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roots the music the lyrics the instruments
  blues in iowa influences  
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Roots of the Blues
Blues music is truly American music. Its roots include the African griots, who sang stories in Western Africa and the Black slaves who sang work songs on Southern plantations. By the early 1900s, the blues were a recognizable musical form, sung largely by African Americans. The music came to the Midwest via the Mississippi and the railroad, both of which drew Blacks from the Delta (particularly from around Memphis, Tennessee and Clarksdale, Mississippi, on US Highway 61) northward in the 1920s and 1930s. After World War II, blues musicians in the rural South began using electric guitars, which created a style known as "urban blues." Blues took on a more driving sound as it moved into St. Louis and Chicago. Over the decades, this musical style has influenced the development of country, rhythm and blues, rock-a-billy, and rock 'n' roll.    TOP

The Music
Image of Louis McTizic and the Blues ReviewBlues has its roots in the "call and response" singing style common to Western Africa, African American gospel music, and traditional work songs. The lead singer sings a line, which is then answered or repeated; in blues, the lead instrument also answers the vocalist. One common blues pattern is AAB; the first line of a verse is repeated and the third line rhymes with the first and second. The lead is passed around among the vocalist, lead guitar, harmonica, or keyboard, but the basic structure remains the same.

Within that structure, however, is room for individual creativity. Three-chord progressions in a minor key most typify the blues "riff" or structure of a blues tune. Lead lines on guitar or harmonica are popular breaks between verses, and some players have perfected "bottleneck" strains (noting strings with a glass tube, or bottle-neck over one finger), or "bending" notes by stretching a string during its resonance. The main idea is to echo the emotional qualities of the voice through improvisational technique.    TOP

The Lyrics
ndividual creativity can also occur in the words of blues songs, and blues artists often personalize the lyrics with a variety of standard metaphors for love, hard times, and loss. Like all long-lived ballad traditions, blues lyrics tell a story that focuses on the universal dilemmas of humankind, lost love, hard luck, poverty, difficult and oppressive work. But you can't have the blues if your Volvo's been stolen or your computer has crashed. The blues are about being down and out, poor, friendless, without a home, spouse, or job.    TOP

Image of Kevin Burt with sidemen Matt Panek (guitar) and Eric Madison (drums)The Instruments
While blues music started with the human voice, it was soon joined by the guitar, which served as much as a rhythmic as a melodic back-up for the singer. "Juke joints," where Blacks went to listen to the blues, also sometimes provided a piano. Smaller, cheaper, and much more transportable than either a guitar or piano, the "harp" (harmonica) was also popular. Once amplified instruments became available, electric guitar, bass, electric piano or keyboard, and drums entered the mix, making a bigger and more driving sound, known as rhythm and blues.    TOP

Blues in IowaImage of Ernie Peniston
Many of the African American blues musicians in Iowa came from or their parents came from the Mississippi Delta. Many came to Waterloo in the 1950s, though there was a Black community in that town from the early years of the 20th century. Names like Louis McTizic, Ethelene Wright, Ernie Peniston, Kevin Burt, Taz, Joanne Jackson, and Charlie James Morgan are well-known in central and eastern Iowa's blues scene. The musicians play a range of styles, though the Chicago style with its R&B and jazz influences is the most common. Many have their musical roots in church choirs and musical families, where they first learned to sing. Louis McTizic, whose father was a preacher, recalls that for as long as he could remember his family and neighbors "always got together and did some singing." Today, these musicians play in their homes and tour around the region, the US, and, in the case of Ernie Peniston and Joanne Jackson, internationally.    TOP

Image of Joanne JacksonIowa and blues musicians have drawn their inspiration from many sources. Ella Ruth Piggee, who passed in 1988, modeled herself after Aretha Franklin and was fixture on Center Street in Des Moines. Noted blues musician Joanne Jackson of Newton claims Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, B.B. King, and Ray Charles as well as Gladys Knight, Keb' Mo', Aaron Neville, Big Mama Thornton, and Aretha Franklin as her influences.

In the 21st Century, most of the Iowa musicians playing blues are white as are the sidemen (band members) of the lead musicians noted above. During the folksong revival in the 1950s and 1960s, many young people became interested in what is now called "roots" music. Both Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan found their musical influences among African American traditional musicians, as did the Grateful Dead. Image of James Kinds of the All-Night RidersGreg Brown, Dave Moore, Bo Ramsay, the Blue Band, and many others active in the folk music scene in eastern Iowa shared this influence, self-evident in their music. Image of Image of Louis McTizic with Ethelene Wright

The sounds of Chicago and St. Louis are most apparent in blues music in Iowa, though the indirect rhythmic influences of Kansas City and New Orleans are still clearly felt. The big easy voices of Ernie Peniston and Kevin Burt, Ethelene Wright's edgy vocals, and the soulful guitar playing of James Kinds and Charlie James Morgan surprise many who do not think of Iowa as having a particularly diverse culture. But the caliber of such musicians makes it clear that they are part of a larger African American contribution to one of our country's most popular forms of music.    TOP


Text by Riki Saltzman. Photos by Riki Saltzman, Will Thomson, Dorothy Dvorachek, & Scott Allen. Photo of Joanne Jackson is reproduced with permission of Scott Allen/Vividpix & Design. Music by Ernie Peniston and Kevin "B.F." Burt.

roots the music the lyrics the instruments
  blues in iowa influences  
  resources lesson plans traditional artists  
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