A majority of blues scholars seem to believe that American blues started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from field hollers emanating from the cotton fields, from work songs of prison gangs and from black versions of spirituals sung in black churches. All that may be true, but some scholars suggest that the basis for the blues was laid decades earlier in the northeastern part of the United States that did not have large cotton plantations like those in the south. They argue that a new style of music emerged in the early 1800s due to the intense curiosity of Northerners concerning the strange musical sounds coming from the black slaves interned on those cotton plantations.
“Around 1823, a musical style emerged in the northeastern United States that saw white performers mimicking, and later parodying, the distinctive style of black music found on the slave plantations of the southern states. This new form of song and dance soon became known as Ethiopian delineating; delineating meaning to depict in words and gestures. The purpose of Ethiopian delineating, apart from providing entertainment, was to give northern audiences, white and black, an opportunity to experience a snapshot of plantation life and hear southern slave songs for themselves,” explains Paul Merry in How the Blues Evolved, Volume One.
Merry, himself a blues musician and author of several books on blues history, also points out that Ethiopian delineating predated minstrelsy by about two decades. These early entertainers delineated from the slaves’ point of view, their white faces greased black although they were yet to be known as minstrels. “In a world of stilted formality, the tunes of these new-fashioned slave songs were refreshingly catchy. Their infectious rhythms harked back to old Africa. The lyrics, sung in pigeon-English in a comic plantation patois [dialect], made audiences laugh, even when not written deliberately to be funny,” Merry continues. “These Ethiopian songs of the 1820s and 1830s are considered by most experts to be the origin of today’s blues and the starting point of virtually all popular modern music. Some historians describe this Ethiopian delineating as minstrelsy. However, Ethiopian song, Ethiopian dance and Ethiopian opera, as the performances were also called, only become generically known as minstrelsy in the 1840s.”
According to Merry, the first person to perform a slave song wearing blackface, in 1799, was a German oboist by the name of Johann Christian Gottlieb Graupner (1767-1836), who had been inspired by street music that overwhelmed him after wandering by mistake into a slave quarter in Virginia in 1795. This story has led to Graupner being acknowledged, by some music historians, as the Father of Negro Songs in America. However, an American writer and musician, Shlomo Pestcoe, revealed it was actually Gottlieb Graupner’s English wife who did the performing. The lady in question was the acclaimed opera singer, Catherine Comerford Hillier, who performed her husband’s slave-inspired song, “The Gay Negro Boy,” in an interlude between acts at the Boston theatre.
Was there one particular person or act that forged these early forms of American roots music into what was to become the blues years later? Merry believes it was a visiting (white) comedian from England who pulled off this magical transition. “From September 1822 to May 1823, Charles Matthews successfully toured his one-man show across the United States [to the delight of American audiences]. This must be considered the exact moment that black slave music started the 90-year evolutionary journey that culminated in blues, as a form of music, being captured on paper and specifically named, for the first time, in March 1912 [by W.C. Handy].”
Before reading Merry’s book, I had more or less accepted the well-worn historical analysis that the blues had indeed originated in the late 19th century in the American South. However, it only stands to reason that the black slaves imported to southern plantations long before then would have brought their own African musical forms with them. Now I can envision a much earlier birth to an American style of music that is truly unique and has strongly influenced other musical forms. As Muddy Waters put it: “The blues had a baby and that baby was called rock and roll.”