and Jones identifies the transition between the aforementioned Work Songs on African-American Gospel music. As it turns out, the forced influence of Christianity on the people, and the effect it had on slaves and free blacks later.
Blues People finally accelerates past slavery and into the 20th century, where pre-educated readers start to notice the influence of ‘Classic Blues’ on rock, country, and pop. Familiar names start to show up, such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. Louis Armstrong is also represented in the section that thoroughly explains jazz and swing music.
The book follows its promised full scope and reflection of the music; even when Jones transitions into the “Modern Age”, which is about the mid-1900’s, he constantly compares it back to the earlier chapters involving the original Africans and their enslavement in the Western World. It appropriately ends with an emphasis on overall reflection that compels readers to think deeply, suggesting that the American system, working against tyranny and inflictions on freedom, expects “The American Negro” to put in as much of an effort to end it as a white American. Jones ends his novel with a question:
“What is it that they are being asked to save? It is a good question, and America had better come up with an answer” (Jones 236).
To many of my close adults’ complete dismay, I have lost what used to be a genuine passion for reading in the last five years. I struggled for a long time to finish this very short book; as usual, I underestimated its density and the complexity of its teachings, but it was well worth reading once- I now further understand the history of the music that influenced the music I play, write, and listen to on an hourly basis.
I picked up on a lot of things; LeRoi Jones makes a good effort to make the book understandable for people of all ages, and there isn’t too much of the ever-growing reference of races or categories as “we.” White Americans that lived in the 1800s are not “us.” This concept is far too difficult for me to explain accurately, but enters my nerves occasionally, and I compliment Jones for keeping “us” and “we” out of the novel.
I would recommend Blues People to anyone who knows music fairly well and cares about where it came from and all of the different factors that led to blues’ massive influence and diversity. As for high school students with an assignment to read a novel before a certain deadline, Blues People may not be the best fit.