Column: Music

by Devin Iler


“Two Children from the Mississippi Delta,” (ca. 1900). Milburn Crowe Collection #6. Courtesy Delta Photo Road Show, Delta State University Archives & Museum, Cleveland, MS.


Column: Music

And I Went to the Crossroad, I Looked East and West

Any new trend in popular music essentially begins with one person creating something original and eventually bringing it to increasingly larger audiences. A few generations ago, however, those larger audiences were significantly smaller (by today’s standards) than the mega-audience that can now be reached—virtually overnight—and with far less effort than it took for an early 20th-century artist to become known beyond his or her original geographic location. Is it any wonder then that, throughout history, pop music genres have often been tied to geographical hotspots? Some more well known locations and styles include: Nashville and Bakersfield country music, the Chicago electric blues, Detroit motown and techno, East Coast and West Coast hip-hop, and latin music from the Copacabana club in New York. Notice how all of these locations are associated with “older” musical genres… Why? Think about popular music genres today—does Taylor Swift have a Nashville sound? Does Nicki Minaj have an East Coast sound? How is it that we’ve moved from pockets of unique approaches to music to a generic location-less homogeneity?

This trend away from distinctive local and regional styles to a national, characterless style is easily documented through a short examination of the blues. With early blues music, one can virtually pinpoint the city in which a song was written; there are distinct sounds associated with the Mississippi Delta, East Texas and Arkansas, St. Louis, Kansas, and the southeastern seaboard. All of these subtypes employ 12-bar blues form with an AAB text repetition in each verse, but each have their own idiosyncratic characteristics that identify their origin. It’s as if the music is embedded with one of those microchips designed for tracking your lost dog. Looking under the skin of the music, you see that small changes to the basic style give away the music’s birthplace.

The Mississippi Delta is associated with the birthplace of the blues and legends like Robert Johnson—who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for fame and fortune. His style employs plenty of slide-guitar technique and is full of blues licks. In contrast, the guitar style of East Texas and Arkansas, perhaps best represented by Blind Lemon Jefferson, the father of Texas Blues, is much slower, disjunct, and rhythmically free. The southeastern style, associated with blues artists like Blind Blake, went the opposite direction. Blake’s guitar style used clean fingerpicking and virtuosic playing similar in style to bluegrass musicians Flatt and Scruggs.  Finally, blues musicians in places like St. Louis took the blues and integrated it with jazz and in the Kansas area added a saloon-style, stride-piano accompaniment infused with elements of New Orleans ragtime.

These substyles persisted as separate entities as long as they did because radio hadn’t yet been invented, and even after the invention, it took some time for national broadcasting. This prevented various local and regional styles from hearing what the other group was doing and kept us away from any sense of a “national” or “accepted” style of the blues. As hundreds of blues musicians eventually migrated to Chicago in the ’20s and ’30s, they came together and created the electric blues style. As this style began to hit national audiences through radio, the musicians “cleaned up” the blues to appeal to mainstream audiences. The blues turned into a conventional style that followed predetermined rhythms, melodies, singing, and the instruments that formed the band.

This is the trend followed by every popular music genre; as the musicians get more exposure and coverage nationally, radio influences them to clean up their act and try to appeal to wider audiences. Even Taylor Swift, who, at the beginning of her career, at least fell under the banner of “generic country” and had widespread success, has now moved to the even more generic label of “pop.” Perhaps afraid of further dilution of country, the Country Music Association tried to distance itself from her. They tweeted, “Good luck on your new venture @taylorswift13! We’ve LOVED watching you grow!” After they fell under fire for giving her the cold shoulder, they quickly recanted: “We will never, ever, ever say goodbye to @taylorswift13. We’re STILL dancing! #ShakeItOff.”

These styles and others arose out of certain intangibles associated with the locale of their origin. Whether it was because of the crowded city or the oppressive South, a spark of freshness forged a novel style. Intrigued? Go out to your local scene and try to catch the raw creation of something new before the national spotlight takes over.

Written by Devin Iler