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THIS IS AMERICA - Blues Music, Part 1 - 2004-11-21

Broadcast: November 22, 2004



Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English. I’m Doug Johnson. Today we have the first of two programs about the kind of music called blues.


No American form of music would be what it is today without blues. The influence is heard not just in rhythm and blues, but also jazz, country and rock and roll. What you just heard was from a song called "Sweet Little Angel," by one of the best-known blues musicians of all, B.B. King.

So where did blues come from? You could say it arrived hundreds of years ago with the ships that brought slaves from Africa. These men and women lost almost everything, but not their music.

They brought it with them. This music was played on simple instruments. And it was sung by both men and women. Much of it also had a beat that people danced to.

If you want to dance, music has to have a tempo that lets you move with the music. Listen for a few moments to the great African recording star Miriam Makeba. This song is called “Kwazulu."


Could you hear the rhythm? It is hard to listen to that song and not move your feet. You don’t have to understand the language. You just want to be part of the music.

Perhaps you want to tap your fingers in time with the music. American blues almost always has this same kind of beat.

Musicians call this beat four-four time. This means the music has four beats per measure, like this: one-two-three-four. A quarter-note equals one beat. You can play it faster or slower, but it is still a four-four beat.

Listen for a moment to this blues song and see if you can keep time with the four-four beat. Just listen and tap your foot with the music. The name of the song is ”Dark Road Blues.” The lead singer is the great blues harmonica player Sonny Terry.


Now that we understand the beat of blues music, let’s discuss the instruments. The first and perhaps the most important instrument in blues is the human voice.

Blues began with the human voice. You can play blues without any singing. But blues music is connected with the voice and always will be.

Slaves often sang to help make the work in the fields easier. Blues music grew out of these work songs. It also grew out of the religious singing in black churches.

The next most important instrument in blues may be the guitar. It became popular with black musicians in the South in the nineteen twenties. The harmonica closely followed. If you add drums, a piano and perhaps a bass violin, you have the instruments for a blues band.

You can add other instruments -- really, as many as you want. But blues music is usually played by small bands. Blues music first became popular with the American public in the nineteen twenties. The reason is simple.

Slavery ended in the late eighteen-hundreds, after the Civil War. Thousands of black families left farm work in the South. Many moved to cities to look for work and a better life. They brought blues music with them. Many people in major cities heard this unusual music for the first time.

Blues became popular in places outside the South like Chicago and Kansas City. In fact, two kinds of blues are named after these cities.


Now, let’s talk about one of the early great blues musicians and play some of his music.

As we said, the guitar became popular in the nineteen twenties. One of the early great guitar players was a young black man named Robert Johnson. He also wrote the words to his songs and, like all good blues musicians, he sang them.

Robert Johnson also recorded his songs, mostly in the early nineteen thirties. These were not recorded on the best equipment. Listen closely to a true master of blues. What you will hear is just Robert Johnson with his guitar. The song is called “Come On In My Kitchen.”


The work of Robert Johnson is still an influence in the world of blues. Eric Clapton, the singer and guitarist, is one of the most successful of all rock musicians. He says he learned blues by listening to many Robert Johnson recordings.

Eric Clapton put together his own blues album called “Me and Mister Johnson.”

Now, listen to the same song you just heard. Only this time, the recording equipment is the best that modern technology can produce. And Eric Clapton plays an electric guitar. He has help from a piano, drums and harmonica. But the music and the words are pure Robert Johnson.

The song is as fresh and alive today as when Robert Johnson wrote it.


So today we looked at the very beginnings of a music form that first became popular with the American public in the nineteen twenties. We talked about the instruments. And we listened to some proof of the lasting influence of Robert Johnson.

Next week, learn more about the history of the blues. We will play some great sounds of the past. And we will play songs by some of the top blues performers of today.

We leave you with a song by another one of the truly great blues artists. His name was McKinley Morganfield. Most people have never heard that name.

Come back next week and we’ll tell you the name he used on stage. For now, just listen. The song is called “Soon Forgotten.”


Our program was written and produced by Paul Thompson. I’m Doug Johnson. Join us for part two of our blues program next week on THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English.